City dwellers, there are a lot of things made more difficult by the urban environment, but puppy socialization is not one of them. The diverse and exciting world to which your puppy needs to be introduced is literally at your doorstep, and This Is It. This is the only chance you will have to lay the groundwork for a properly socialized dog. This means a dog who isn’t aggressive or anxious, who plays well with other dogs, who isn’t afraid of different environments and stimuli, and who adjusts easily to new surroundings and situations. Everything else, from housebreaking to obedience training, can be addressed in older puppyhood and adulthood. Why? Because between 8 and 16 weeks your puppy’s brain is going through a rapid period of neural development. Also known as the “critical” or “imprinting” period, this is when your puppy will learn, through proper exposure, that the world is a diverse and interesting place and that with you as her guide she can experience things in a safe and comfortable way. Improper or lack of exposure will result in the opposite – the development of fear and/or aggression.
Puppy socialization includes getting used to interacting with other dogs and people, being exposed to city noises and environments, becoming comfortable with being handled, and getting used to “unnatural” things like wearing a collar and walking on a leash.
The key to proper socialization is to present everything to your puppy in a safe and comfortable environment. You are going to be Curator and Guide, with the goal of exposing your puppy to as many situations, environments, people, and dogs as possible without introducing feelings of fear or anxiety. The connections forming in your puppy’s brain at this point will be positive – new things shouldn’t feel scary, they should be interesting. You are laying the foundations here for a grown dog who is confident and comfortable. As your puppy grows older, she will, of course, be confronted with situations that are less than friendly or comfortable. She will encounter an aggressive dog, an unfriendly person, and unpleasant noises. But because she was properly socialized between 8-16 weeks, she will face new and uncomfortable situations in a calm and balanced way. She will respond to your commands because she trusts that you will keep her safe, and she will not react with anxiety or fear.
1. Socialization with other dogs
Your puppy is not yet ready to go to the dog park because she is not fully vaccinated, but psychologically, she absolutely needs to be socializing with other dogs. She is going to learn what is acceptable to other dogs and what isn’t, she is going to learn what play looks like, and she is going to learn that different dogs have different personalities. She is going to become a social creature. It is your job at this important stage in your puppy’s life to curate such social interactions for her by providing a safe and friendly environment. Playdates in a clean and safe space with dogs that you know and trust are the best idea. The dogs should be healthy and, importantly, friendly. As we mentioned in the introduction to this section, we do not want to present any situations to the puppy that will cause her to be fearful. You’ll want your puppy to meet dogs of different friendly personalities and ages.
Example #1, Puppy Playdate: Lola is a 12-week old lab-mix. She has tons of energy and loves to chew. Lola visits the neighbor frequently, a six-month old cockapoo, Emmy. You know Emmy’s owner, and have made sure that Emmy is not sick before scheduling a visit. Emmy is a bit bigger than Lola, but they are well-matched in energy level. Emmy loves to play with Lola, but gently corrects Lola by posturing without biting when Lola chews her ears.
Example #2, Adult Dog Meeting: Lola meets 7-year old great Dane, Mini. Mini is much bigger than Lola, but it is a safe interaction because Mini is calm in the house and plays gently with Lola by lying on the ground and letting her take the lead. When Lola jumps on her, she vocalizes his displeasure and moves away. Lola likes to curl up next to Mini for a nap, and she doesn’t mind.
Older dogs can be great teachers for puppies, but be very cautious. They often have less tolerance for the simple reason that they suffer from more bodily aches and pains, and they are often losing eyesight and hearing.
Your puppy should be interacting with other dogs every single day, as often as possible. Don’t forget that during this period you are setting her up for a lifetime of fun with doggy friends!
2. Socializing to Different Environments
Exposing your puppy to different environments, stimuli and people is a bit more straightforward than doggy play dates because you don’t have to screen for illness and temperament. Just get your puppy out into the world! Experience as many sights, sounds, smells and personalities as possible. Take her on the subway, in the car, to quiet trails and noisy parks. Let her see skateboarders and bikers, motorcycles, cars, and trucks. Take her to the ocean, the pool, out in the rain, and out in the snow. Introduce her to your friends and neighbors, to children and to elderly people. Have your puppy meet the mailman and the bus driver, and people of every size and color. All the while, in every new situation, make sure your puppy feels safe. You will be a calm and confident guide.
