The early days with a baby puppy can be a blur. There’s a lot to take in and a lot to do! This is a summary of the most important things to address between 8-12 weeks of age.
There are four things that are developmentally dependent: meaning that they’re easily modifiable in a certain age period, but really difficult to do so outside of that. These will be listed and discussed below. Puppies go through multiple critical periods of development in their first year, but none are quite as important as their first 12 weeks of life.
I’ve written a lot about this topic, so will only summarize it here. The actual process of socialization should not only be designed to create positive associations with a wide array of living creatures and environments, but to show the puppy how they fit into our world and – most importantly – how to behave.
So, there are two parts to it: how the dog feels about everything, and how they behave as a result of that. These are two sides to the same coin. A dog that is worried about someone, is unlikely to behave in a socially acceptable manner towards them. A dog that is very excited about someone, is also unlikely to behave in a socially acceptable manner towards them. I’ll revisit this in a moment.
The word ‘socialization’ has taken on a life of its own, and many industry professionals misunderstand it to mean; Play, play, play with other puppies/have random people give puppy food. This has two potential emotional outcomes; extremely positive or extremely negative. For the socially gregarious (Labs), it creates an extreme emotional response to other dogs that makes any semblance of control or obedience very difficult. It can also lead to frustration-based reactivity and aggression. For the socially aloof (Shepherds), it can create an aversion or sensitivity to other dogs/people that can manifest itself in defensive displays of aggression.
We must always be aware of puppy’s emotional state, and where they’re putting their value in any given situation. If we are constantly encouraging or enabling puppy to seek reinforcement elsewhere (by playing with lots of other dogs, greeting people etc.), this will likely come back to bite us in the butt at some point in some way. If, however, we show our puppy that other dogs and people are good because whenever they’re around, you turn into a jovial pez dispenser, they’re very likely to thoroughly enjoy having them around, but they’ll be putting their value in you. Here, we’re looking at the big picture of socialization; puppy’s emotional state and we’re shaping their future behaviour in a positive way.
This brings me to the concept of ‘neutralization’. A neutral dog is one that has the most value in their human. It doesn’t mean a neutral dog will not play with other dogs or engage in pro social behaviour with people, it means that if they’re given the opportunity to do either of those things or to work with their owner, they’d choose the owner. A neutral dog is one that is easy to work around stereotypical distractions… because they don’t see them as distractions. This is what ‘socialization’ SHOULD mean.
That’s not to say we should keep our puppy away from other dogs or people, but we should just be careful about who we open those doors to. Gentle, confident, neutral adult dogs are fantastic puppy-nannies. Over-zealous adolescent Labs are not. Overall I think it’s largely dependent on your individual puppy. My own Shepherd came with me to a daycare/grooming salon three days a week when she was a baby with no fallout, but I knew what I had genetically. I couldn’t have done the same with either of my other dogs without problems.
Socialization is also about building confidence in exploring novel environmental stimulus; an often overlooked part of the process! Most puppies have some environmental weakness, and it pays to figure out what it is early so you have time to work through it during this period of immense neuro-plasticity. We want to condition a confident, curious young mind.
As a final note, let me comment on the risk vs. reward of isolating your puppy until they’re fully vaccinated. Many vets recommend you do so, but unfortunately they’re not fully vaccinated until the very end of their critical period of development. This means we miss all that essential socialization! Not good. But… neither is parvo. So, if we take our puppy out from the day they get home from the breeder, we risk them getting Parvo and dying but the reward is a behaviourally healthy dog. Keeping them inside reduces the risk of Parvo, but also increases the risk of them developing a behavioural issue later on in life due to a lack of exposure during their critical period.
The risk of contracting parvo is significantly less than the risk of your dog developing a behavioural issue that results in either relinquishment or euthanasia. So, the consensus is; get your puppy out, but do it in such a way as to reduce the risk of contracting parvo. This includes, but is not limited to, avoiding dog-heavy areas, carrying your puppy, not allowing contact with unvaccinated dogs, keeping puppy in the car, a backpack, trolley etc. while taking them out. There is always a risk, so it’s best to be careful and use common sense.
2. Resource Guarding Protocols
Resource guarding is a perfectly natural behaviour for dogs to display both to humans and other dogs. But, it’s dangerous when directed towards people so it’s something we want to discourage.
A dog that resource guards is generally acting out of fear of having their ‘resource’ taken from them. Their resource can be anything valuable, from a bed, to a bone, to a toy. Their behaviour can be anything from mild possessiveness (increasing how fast they eat their food, hovering closer over it with stiffening body language), to severe (biting). Even baby puppies can display this behaviour! But whether or not your puppy does, we still want to work through some RG protocols. Many dogs don’t display any tendencies until adolescence, at which point they’re capable of inflicting a whole heck of a lot of damage!
