Puppy Training and Socialization
The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life is its most critical period as far as behavioural development. This is generally how we approach it, and how we recommend other folks approach it too.
Positive Exposure (Socialization and environmental work)
Most pet owners think that ‘socialization’ means letting their puppy interact with as many people and dogs as possible. Interaction, however, only makes up a small fraction of the ideal socialization picture. Socialization simply means positive exposure to other living things in an effort to create a positive value. That does not have to mean direct interaction. In fact, it’s better for everyone involved if interaction is made less of a priority. Why? Well, if you allow your dog to meet a tonne of other dogs (for example) in their first 16 weeks of life, two things are likely to happen:
1. They develop a very high, positive value for other dogs. This means that dogs will later serve as a MASSIVE distraction for your puppy. It’ll make sensible walking very difficult, as he’ll think that all other dogs (leashed, loose, behind fences etc.) are fair game for a bit of fun. This can directly cause, contribute to or exacerbate frustration-based reactivity.
2. They have a bad experience with another dog (which is very likely if you don’t thoroughly vet all potential candidates for direct interaction). The knock-on effects of a bad interaction are numerous and very often life-long, such as fear-based aggression, reactivity, poor social skills etc.
And it’s somewhat the same with humans too; we can’t control what another person is going to do to our puppy. And while we think that we’re doing the right thing by letting the tall man with a hat and walking stick say hello to our puppy, we could potentially be causing the opposite if he decides to do anything unexpected and scary.
So how do we socialize and minimize risk of developing a negative value for dogs and people? We pick and choose who our puppy meets. Focus on quality over quantity. If you only have access to 5 social and puppy-savvy adult dogs, then that’s OK. Your puppy will develop the necessary social skills by interacting with them, without compromising its physical and behavioural health.
And the rules are similar with humans; focus on quality of the interaction. Only allow people that will listen to your instructions, and are relatively puppy/dog-savvy to meet it.
If you’re ever struggling to find other dogs and people that fit that bill, then contact a local trainer and/or training club. Most will normally have at least one dog that is safe with puppies, and the humans are all ideal candidates for socialization too.
Environmental desensitization is generally just an exposure thing. Taking your puppy as many places as possible and exposing it to a wide range of sounds, surfaces and sights is essential. If your puppy displays any reservation or fear (which is totally normal), bringing along some treats and counterconditioning/desensitizing them to that particular situation is a great idea (which generally looks like: big loud trucks make food appear, slippery surfaces are full of yummy food, construction sites make mum whip out my favourite toy etc.).
Focus and Engagement
The next step, which can often directly coincide with socialization and environmental desensitization, is to teach your puppy that you are worth paying attention to. Most puppies will automatically do this in their early months, because their human is a source of safety and familiarity in a big, new world. What we want to do is capture and reinforce that. Doing this, we can also influence how they feel about certain situations, stimuli and other living things (and is therefore a form of socialization).
So, even if your puppy only gets to meet 5 dogs in it’s first few months of life, you can safely create a positive association with hundreds of other dogs by making good things happen near them. For example, taking puppies outside of dog parks (starting at a distance then working closer), and simply giving them treats for paying attention to you is a great first step. Likewise, going along to training classes where other dogs are all on leash and controlled, and playing some fun food and toy games with your puppy will create a positive value for other dogs, and a higher positive value for you.
Going for a walk down the street and feeding your dog when you walk past other humans will do the same thing.
Skill Development (Obedience, manners, life-skills)
Focus and engagement on you is the precursor to skill development. There is no point in trying to teach a dog to sit if they don’t care about you or what you have to give them. It is so, so easy to teach a dog to walk nicely on the leash, sit, down, come when called etc. but it is hard to get them to do that if they have no handler focus.
I hear this all the time; ‘My dog only listens at home, and everywhere else he just doesn’t care.’ This is because the dog has learnt that ‘everywhere else’ the environment provides more reinforcement than you do. So, take your puppy everywhere, and reward them when they offer even the tiniest bit of focus on you. Don’t prompt them to do this either, wait for them to just naturally offer it.
When you can take your puppy to a brand new place, and they start to automatically offer some engagement, then you can advance to actually teaching him obedience.
This is a very simplified summary of puppy development, there are obviously a great many caveats and nuances to socializing and training them. But, as a general rule, first address socialization/environmental work -> focus and engagement -> skill development.