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If you’re considering adding a puppy or kitten to your household, or if you have one already, one of the first and most important things you should be working on is proper socialization.  In order to have a well-rounded, behaviorally healthy adult pet, early socialization is critical.  Many behavior problems can be avoided by following a good program for socialization.

If you have not already added a new furry family member, it is important to note that for proper social learning, it is best that puppies stay with their mom and littermates until they’re 8-10 weeks old, and kittens stay until they’re 12 weeks old.  During this time period, puppies and kittens will learn proper social behavior for their species.  Removing puppies and kittens from their litters too early can lead to increased risk of behavior problems, including separation anxiety, and difficulty interacting appropriately with their own species.  If you have already brought your new puppy or kitten home, or if he was in a bad situation prior to the ideal age for them to leave his little family, don’t panic, just do the best you can to socialize him now.

The primary socialization period closes somewhere between 14 and 16 weeks for puppies and kittens, and sometimes even earlier.  This is before they will have completed their puppy or kitten vaccination series at around 16 weeks.  It used to be standard for veterinarians to recommend that puppies not go out and about until finishing their vaccines, but this has changed.  A number of studies have been conducted which demonstrate that attending a well managed puppy or kitten socialization class between the ages of 7 and 16 weeks is not only generally quite safe, but extremely beneficial to the animal’s well being.

The American Society of Veterinary Behavior has released a position statement regarding the socialization of puppies which states:

Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals, and experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters.

Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.

How to socialize properly is an area where there seems to be a lot of confusion.  Socialization is much more than playing with other dogs or cats, and certainly much more than living with another animal in the home.  A responsible breeder or rescue should have already started the socialization process long before your puppy or kitten joins your household.  You will continue this process carefully when you adopt.  Good socialization will include introducing your puppy or kitten to a wide variety of people, other animals, surfaces, environments, objects, sounds, handling and grooming, car rides, and being left alone.  Everything should be introduced in a positive way, and should not overwhelm the puppy or kitten.  Generous use of treats will help the process along.

Safety is of course still a real concern, and should be carefully considered.  Do not take your puppy to places frequented by many strange animals who may not be healthy or vaccinated, this includes dog parks and pet stores.  For breeders and rescues that are beginning the socialization process long before their puppies or kittens have received their first set of vaccinations, guests who are coming in to help with socialization should remove their shoes and wash their hands before interacting with the animals to help prevent disease.

Socialization Tips and Tricks

  • Find a good force free trainer who offers socialization classes before you bring your new pet home.
  • While working on socialization you should also be training for good manners.  It is much easier to prevent problems than it is to solve them later.  Teaching your puppy to sit when greeting new people is a good start.
  • Teaching your puppy or kitten to wear a harness and leash and to enjoy time in his carrier will make socialization outings safer and easier.
  • Always take treats!
  • Don’t force your puppy or kitten to interact.  If he’s nervous, start at a distance he’s more comfortable with and reward him for checking out the source of his fear from there.  As he gets more comfortable you can move him closer.
  • Practice visits to the vet when your pet doesn’t have to get shots!  One of the most beneficial things you can do for the lifetime care of your pet is to get him comfortable with the vet’s office early on.
  • Throw a puppy or kitten “shower” after your new pet is home.  Invite people over to meet your new addition, you can even have them dress up and make it a costume party!  Just remember to give your pet plenty of breaks and make sure he’s not overwhelmed.
  • Learn about your pet’s body language!  Pay attention to what he’s saying and respect it.

Next week:  What is Clicker Training?