When a puppy owner is confronted with a puppy that says ‘no’ to giving up their bone, for example, they have two choices; they may take the bone from them. In their head, they may be ‘punishing’ the aggression. Alternatively, they back away from the puppy and leave them to it. Neither will resolve the issue, and both have the capacity to make it much worse. By taking the bone, we’re confirming our puppy’s fear; humans are a threat to the things I value. By leaving the puppy alone, they’ve learnt that aggression is a good choice to repel unwanted contact.
The alternative is to make your proximity to their resources result in good things. You approach your baby puppy, you take their bone, give them a handful of roast chicken, give their bone back, and leave. Even in they try to bite, they growl, or are otherwise naughty. Repeat this every few days for a few weeks and you’ll have a puppy that will look up in happy expectation at your approach. There is an art to this that will involve guidance from a competent trainer, but that’s it in a nutshell; make your approach = awesome things.
When puppies are young, they’re easy to hang on to. So this is a good time to teach them acceptable behaviour while they’re being handled. There are two parts to this;
If I have a sensitive puppy that’s maybe not super motivated, I’ll work on the first step for quite some time. I’ll just touch the puppy and pay them, lots and lots. No real pressure, no stress, just little touches resulting in a disproportionately awesome reward.
The second step is to show them that fighting restraint is not conducive to their goals of making us stop. So, I’ll gently but firmly grab them somewhere, they’ll wiggle a bit, I’ll hang on, they eventually quit squirming, at which point I let go of them and pay them. Wash, rinse, repeat for EVERY part of their body. Again, we want to be careful with this! Here’s a clip of the process with a puppy I had in for training: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KR_WRmC_vPM&t=194s
4. Alone Time/Confinement
My gosh, if I had a dollar for every new puppy owner who claimed their 8 week old puppy had ‘separation anxiety’, I would be rich! Your puppy does not have separation anxiety, relax. Going from a litter to a pet home is just really hard. I used to be rather heartless about this transition and just make it happen, but I take a slower approach these days, particularly to night-time.
If I have a puppy that’s been crate trained by their breeder (which all good breeders should be doing), I have a little crate set up in my bed/on my nightstand. Puppy goes in there at bedtime, and I’m very close if I need to provide comfort or take puppy out for toilet breaks. Over the course of a few nights, I’ll move the crate to the floor and then closer and closer to the door each night. Pausing if needed, taking a step back if needed. Once you get to the door of your bedroom, it’s pretty easy to pop them anywhere in the house that you want.
During the day, it’s important to understand that puppies need a MASSIVE amount of rest every day. Like 18 hours at 8 weeks. I generally have 1 hour of awake time to 1.5-2hours of time in their crate/playpen. This is cycled throughout the day.
During their awake time, I make sure I meet all their needs. They’re pottied, fed, worked with, played with, we invested time in socialization etc. Then, when I put them away, I know any of their crying isn’t because I didn’t meet their needs. It’s just because they’re alone. I let them carry on for a little bit, but if they hit fever pitch, I interrupt it verbally of with a little knock to the door/crate/playpen. This is made into a routine every day, and very quickly they understand that being alone is just a part of life.
I personally use a play pen for ‘rest’ time, which includes a suitably sized crate inside with a comfy bed. If I have a puppy that has trouble settling in the hustle and bustle of the loungeroom, I’ll pop the playpen in a quiet room. Otherwise it’s right, smack bang in the middle of my household chaos. I want a puppy that can settle around action, but that can be REALLY hard for some puppies.
The worst thing we can do when our puppy cries is go and get them. They’ll learn that whining and barking are great ways to get their freedom. If your puppy is displaying abnormally severe distress at being alone, GET A TRAINER IN ASAP!
Notice I haven’t touched on actual training? That’s because it’s not developmentally dependent. If you can teach a 10 week old puppy to sit, you can teach it to a 10 year old dog. There is no rush to get your puppy running through an obedience program!
In saying that, however, there are some things we can do now that will both help their socialization progress, and their general attitude to training. This is called the foundation. This foundation for most trainers involves several things:
1. Building motivation for food and toys
2. Creating a common language through the use of a marker system
3. Creating engagement and focus
If we’re dealing with a young puppy that’s struggling with some sort of sensitivity, if we have those three things established, working them through it should be a breeze. Using those three things, we can encourage them to overcome their fears and have them convinced it was all their own idea.
If you recall my earlier video on handling skills with puppies, you’ll notice an absence of food in my hands, yet through the use of a marker, I could pinpoint the exact behaviour I wanted to reward the puppy for (relaxing). I could do this without ‘bribery’, just simple good timing and a pre-charged ‘yes’ mark.
If I have a puppy that’s having trouble working in proximity to other animals or people, I can use all three to turn that distraction into a cue for engagement. In a clean, lure-less fashion.
So if you’re going to teach your puppy anything, don’t sweat sit, and instead focus on their focus. Their motivation. Where they’re putting their attention, and how happy they are to work for you. If we have that, teaching obedience is the easy part!