Oscar my terrier barks, growls and backs away from men, especially those with hoodies, hats and beards. As he has become older, the behavior is getting worse than it was as a puppy.
Our shepherd, Rex is afraid of brooms, vacuum cleaners, trashcans, and loud sounds; I cannot even pull a cookie sheet out of a drawer and he runs out of the room. We just got a new puppy. Is there anything we can do to make sure he turns out differently?
Puff, my Persian cat runs and hides when guests come and doesn’t like to be touched for very long.
These pets may sound like they have different behavior concerns, but in fact they have some factors in common; they all were likely impacted by incomplete socialization.
What is socialization?
Puppies from about three to about 14 weeks of age and kittens from two to seven weeks of age are most open to learning that noises, ‘funny’ objects, people in coats and hats, children, different animals and environments are safe. It is their sensitive period for socialization and it is possibly the most important period in your dog or cat’s life.
Socialization occurs quickly in kittens. In a research study, kittens handled by humans for five minutes a day from birth to 45 days of age approached strangers and novel toys more readily, compared with kittens that were not handled. Kittens that receive only minimal handling by eight weeks of age are more likely to be aggressive and may be comfortable with only a couple of humans.
Behavior specialists advocate that puppies and kittens attend a socialization class and practice regularly. What should they actually be exposed to? While checklist can be good – it is very important that your pet has a positive experience so that they have a pleasant association with the new items.
How can I socialize my pet while at home?
With the current social distancing and cancellation of socialization classes, many puppy and kitten owners are understandably concerned about being unable to introduce their youngster to all the things they need to be comfortable with as an adult.
Here are some ideas to incorporate, safely into your daily activities. Remember to bring out your pup or kitten’s favorite tasty treats and follow exposure with a treat. Always make sure your pet is showing happy, comfortable body language and is never overwhelmed or scared. Watch for signs of distress including panting, pacing, vocalizing, lip licking, and freezing, and for kitten’s stiff tail, straight back, arched back, ears laid back, or puffed up like “scaredy cat”. Keep sessions short; 5-10 minutes a few times a day is perfect.
- Sit out in the front yard with your puppy in an exercise pen and pair treats with seeing neighbors, bikes and dogs go by. Start up the lawn mower at a distance and pair the sound with a treat, or use a large rake, tossing treats as you move it.
- Wear a mask, different hats, big boots, sunglasses, fake beard, ‘odd’ clothing (just one thing at a time!) and walk around house and yard with puppy. Have another household member do the same. Mark and treat your puppy for noticing these new things!
- Bring out folding chairs, an ice chest, balloons and picnic or party stuff. Click or “yes” your puppy for approaching these items, but toss the treat away from them, so your puppy can choose to re-approach if he or she chooses
- Explore the garage or the basement. Practice training in these new environments.
- Take your puppy inside a camper to explore. Practice walking up a ramp.
- Go for car rides; try a bumpy road, the freeway and over speed bumps.
- Play veterinarian! Put your puppy on the counter. Do a ‘physical’ then work on actual husbandry behaviors such as brushing teeth, brushing coat and cleaning ears.
- Practice walking on a scale, rubber mat, or cookie sheet.
- Try the Sound Proof Puppy Training app.
- Feed meals on different surfaces. Walk across a plastic garbage bag, a pillow or exercise disc.
- Bring out the pots and pans in the kitchen and set some on the floor.
- Walk a bike past the pup, if safe ride it past pup.
- Go on field trips to safe, new outdoor environments at least twice a week. Treat puppy for seeing new people, dogs, vehicles, and other stimuli at a distance.
- Go for car rides.
- Practice getting in and out of a carrier, with treats.
- Play veterinarian! Put your kitten on the counter. Do a ‘physical’ then work on actual husbandry behaviors such as brushing teeth, brushing coat, trimming nails and cleaning ears.
- Have a variety of people and children gently hold and pet the kitten.
- Provide a variety of safe floor textures for the kitten to walk on.
- Offer different scents that can be collected on a clean cloth by, for example, rubbing it on a healthy, friendly vaccinated dog or other cat.
- Provide a variety of new objects in different shapes and sizes that can be investigated.
- Novel sounds can be provided by playing household sounds such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners.
This is just a short list! Be creative, but also be careful and never force your pup or kitten to do thing if they are scared. Exposure should be short, pleasant and paired with food and toys – remember learning happens in small and safe steps!
Try this quiz:
- Most cats are naturally scared to meet new people and dislike being held.
Research shows that kittens that are handled between birth and six weeks are friendlier than those cats that were not handled. Kittens that were not handled regularly before six weeks are more likely to be intolerant of handling and act aggressively as adults.
- Puppies should not be taken in public until they have had all their vaccinations. FALSE.
Research shows that puppies in a socialization class were no more likely to contract canine parvovirus than puppies kept at home. See the AVSAB position statement on early socialization here: https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Puppy-Socialization-Position-Statement-FINAL.pdf
- Puppies should be taught to submit through dominance displays such as pinning, scruffing, alpha rolls. FALSE.
Rough handling of puppies often triggers fear, avoidance, and, in worst-case scenarios, fearful aggressive behaviors. Dogs do not have a strict social hierarchy.
- Puppies will just ‘grow out’ of being fearful. FALSE.
Although puppies less than 12 weeks of age typically recover rapidly from negative interactions, research has demonstrated that abnormal behavior left untreated can worsen over time.
Please share with us your favorite ‘homeschooling’ socialization activity with your puppy and kittens!
Stay well and stay in touch.