This week I was asked if a boxer’s barking at other dogs in the waiting room was because he wasn’t socialized enough as a puppy. The same question comes up for cats that cower when visitors come over and parrots that bite the strange hand that feeds them.
You may hear that “poor socialization” is to blame for many behavioural problems, mainly fear or aggression, often when referring to pets adopted from shelters or puppy mills. What exactly does socializing a pet mean and how do you do it right?
Pets need to meet many people in different places at a young age so that they don’t see any of them as threatening as they mature. The socialization period for a puppy or kitten refers to the age at which their brains are developing healthy social interactions and learning how the world works. This age is generally 6-12 weeks old for puppies, and 4-6 weeks for kittens.
Often, pets are still with the breeder or at the pet shop at the prime socialization age, so it falls upon them to make sure that litter mates play well and experience new things during that time. Even if you bring your new pet home and have missed this precious socialization window, all hope is not lost. Older pets can learn to accept different people, places and noises; it just takes some extra work and fun exercises.
Make it a goal within the first month of having your pet home, to have 10 positive new experiences each day. For young pets, this can mean meeting a new person, approaching slowly and confidently, and getting a nice pat on the head. Pets beyond socialization age need a stronger positive association; try having strangers hand them treats; or if Fluffy is too wary, let him take the treat from you in proximity of the stranger. To avoid your pet getting an upset stomach from too many cookies (or getting overweight!), keep their regular kibble in your pocket as food rewards.
Since Fluffy won’t realize that meeting a nice teenager means that toddlers in strollers and elderly gentlemen with canes are just as safe, your socialization checklist needs to be varied. It should include people from different age groups, with different skin colour, wearing various accessories, and those playing with sports equipment. Pets should also meet many different animals of their own species as well as others; anything they may be in contact with in the future. They should learn to walk on sidewalks, grass and gravel, inside houses and veterinary clinics, sit in elevators and sleep in a crate. They can become comfortable with noisy trucks, vacuum cleaners and trains going by.
Young dogs should also be handled by different people. Play with their eyes, ears, teeth and toes. Pick them up and hold them standing, on their back, on a table; in positions that a groomer or veterinarian may use so that future visits can go smoothly.
The socialization process is a job for the whole household: Print up a checklist and assign daily exercises to each family member. It should be fun and relaxing. If Fluffy shows hesitation or nervousness, back up and make note of which categories need more work. Your veterinarian can help you set up a socialization plan.
What’s your secret when bringing your pet somewhere new? Share in the comments below!
Dr. K.J. Goldenberg is a veterinarian at the Pierrefonds Animal Hospital.