We have all heard that there is a window of opportunity for puppy socialization that ends at about 14-15 weeks, depending on who's research and/or opinion you put more weight on. Does this mean that this critical door slams shut at 14 or 15 weeks of age?
Of course not.
What it does tell us is that during this time in a puppy's development, they are little sponges, absorbing everything we expose them to. Their experiences, their feelings, their fears, their joy. While there is a critical time in that window where socialization is incredibly important and lack thereof can impact a pup's social skills, people with older puppies should not despair.
I see puppies all the time that have not had the benefit of socialization, as set out by dog geeks and research papers, and those puppies have been just fine, as long as their owners started below threshold socialization, as soon as possible and continue it for life.
The statistics show us that far too many people who bring their puppies to puppy class, let them free play and learn in a class environment for a period of six to eight weeks, and consider that a “job well done”...
That is barely a drop in the bucket where social activities are concerned and that drop, depending how it was done, can have the impact of a gentle rain, a wonderful splash or a terrible tidal wave.
It's important for all of us to do our very best to ensure that the puppies in our care during that critical period and beyond, get adequate and appropriate... I will repeat APPROPRIATE, safe socialization.
As anyone who knows me can attest, I stopped having free play sessions in my classes about 15 years ago.
I stopped the “leashes come off” type of free play in class due to the fact that no matter how much pre-education I provided and how safely I set up these groups, inevitably, someone's puppy was either traumatized or they learned that bullying can be quite a lot of fun. That does not mean that I stopped socialization. Quite the contrary.
What it means is that I stopped socialization that could result in a puppy becoming ‘pummeled’ or learning how to bully other dogs. The result that I have witnessed firsthand, is that very few of the puppies that I have put through classes with Diamond in the Ruff, and they number over 300 per year, have shown any signs of leash reactivity as they move on through life. While 15+ years may not seem like a long-term study, the number of puppies in that 15- year span that successfully escaped on leash reactivity issues, is very telling.
I used to receive quite a bit of opposition from up-and-coming trainers, and puppy guardians... until they saw the results...
Socialization does not require that puppies tumble ‘tail over teakettle’ in a no-holds barred fashion. Like us, there are shy puppies, bold puppies, puppies that love other dogs, and puppies that are innately more interested in people. Free play, as I have witnessed and have had clients describe to me, often results in some puppies in the room having a great time while others are desperately looking for a way to escape.
If you look at the way that a domestic dog is expected to spend their days, you will find that very few actually participate in off-leash park “socialization”. Those that do, unless properly supervised in tiny play groups, with a few carefully chosen playmates, end up having a poor experience.
These experiences at such an early age, often times during fear period, can result in a pup becoming fearful of other dogs.
How many of you participate in dog park free play? How many can relay a story of a dog that reacted “aggressively” at the park, or an incident occurring to your dog or another dog at the park?
These stories rarely come from dogs who have not participated in free play. Unfortunately, free play puppy socialization, even in smaller groups, does not necessarily result in off-leash etiquette. There are far too many variables and far too few opportunities in a puppy class to successfully crack that code.
What about on-leash reactivity? Think about what that means. The number of dogs that I see in my private sessions and group classes that show on-leash reactivity but are absolutely fine off of leash, begs the question…. What happened?
Where have we failed our dogs?
What can we as trainers do in our classes to avoid having dogs become fearful on a leash?
In my classes, nearly all of my socialization is done ON leash. This does not mean that they get less opportunity to greet dogs. What it means is they get multiple opportunities to greet dogs while they learn that the leash does not mean that they have no flight opportunity. What the leash means to the dogs who socialize in my classes is that their owners will keep them safe and that seeing another dog does not equal “dogpile” or that they are trapped.
When I do have puppies socializing off leash, I choose puppies that clearly have similar play styles. I do not separate several groups in class to engage in free play but rather have two puppies at a time greeting each other and playing under complete supervision.
Picture a room of puppies. 8 to 10 puppies, all different breeds and sizes living in different environments with different families with different lives. These puppies have each come from a unique situation, whether they are from a breeder, a friend or a rescue, their beginnings are all unique. Their temperaments are all unique, as are potential predispositions, likes and dislikes.