One of the dogs we walk, Wallace, spent the first 5 months of his life at his home on Long Island. He had a loving, nurturing, fun family, but was not socialized with anybody or anything outside of the home. The result is truly distressing. Wallace is a sweet dog who loves to play, but he cannot cope with the urban environment. He trembles, pants, and pulls the leash on walks.
What do you do if your puppy shows any of these signs of anxiety when interacting with new environments or people? It is your job to incrementally get her used to whatever it is that is making her nervous, and to be her rock. It’s okay to let her lean against you for comfort, but don’t pet her. Instead, stay calm and take her to the closest point at which she begins to show anxiety. For example, if she is afraid of skateboarders, hang out at the park near the skateboarders, but on the first day only go to the outskirts of the park where your pup starts to look nervous. Stay there a few minutes and relax. Then move a bit further away and engage your pup in play. Repeat the process for a few days or as long as it takes for your pup to feel relaxed, getting closer and closer to the stress-inducing stimuli each day. Through this incremental process, and by remaining calm and engaging, she will become comfortable and well-socialized.
3. Socializing to Handling and Gear
In addition to getting your puppy comfortable with different people, places, and dogs, you need to make her comfortable with different physical sensations. This means that she gets used to wearing a collar, walking on a leash, and being physically handled.
As soon as you bring your little pup home, you should be handling her a lot and in many different ways – not just by petting her. You will do things that may seem a little odd: put your fingers in her ears, play with her toes, squeeze her nose, gently pull her tail, touch her teeth, gums, and tongue, touch every part of her face, touch her legs and gently pull them back and forth, give her a back massage, play with her fur, hold her in different positions, roll her onto her back and give her belly rubs! Why? Because for many different reasons, over the course of her life, you are going to have to handle her in these ways. You will have to regularly clean her ears, cut her nails, brush her fur, and brush her teeth. You will have to check her fur for fleas and ticks. You may have to give her eye drops or clean a wound on her skin. You will have to bring her to the vet where she will be poked, prodded and pulled. You may have to pull her tail to break up a fight. You will certainly have to pull something out of her mouth that she isn’t supposed to be chewing on. If you have handled her in the ways we suggest, she is going to be used to it. She might not love having her nails clipped or going to the vet, but she will not be afraid because she trusts you, and she is familiar with the way these weird things feel.
Getting your puppy used to the sensation of a collar and walking on a leash is really an extension of touch and handling. Having on a collar is an unnatural feeling, and being attached to a long rope and having one’s movement restricted in this way is really freaky for most pups. Be calm and gentle, and start with the collar in the apartment, then add the leash. In the beginning, she is not going to like it, but trust us, she will get used to it. Don’t fall into the trap of not using the leash and collar because your puppy doesn’t like it – if you do this, you are only going to make life more uncomfortable for your puppy and yourself in the long run. If your pup pulls on the leash and collar you can use a harness for outside walks until she is old enough to teach not to pull, at about 4 months.
Missing the Socialization Window
Many dog owners will never have the opportunity to socialize their dog during the critical 8-16-week window for the simple reason that they did not have her yet. If you’ve adopted an older puppy or an adult dog, she may or may not have been properly socialized as a puppy, and it will probably be obvious. If she is balanced and friendly with dogs and people, she was properly socialized. If she is anxious, fearful or aggressive, unfortunately, you cannot turn back the clock, but you can take steps to improve her behavior and mitigate problems with exposure therapy and obedience training.
You are an urban dog parent and a huge part of giving your city pup the best life possible is to help her experience the world with confidence and curiosity. Puppy socialization is the first and most important step in giving her the skills to do so. Get out and about, and show your new puppy the wonderful diversity of dogs, people, places, sounds, and smells that are everywhere in your city!