Look in the appendix of today’s popular puppy training books and you’ll probably find a neat and not so little list of ALL the people, places and things you MUST expose your puppy to OR ELSE. How many? Your puppy must ‘meet’ xxx number of people in xxx days… By the power of suggestion alone such numbers may cause well-intentioned people to miss the most important concept to do with the puppy socialization process (and many end up doing the opposite).
The main concept? That puppy socialization should be ‘positive’ (that word again).
Considering that most breeders don’t let their puppies leave the litter until 8, 9, 10 or even 12 weeks of age (read 56, 63, 70 and 84 days), how can anyone check all or even half of the boxes on such a checklist (unless the breeder is really on top of things)? If puppy socialization is supposed to be positive, what good is it if a puppy’s formative days are filled with stress as a result of efforts to super socialize him?
But, what are puppy parents to do when everything there is to read says, “your puppy must … or else”? I say, relax. Forget the list. Put it aside but not completely out of mind. Put this ‘in there’ instead. Be there for your puppy – in each and every moment. Involve your puppy in your daily routines so he lives in the world not apart from it.
Teach him to sit and give his attention to you (tip: he can do both of these at once). Start asking for a sit when you’re sure he can do it (tip: set him up for and build on success). Reward him for a job well done even if it is a slow sit. Don’t worry about spoiling him with treats either because you’re going to use his puppy food (that’s right, there’s no rule that says you have to feed him treats OR from a dog bowl). When and where, you ask? Everywhere. He’s learning everywhere so you’re teaching everywhere– in the house, out on walks, while running errands, at the park and when you’re just hanging out.
Be careful not to become a task master though. Try to go with the flow. The most important thing you can do right now is to,
(1) Notice when he’s feeling overwhelmed, do something about it — right then and there. Do what? If he is hesitant to explore, don’t push and if he’s pulling to get somewhere faster than you’re allowing, either move faster so he’s not pulling or stop moving altogether and wait to ask for a behavior he can do (tip: sit is a good default behavior).
(2) Realize that patience is a big part of teaching a person or training a puppy or other animal. Waiting patiently for a behavior to happen is also about not adding stress to the situation. Just the opposite. Be your puppy’s rock. Don’t let the little things get in the way of being the teacher your puppy needs you to be.
(3) Much of training a puppy is the art of redirection. Keep your puppy moving when possible and actively engage with her. Realize that if you spend more time pulling sticks and pebbles and cigarette butts from your puppy’s mouth than walking, guess what? You’ll keep doing that and your puppy’s idea of what it is you do together outside becomes a game of ‘keep away’. You get the behavior you reinforce. What to do instead? Bring a squeaky toy or a tennis ball out with you and use it to redirect your pup’s attention in your direction so to give her another option (tip: no need to give the ball to your pup, just use it as a tool by squeaking it or juggling or bouncing it then put it back in your pocket). Unless you do something different with your pup, she doesn’t know of any other way of doing things!
Backtracking to number (1) above. Your puppy does not have to say hi to anyone nor does your puppy have to say hi to everyone. You must be willing to say no to friends and strangers, or at least, this is how you may greet my puppy. To stand by and watch your puppy endure stress or to allow yet another repetition of reinforcing attention for jumping up (or x, y, z behavior) to occur is not in your puppy’s best interest or yours. Your puppy must know s/he is with you. That you have his or her back. That you are the one who knows best. That you get the first and last word on all that your puppy does or does not do, and, in many ways, experiences.
The goal of all puppy socialization training is to bring out the best in your soon-to-be-dog so that you will enjoy him or her for years to come. Socialization is not something you do and your done with it however. Socialization is ongoing, for the life of the dog (or person…). Training too.