Now picture all of those leashes coming off. Even in groups of 2 to 5 puppies, free play, as it is seen in many puppy classes, can, and often does result in an unintended free-for-all.
This can be extremely terrifying for some puppies and for others, can create a situation where “bullying” is reinforced. It only takes one event to create a tailspin. Pun intended.
Body language is everything and can be subtle and completely missed in a group environment. Teaching puppies to greet on a leash, to feel safe on a leash and to be able to make choices on a leash, will always provide that puppy with positive socialization and appropriate exposure.
More importantly, it gives the owners the proper tools to keep their puppy safe. They learn how to read body language. They learn leash skills when greeting other dogs and the importance of keeping their dog safe.
An important inclusion in each puppy class is to teach owners what an appropriate ‘on leash’ greeting looks like.
My clients learn how to keep their puppies emotionally and physically secure, what to do with the leashes, how to allow physical play without getting tangled and what to do when they see body language that shows that reciprocal play is not in the cards for that particular puppy pairing.
There is a very prominent and well-respected PhD in our industry who puts out wonderful educational material. Having said that, I use some of his videos slowed down, and the aftermath of the free play in those videos, again slowed down, to show my students exactly what is occurring.
In one particular very popular video, there is a cue for all of the leashes to come off so that the group of puppies and their owners can practice recall under free play distraction.
Slowed down, this snippet shows puppies desperately looking for a way to retreat while other puppies body slam them and become frenzied in their over-stimulated play.
When the recall cue is delivered and the puppy's returned to their owners, it is very clear that some of those puppies are incredibly relieved to be out of the dogpile, while others are so over-stimulated that recovery is difficult.
I just finished class #1 of 6 in a puppy series that I call “Ruff N’ Tumble”. This puppy class has 12 puppies with their entire families. The puppies are all of similar age between 3 and 5 months, many are similar size and some appear to be similar play style and temperament. At the end of the class, after all but two puppies had left with their families, a little cattle dog and another puppy, both female, both 3 months old and of equal size started to play as the owners were leaving. While the interaction started to go very nicely, towards the end of the play, it was no longer reciprocal. The blue heeler was continually shoulder rolling & tentatively re-engaging, in what appeared to be an attempt to take the tension down a notch. The other puppy, who has had experience playing with a 6-year old exuberant dog, was not letting up. Both puppies are absolutely lovely. Both puppies have beautiful temperaments and bright, friendly dispositions. These puppies have different experiences in life & are unique individuals. While this play on a small scale, with two dogs, structure, safety and control, did pretty well... multiply this by 4, 5 or 6 and you have a recipe for complete disaster for more than just the submissive puppies.
With these puppies remaining on a leash, the owners can, while keeping the leashes loose, let them engage and then playfully encourage them to disengage, re-engage again, playfully disengage... This can be an appropriate learning experience for both pups. Short, sweet, positive.
What I think is lacking in many puppy classes that allow off-leash free play with more than a few dogs at a time, is that subtle nuances, little changes in body language can be missed and can escalate quite quickly. Yes, even 3-month old puppies can encounter and absorb bad experiences. Particularly important when a puppy is going through a fear period, which we now know can float throughout the first year and sometimes longer, depending on the dog.
For some puppies, a fear period is barely recognizable, if it shows at all. For other puppies, the fire hydrant that they have walked past every single day for the past month, now appears to be the scariest thing on the planet. We know that puppies are learning. Every single second that their eyes are open they are absorbing and responding to their environment. It is up to us to keep them safe while we expose them to new experiences as they navigate this new life. While all this is happening, psychological, emotional and physical well being is Paramount.
Exposure to new places, new people, sounds, movements, objects, people, animals... Everything is new...but help them to feel safe.
Their perception and their feelings of security depend on how we introduce all of these elements. This is especially critical during the first several months of life.
This is your puppy, your family member, your responsibility and it is your right to see things done in a way that you feel comfortable with.