Critical Times for Socialization

The first two years of your dog's life largely determine his behavior and attitude toward people, dogs, other animals, and new sensory experiences for the remainder of his life. Puppy or not, you will need to plan on actively socializing your dog from the time you bring him home throughout his life.

Lack of early socialization can cause lifelong fear issues and aggression. If your dog is already past the puppy stage, there's still hope, but your job will be harder and your dog may be more resistant to change.

Puppies should not be removed from their litters permanently until they are at least 7 weeks old (8 weeks old by law in many states). Their mothers and littermates have important lessons to teach them about rules, getting along with others, and controlling themselves. Puppies removed from their litters before 7 weeks, and orphaned or singleton puppies have reduced bite inhibition and lowered ability to get along with other dogs if not handled and socialized carefully and regularly.

Developmental Stages

Your dog will go through several developmental stages over the first two years of his life, each of which contribute to the dog you end up with. Although learning takes place in virtually all of them, some are more crucial than others in the final basic temperament of your dog:

  • Neonatal: 1 to 14 days after birth. The puppy is totally dependent on his mother, has very little sensory awareness, and very little learning takes place. Through regular mild physical stress (like placing puppy's foot on a wet washcloth for a moment), a breeder can improve the puppy's later adaptability and even increase the size of the puppy's brain.

  • Transitional: 15 to 22 days after birth. The puppy's eyes and ears open, he gets awareness of his surroundings, and he starts to control bodily functions. Breeders can improve brain development by enriching puppies' environment.

  • Primary Socialization: 3 to 5 weeks after birth. This is a time of rapid physical and motor-skill development. The puppy learns all the behaviors that make him a dog — body posturing, accepting discipline from his mother, barking, and bite inhibition. breeder should begin socialization to new people, sounds, sights, and textures.

  • Secondary Socialization: 5 to 12 weeks after birth. This is the most critical developmental period for behavior. The puppy imprints on people and forms lifelong positive and negative associations about people, dogs, animals, sights, and sounds. The puppy will be much less accepting of new things after this period.

  • Juvenile: 3 to 6 months. The puppy learns survival skills, what works and what doesn't. Habits of behavior are born.

  • Adolescent: 6 months to 2 years. The testing phase. Social hierarchy becomes very important; resolving leadership is job number one.

If you have a puppy, you'll never get this time back — stop reading right now and get your puppy out to meet someone new, then come back in and continue reading.

Critical and Sensitive Periods

In addition to the developmental stages that dogs go through on their way to adulthood, they are also affected by several critical or sensitive periods (sometimes called fear periods) in the first two years.

Not as predictable in their onset or duration as the developmental stages, these periods can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and occur several times in the dog's puppyhood and adolescence, often overlapping with the developmental stages. The fear periods are characterized by the dog's loss of confidence and hyper-reactivity to otherwise innocuous events, while other stages are notable for the puppy's behavioral development.

  • The Fear Imprint Stage

    The first critical period, the fear imprint stage, occurs between 8 and 11 weeks old, right in the middle of the secondary socialization period. Traumatic events during this time tend to leave a lasting impression. Puppies should be exposed to a wide variety of people, animals, sights, sounds, and events in a fun way at this time.

  • Puppies exposed to an ever-changing variety of stimuli positively at 7 to 12 weeks usually form permanent positive associations with them, while puppies who aren't exposed to such differences are often never able to accept them comfortably. They may show avoidance, fear, or even aggression to whatever they aren't used to.

  • The Flight Instinct Stage

    The second stage, the flight instinct stage, occurs between 4 and 8 months. For most puppy owners, the honeymoon is over. Suddenly that sweet little bundle of fluff is ignoring you when you call — and was that a growl you heard when you saw your neighbor's dog? This is the time for resolving relationship problems while they're brewing. If you've already started training, this is when you can expect regression. If you haven't started, what are you waiting for?

  • The Second Fear Period

    Overlapping this stage, from 6 to 14 months, is the second fear period. During this stage, habits of behavior are being formed. Calm, assertive leadership is essential. Puppies may show fear or apprehension in new situations. It is imperative to avoid reinforcing fearful behavior by “poor babying” what would otherwise be temporary shyness. Without extensive socialization at this stage, some dogs may never be able to comfortably accept new dogs, people, or situations.

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