Your new puppy has arrived, and you want to do everything you can to help him grow up into a great companion. Most people think about teaching sit, down, stay, and so on, but the real key to having a great dog for life is proper puppy socialization. In this article, I’d like to focus on socializing a puppy with people.
Proper socialization with people is really important.
If your dog doesn’t love other dogs, you can generally work around that by simply keeping your distance from other dogs. If your dog doesn’t like people, though, that can create major problems. Some dogs who are uncomfortable around people simply keep their distance, but others react a lot more aggressively. Dogs may bark, lunge or even snap at strangers. These kinds of aggressive behaviors can lead to serious problems. Neighbors may complain that they feel unsafe around your dog, and get you kicked out of your rental home. You can also wind up the target of a lawsuit even if your dog never actually bites anyone, since a person can sue you if your dog scares them and they trip and fall, for example.
OK, enough doom and gloom. Let’s start talking about how to socialize your puppy with people to avoid these kinds of problems. During puppy socialization, our goal should always be to keep the puppy comfortable and happy. When it comes to socialization with people, keeping your puppy comfortable and happy can be as simple as getting every new person to offer the puppy a small piece of tasty food. If every new person the puppy meets is a source of food, the puppy is much more likely to be happy to meet new people.
It’s a good idea to use treats that are small—think half the size of your pinky fingernail, and even smaller for very small puppies . Small treats help keep your puppy at a healthy weight, since you can feed a lot of them without adding too many calories to your puppy’s diet. There are also better and worse ways to have people give treats. I always ask my clients to have people offer treats while positioned at a short distance from the puppy, so the puppy can choose whether or not to walk up to the person. The person can present the treat to the puppy on an open palm while crouching down. They could also place the treat on the floor, so the puppy can stay on all four feet while eating the treat. All of these options are much better than having the person walk up to the puppy and stick the treat in the puppy’s face, which can be scary for some puppies.
Ideally, the person would feed the treat and then simply move away without petting the puppy, but that can be hard for people.
If the person you are introducing can’t seem to keep his or her hands off your puppy, ask the person to pet your puppy under the chin or on the chest, rather than on top of the head (many puppies don’t seem to like being patted on the head). Let the person pet your puppy for no more than three seconds, and then call your puppy back to you. If the puppy was enjoying the petting, he will go right back to the person (after first coming to you). If the puppy was not enjoying the petting, you’ve just taught him that it’s OK to move away from petting when he doesn’t want to be petted anymore.
Another good option, if you have a puppy who likes to play with toys, is to have the new person offer your puppy a toy.
Since puppies don’t always have great control of their teeth, it’s best if the person just tosses the toy for your puppy, and then you do the work of getting the toy back from your puppy when and if it becomes necessary. You can use your puppy’s favorite toy, or get a new one for the new person to use.
To make it easier to get the toy back from your puppy, drop a few small treats off to the side at a short distance from the toy, and then pick up the toy while the puppy is busy eating the treats. Give the toy back to the new person, have that person toss the toy to the puppy again, and you’re creating an association between new people and fun.
As mentioned earlier, the key as you work on puppy socialization with people is for the puppy to remain comfortable and happy at all times. To help make sure the puppy is comfortable, give the puppy the option to move away anytime he wants to. This means people should not pick up or hold the puppy unless the puppy jumps into their lap, and even when the puppy is in their lap, they should make sure the puppy has room to move away if he wants to. I would also avoid “passing the puppy” between people, since a lot of puppies find that scary. And hugs are a big no-no, since most dogs find those very disconcerting. (How would you feel if a random stranger just came up and hugged you?)
Let your puppy decide who to approach, and how quickly to approach.
Ask strangers to let your puppy come to them, instead of having them walk up to your puppy. If you are out on a walk and your puppy is pulling away from someone, follow your puppy’s lead and let that person go by without greeting the puppy. If puppies learn that they can choose whether or not to say hi, they will generally be more willing to say hi than if you keep dragging the puppy over to people or letting people rush over and grab the puppy.
So what about kids, you may be asking?
There’s no questions that it’s important for your dog to learn to feel comfortable with children of various ages. Unfortunately, things can get out of control pretty easily when a child and a puppy are together, since both children and puppies tend to be energetic and impulsive. Make sure any children that meet your puppy understand proper puppy greeting manners. These are basically the same as for adults, namely the child should wait for the puppy to approach (rather than the child rushing over to the puppy), pet under the chin or on the chest, and stop petting and give the puppy a chance to leave after a few seconds. It’s also a good idea to keep encounters between children and puppies short. There’s a great write-up on teaching children to greet dogs, complete with an illustrated handout, here.
Puppy socialization with people may be the most important thing you do with your young puppy.
If you do it the right way, your adult dog will be much more likely to behave well around new people. So make sure to let your puppy approach at his own pace, teach your puppy that people offer yummy treats and fun toys, and always make sure your puppy can leave when he wants to.