A notable amount of puppies are still not receiving adequate socialization prior to 20 weeks old, a new survey says.
Additional evidence has emerged that emphasizes the importance of socialization in the first few months of a dog’s life. Even though research illustrates the positive impact puppy socialization has on the wellbeing of dogs, many are still not receiving adequate socialization. This is according to survey results compiled and analyzed by researchers from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
Benefits of Socialization
As previously reported by American Veterinarian®, animals tend to be the most comfortable in the environments they were exposed to at a young age. The first few weeks of a dog’s life are considered to be the most influential learning period with regards to living in a domestic human household. This period is a sensitive time for the development of long-lasting social attachments and foundation memories. Without positive social experiences as puppies, dogs are less likely to be the friendly, confident companions pet owners anticipate.
While the gold standard for socialization was long considered to be between 3 and 12 weeks of age, a December 2017 study found that beginning the socialization process even earlier—between 0 to 6 weeks of age—may bring important benefits for the behavioral welfare of puppies as they age. Puppies with extra socialization that participated in the study were less likely to have separation-related behaviors, general anxiety, body sensitivity, or to be distracted.
The purpose of the University of Guelph study was to identify common actions taken by pet owners to socialize puppies, establish factors that impact attendance rates of structured puppy classes, and analyze associations between class attendance and owner response to various undesirable behaviors.
The study sample was comprised of 296 people across Canada and the United States who each owned 1 puppy younger than 20 weeks of age.
Upon enrollment in the study, participants completed a survey to collect data regarding pet owner demographics and puppy characteristics. A second survey was also completed when the puppies grew to be 20 weeks of age, which gathered information on socialization practices and owner responses to misbehavior and signs of fear in their puppies.
The scientists then compared the survey results of pet owners who did report attending puppy classes to those who did not.
As noted in the results, which have been published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, nearly one-third of the puppies received only minimal exposure to people and dogs outside the home; minimal exposure was defined as interactions with up to 10 people and 5 dogs in a 2-week period.
There were noticeable differences reported among pet owners who took their puppies to a structured class (49%) and those who had not. Participants who attended classes with their puppies reported that they exposed the puppy to more people and dogs outside of their home by the time the puppy was 20 weeks of age. They were also more likely to expose their puppy to stimuli, such as large trucks, sirens, children, and people coming to the door. As such, puppies who had attended classes were reportedly less likely to be afraid of noises, such as the vacuum cleaner. The survey results found no difference for walking on a leash or going to the dog park.
Class attendees were more likely to reward good behavior (93% compared to 86%), use redirection, and ignore bad behavior. They were less likely to use verbal corrections (82% compared to 96%) and less likely to use positive punishment (21% compared to 96%).
In addition to owner-directed exposure to people, dogs, and environmental stimuli, the survey uncovered a disparity among the puppy classes that were attended. For example, only 70% of the puppy classes included opportunities for puppies to play together. The least common activities, which occurred in less than 50% of classes, were gradual exposure to noises, trading one item for another, and teaching the puppy to go to a mat. The commands for sit, down, and to come when called were the taught in more than 80% of classes.
From the survey questions related to owner-behavior, the scientists found that owners who used punishment were more likely to say their puppy was fearful. Four percent also reported that they would force their puppy to face its fears, a tactic known to actually increase fear.
The authors said the survey results highlight the role veterinarians can serve in educating pet owners about the importance of early puppy socialization and positive reward training.