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Dog socialization

Thursday May 10th, 2012

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A Golden Retriever, West Highland White Terrier, and Old English Sheepdog engaged in a type of socializing — playing.

Want a dog who's friendly and trustworthy around both people and other dogs? You might think all you need to do is find the right breed or dog, and your job is done. In reality, how you care for your dog plays a big role in how he responds to people and other canines — especially if you've got a puppy.

There's a short period in a puppy's development, from very early puppyhood to three or four months of age, when his experiences have a big effect on his entire approach to life. If he has lots of positive encounters with other dogs, all kinds of humans, and new situations during that developmental window, he's far more likely to grow up to be a confident, relaxed, and friendly dog. Trainers call this process socialization.

Puppies who aren't socialized can grow up to be fearful of other dogs, people, and just about anyone and anything outside of their routine — and that fear can lead to aggression. A study from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine found that unsocialized pups were 580 times more likely to wind up with aggression problems.

Although puppyhood is the prime time for socialization, it's not the only time. Even a dog who had a hopping social life in his youth can become less friendly over time if he's isolated during adulthood. And if your adult dog didn't get enough socialization growing up, you may be able to improve his social skills — although an adult's personality is more fixed than a puppy's. You'll have to move slowly and cautiously, and if you see signs of aggression or extreme timidity, get help from a professional trainer or behaviorist right away.

How to raise a friendly dog

Don't take a puppy away from his mother and littermates before eight weeks of age. Interactions with their moms and siblings teach young puppies a lot about getting along with other dogs. If you take your puppy away from his canine family too early, you'll do permanent damage to his social skills.

Give your dog plenty of positive experiences with other dogs. Obedience classes, dog park romps, and playdates with your friends' dogs will help him learn how to get along with other canines. For puppies, playing with other pups has another, even more important, benefit: it teaches them not to bite humans.

Give your dog plenty of happy experiences with all kinds of people. Big kids, little kids, running-skipping-yelling kids, tall men in boots, round women in hats, and people of every shape, color, and size. If your dog gets regular exposure to humans of all stripes, especially in puppyhood, he's less likely to be fearful or aggressive. Experts recommend throwing "puppy parties" to expose a young pup to lots of different people when he's learning how to behave around humans. You can also have your dog make friends with the mail carrier and your neighbors, and take him to cafes or to work.

Let your dog live indoors. There are no good "outdoor" dogs. A dog who lives in the home, with his human pack all around him, will be more comfortable with people and the bustle of the household, and he'll be much happier too.

Expose your dog to all kinds of noises and experiences. Skateboards, bicycles, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and the like can frighten a dog who's not used to them. Nail trimming, being grabbed by the collar, getting touched on the rump or other potential "hot spots," and having people around his food bowl won't get a warm response either. The solution is to expose your dog to all these experiences, ideally during puppyhood. If you have an adult dog, be sure to move slowly and keep the mood positive, with food treats to reward him at each step. (This works for puppies too.)

Bottom line: Teaching your pup to be dog- and people-friendly is your most important job as a dog owner. It keeps people safe around your dog, and — since aggressive dogs are often put down — it keeps him safe around people. Give your pup regular exposure to dogs and all kinds of people, especially during puppyhood, and you're more likely to have a confident, sociable dog.

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