I work a lot with anxious, fearful, and aggressive dogs. I typically tell owners that there are a few causes to that kind of behaviour – genetics/prenatal development, medical issues – whether mental health-related, pain, or otherwise physiological, and a history of trauma – as serious as abuse, or as simple as a lack of early appropriate socialization. And, don’t get me wrong, I love my work; I love winning over fearful and anxious dogs, I love helping dogs get adopted or help them stay out of shelters. However, as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… so let’s talk about how to raise confident puppies and give them the best possible start.
Step One: Acquire a Puppy
This is the easy part. A lot of people reading this have probably already done that. If you’re here doing research in advance, good for you! If you are rescuing a puppy, you sort of get what you get, and that’s just fine. We can work with whatever you get. I rescued my most recent pup at 3.5 weeks old and it has been a journey; however, dogs are resilient.
If you are buying a puppy, find a good, ethical breeder. Ideally, one who practices Puppy Culture or something similar. You should be getting your puppy no earlier than 8 weeks of age, preferably 12 weeks of age from a good breeder. Puppies learn a lot from their littermates and their mother, and taking them away too young can make things much more challenging.
Step Two: Consider Risks vs Rewards
Puppies, dogs, life – it’s all about risk versus reward. Exposure to life experiences in early puppyhood is vital to raising a confident dog. Far more dogs die every year in shelters because of behavioural issues than because of parvo. This is to say that you do not have to wait until your pup has had all 3 puppy booster vaccines before beginning socialization. Be sensible – don’t take an 8-week old puppy to the dog park after just their first vaccine (though, this is good advice even if not just on the vaccine front). But can you take them outside and begin exposing them to the world? Absolutely. If you are getting your puppy from a breeder, the typical vaccination schedule is 8, 12, and 16-week old vaccine boosters. If your puppy is a rescue or separated from mom early, I recommend a 6, 9, and 12-week schedule. Talk to your vet and figure out what has the greatest reward to risk for your pup.
Step Three: Controlled Exposure
What does “socialization” truly mean? I like to think of it as controlled exposure. When I say controlled, I don’t mean you are controlling your dog and forcing them – I mean it is controlled to a level of exposure your dog feels comfortable with. Your puppy should feel, at a minimum, neutral towards the exposure, and, ideally, positive towards it. If your pup is fearful and you are forcing them through an experience, that is not socialization, it is traumatic.
This controlled exposure should happen to everything you can think of: sounds (youtube fireworks or thunderstorms, run the vacuum), textures (walk on sidewalks, grass, rocks, metal, go to the beach), experiences (car rides, store visits, meetings with other dogs and people).
The controlled exposure can happen passively – for example, you pass a weird texture on a walk, and you take a few minutes to let your dog sniff it, paw it, make their own choice as to whether to walk on it or not – or actively – you play thunderstorms (quietly!) on youtube and feed your pup treats as they listen.
This means you need to become an expert at dog body language so that you can read how your pup is feeling. As you’re doing this socialization, you’re watching for happy, confident body language: play bows, loose wagging tails, relaxed bodies. That’s your green light; keep on going, your pup is doing just fine. Yellow light behaviour would be things like staring, lip licks, big yawns, stiffening slightly. I take these to mean that my puppy is wary. I don’t mind letting them keep thinking about it, take it in, and choose whether to approach whatever is making them wary or not, but I won’t force them closer at this point. Barking, running away, hiding behind you, jumping on you to try to get picked up? Those are red-light behaviours. This is too hard and not a good socialization opportunity. Comfort your dog and turn and leave. Encourage them to follow you or pick them up. Reset, calm down, look from a distance (if they are able), and try again tomorrow.
But what about obedience?
Obedience can come later. I know, I know. I’m a dog trainer telling you not to worry about teaching your puppy obedience. But here’s the thing: you can train tricks at any age (and yes, sit, lie down, that all counts as tricks). There’s nothing wrong with starting early, but there are only so many hours in a day and puppies can be exhausting, so what I’m telling you is to prioritize. If you are too tired to do training and socialization, focus on socialization. Puppies are like a sponge for socialization in those first few months of their life, and they are learning what is safe and normal and what isn’t. This doesn’t last forever. In contrast, you have all the time in the world for tricks training.
All of that said? Relax and enjoy your puppy. They’re delightful, exhausting, and resilient. You’re unlikely to break them. Do your best and focus on bonding and positive experiences with them, and they’ll do their best for you too.