5 suggestions for starting your puppy off on the right foot

  By: Justine Antunes, BSc
        3rd year Student Veterinarian, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON, Canada

  March 23, 2017

Bringing a new puppy home is an incredibly exciting experience, whether it's your first puppy or your fifth. Two years ago, I made the decision to finally welcome a fluffy bundle of joy into my life, my Golden Retriever, Ellie, and I've never looked back. But with all the stress of house training, puppy proofing, and teaching basic commands, many owners are unaware of another aspect of puppy development that is equally important: socialization and habituation.

Socialization is the process in which pets develop relationships with animals of their own kind and with other kinds of animals. Habituation is when an animal is exposed to an object or an environment often to help familiarize them to the situation. Both socialization and habituation are incredibly important in allowing a puppy to develop into a well-rounded adult. The critical period for socialization and habituation falls between 3 and 14 weeks of age. Prevention is the best medicine, and with proper social development early in life, many undesirable adult behaviours can be avoided.

When planning on bringing a new puppy into your family (congratulations, by the way!), keep in mind these 5 suggestions for socialization and habituation:

  1. Avoid inappropriate interactions

    Make sure every exposure to something new is a positive one. Provide many treats, use positive phrases, and reward with play. Avoid introducing your puppy to potentially aggressive animals, or putting them in any situations that may be overwhelming.

  2. Safely introduce them to a variety of people and animals

    Puppies need to learn how to interact properly with other dogs, as well as other animals and humans. By introducing puppies to people of different genders, appearances, ages, etc., as well as dogs and cats of different breeds, they will learn how to interact appropriately with them. Attending puppy socialization classes or visiting friends and relatives with pets are great ways to get the ball rolling!

  3. Introduce them to a variety of objects and environments

    Different sights, sounds, and smells that are AND are not commonly encountered in the household are important to consider when habituating your young puppy. By providing good experiences with new environments, you can create a less fearful adult dog. Take leash walks through different neighbourhoods, introduce them to stairs if you live in a bungalow, anything that they could experience at some point in life!

  4. Get them used to the vet!

    Many pets are afraid of the vet and for good reason: they're taken to an unfamiliar environment with many smells, placed on unfamiliar tables, and touched in unfamiliar ways. Make routine visits to the vet early to get your puppy used to being on the scale and lifted onto tables. At home, frequently touch their feet to simulate nail trims, and look in their mouth and eyes like they were getting a physical exam, all while providing them with treats, of course!

  5. Continue exposure as the puppy grows

    Although most socialization and habituation of puppies should take place before 14 weeks of age, it is equally important to continue exposing your puppy to new people and environments as they grow and develop. This continued socialization is important in maintaining the positive social relationships that they formed when they were younger.

Being a student veterinarian provided me with many opportunities to introduce Ellie to new people, animals, and environments. She's had many physical exams practiced on her, met many dogs and cats thanks to being in a class full of pet parents, and met many new people (who can resist a puppy snuggle during exams?) throughout her young days. I'd like to think she's a well-rounded adult now; however, there's always socializing and habituating to be done post-puppyhood! Next up: getting her used to elevators.

 

Landsberg, G., Ackerman, L., and Hunthausen, W.L. (2012). Behavioural problems of the dog and cat. Oxford: Saunders.

Peterson, M.E., and Kutzler, M. (2011). Small animal pediatrics. St. Louis, MO: Saunders/Elsevier.