The Importance of the Critical Socialization Period (Time You Will NEVER Get Back)

Quest in Sherpa Kennel

Quest is eight weeks old and ready to leave his pack. Today he will be taking a plane ride from his Breeder’s home in Maine to my place in Nebraska.

You may have heard about socialization from friends and neighbors when you mentioned you will be getting a puppy. We tend to think of Socialization as an optional, leisure sort of thing. Please promptly purge that thought from your brain as it relates to puppies under 12 weeks of age.

When we refer to Socialization in puppies, we mean experiences; meeting new people or dogs, places, sounds, sights, smells and experiences. Puppies are born without fear. It starts appearing in week 3 and continues until it reaches its maximum level somewhere between 12 and 14 weeks.

Early socialization is probably the most important thing you can do to raise a confident, well adjusted dog. Quest got started on his socialization as soon as we left his Breeder’s house.

Puppies go through what is known as a Critical Socialization Period (C.S.P.) from 3-12 or 14 weeks. During this limited time in your puppies development, anything they experience once or twice in a positive way will be something your pup is comfortable with for the rest of his life. This is why its SO VERY IMPORTANT that you get your dog socialized as much as possible.

One word of caution. Puppies have immunity from certain things from their mother, but it wears off sometime between 7 – 14 weeks. You need to get your puppy his first round of shots if your breeder hasn’t started that process already. It takes a week for the shot to take effect, so until that time, air walk your dog (carry it around) and if your dog does step anywhere other unknown dogs have, be sure to wipe your pup’s feet with Purell or a baby wipe so they don’t lick anything bad off their paws.

Back to socialization. A good rule of thumb has always been to make sure your dog meets 100 people (of all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties) by the time they are 3 months old. However, I subscribe to a 100 / 100 / 100 regimen; 100 people, 100 dogs and 100 experiences by the time they hit three months.

Here is a link to the list of experiences we will be using with Quest as he develops. I STRONGLY recommend you download the Excel file and use it to ensure your puppy gets through as many of these experiences as possible before it turns 12 – 14 weeks old.

Critical Socialization Checklist (Excel file)

Critical Socialization Checklist (PDF file)

I always advise my new puppy clients download the excel file and then create a new column on the right. Go through the list and assign a value of High, Medium or Low to the cells in that column and then resort the entire list based on that column.

The “High” values should be things your puppy will be exposed to on a regular basis in your home. These are the things you want to absolutely make sure your puppy isn’t fearful of.

The experiences you mark “Medium” should be things that there is a high likelihood your puppy will experience over its life, just not as frequently as experiences labeled High.

Keep in mind that Socialization is different than puppy training. While early training makes things MUCH easier (As we will detail in later posts), you can train a puppy or dog at any time.

The Critical Socialization Period is Time YOU WILL NEVER GET BACK. If you have the means, taking time off work or going to part time for a few weeks is an investment that can make the world of difference into the dog you will end up with.

Taking time off is inconvenient for sure, but its nothing compared to having to spend countless hour eliminating behavioral issues or having to hire a Dog Behaviorist like myself to stop your dog from running away, chewing up your furniture, acting aggressive, insecure, fearful, etc. Remember you are going to have your pup for 10 – 15 years. Taking the time now to properly socialize him will result in a lifetime of fun and joy with a balanced, calm and confident dog.

Because Quest traveled on a plane during his C.S.P. and we made it a positive experience, he will never have problems flying in the future.

Something to keep in mind. The C.S.P. is a FEAR PERIOD. While positive experiences will help your dog learn to not be afraid of that situation for the rest of its life, a negative experience can also stick with your dog too.

So if you want to do something with your puppy that may not turn out in a positive way (i.e. something bad may happen outside of your control) or has the potential to be a frightening experience, DON’T EXPOSE YOUR DOG TO IT DURING THE C.S.P. Its just not worth the risk.

We will talk more about the C.S.P. in other posts, but for now, get your dog started on the C.S.P. list that you can download with the above links. Be sure to frequently offer treats or petting as an incentive and NEVER force your dog to experience something he or she is trying to get away from during the CSP. Forcing a dog to experience something in this period can be devastating, so go slow and at your dog’s pace. When in doubt, pause or stop and ALWAYS let your dog move away (unless doing so would be dangerous).

If your pup seems nervous; is stiff, moving in slow motion, the tail is down, seems to be stiff or scared while exposing them to something, increase the distance between you and whatever they are reacting to right away. If you can’t increase the distance, turn down the volume, slow it down or leave.

You can always come back and expose your dog to that something another day. You will see examples of this in other posts (socializing Quest to a broom or taking Quest swimming).

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