Updated: Jan 23, 2019
With every litter of pups comes the time when mom is done with them and then its time for the humans to take over the role of shaping the pups into what they are to become. This process is known as socialization which is defined as "making fit for the companionship of others" specifically the human/canine bond. It has been our experience that there are windows of opportunity in the development of puppies that are only open for a brief period and if certain things do not happen during those periods then a dogs learning can be affected for the rest of its life.
Actually the human's role begins far before the stage of weaning. Research has shown that introduction of early stressors such as placing the pup on hot and cold surfaces, holding it on its back, holding it upside down, swinging it while cradling it in ones hands and similar types of treatments has an effect on adrenal stimulation which prepares the pup for the real world. We begin exposing pups to these stressors at as early as ten days of age. Exposure to the stressors is brief, lasting on 10 to 15 seconds, and are not harmful to the pups.
Once the pups become more mobile we add new stressors such as brief separation from siblings, walking the pup on different surfaces such as concrete, carpet, grass, dirt, wood and plastic. Their reactions to being placed on a variety of substrates varies from pup to pup. If we notice an extreme timid reaction to this treatment by a particular pup, then we make sure that we focus on that pup with subsequent treatments to make sure we nip in the bud any tendencies that pup may have toward being timid.
When the weaning process begins we make a concerted effort to spend increasing amounts of time with the pups to create a focus on their human relationships. We invite neighborhood children, friends and family to play with the pups. Noise is not usually something that you have to encourage when children are around but we make no effort to protect the pups from the noises of everyday life.
Just yesterday I had the pups out in the backyard. In the mountains above our house there is a military training area specifically for tanks and artillery. The military was having an exercise and the boom of tanks was constant. Now, they were several miles away but nevertheless the sound was audible. The pups frolicked and played totally oblivious to the noise. I felt pleased to have been able to take advantage of a situation and introduce them to a unique sound.
This is a perfect example of something that is absolutely essential to the socialization process and that is flexibility. We need to take advantage of an opportunity to introduce our pups to things while that opportunity exists. In other words, "take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime during the lifetime of the opportunity".
I remember reading and account written by Bill Tarrant in Field and Stream Magazine, November 1978 of from the early life of the great River Oak's Corky. When he was a pup his owner would stop the car while the family was travelling somewhere to allow Corky to frolic in a puddle along the roadside, or explore some other circumstance which may have been new to him. This is the essence of proper socialization - ensuring that pup is being introduced to new and exciting situations before fear replaces the inquisitive attitude of a young pup.
Our goal is to introduce pups to something new each day from the time they are five weeks old. We want their environment to being stimulating for them. We want to hear some whining of apprehension as they encounter things that stretch them out of their comfort zones. Think of it in the context of your own life, when do you grow? When you are familiar territory or when you are being stretched by your circumstances? We all know it when we are being stretched. Remember "there is no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone". Pups are no different.
When the pups reach the age of six weeks we make a concerted effort to spend some one on one time with each pup several times a day. It is easy for a pup to get lost in the pack. Social hierarchies within the packs (litters) start to form and a pup who tends to be less dominant can be diminished as the more dominant members of the litter come out front and center for human attention. Conversely, sometimes a more dominant pup will shun human interaction due to its independent nature. Neither of these situations is positive in our continuous effort to socialized a puppy to a life of human interaction and partnership.
In our one on one time we introduce commands like "here" informally by backing away from the pup while its attention is focused elsewhere and then calling to it. They soon learn that the best place in the world is with a human beside them. Marcy Wright of Horsetooth Retrievers, who is a good friend, describes it as teaching them that the sun rises and sets in you.
If you are successful in building this kind of a bond with your pup then you have created a partnership that will serve you well regardless of what you ask of you canine companion. He or she will sit with eyes fixed upon you trying to predict whatever it is you want them to do. Marcy is the only person I have ever heard use the command "watch me", but I have seen her use that command with great success with her great bitch Darbi. They had an almost human relationship. This is what we strive for.
Proper socialization is essential and a lack of it cannot be compensated for make sure that you do not overlook it.