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The Importance of Socialization:
“Imprinting” is becoming the new buzzword recently.  Is it really as important as people make it out to be, if so, why, and what should you be doing with your puppy to socialize him/her correctly?

​Early puppyhood is one of the most important periods in a dog’s life.  The brain of a dog (and of a human) is both specific and plastic.  Specificity refers to those brain characteristics which are absolutely hard-wired and unchangeable.  Plasticity refers to those aspects of brain structure which are pliable and subject to environmental influences.  Generally speaking, the higher up the evolutionary tree an animal is , the higher its brain plasticity will be.

​Although the temperament of a dog is partly genetic, puppies come into the world with highly plastic brains; in other words, they are extremely susceptible to environmental influences.  This window of susceptibility closes at around 16 weeks (although it may take until 5 months to close completely), by which time the brain has more or less completed its development.  After this, although the dog can still learn, he will not be as adaptable and susceptible as in those early weeks.  The impressions created in those first few weeks literally affect the way the brain develops, and are extremely difficult to eradicate later.

​Negative impressions in those early weeks can affect the puppy for the rest of its life: similarly, positive impressions bear fruit for years to come.

​Puppies at this stage are said to be “imprintable”; the first encounter with a particular stimulus will be difficult to eradicate.

Maternal imprinting takes place within the first 24 hours of life.  The puppy bonds with his mother and learns to recognize her by smell.  The mother accepts and recognizes her puppies: breeders have plenty of anecdotes about bitches who can count and know when even one puppy is missing from the litter!

Fraternal Imprinting takes place between 3 and about 8 weeks.  This is the period during which the puppy learns to interact with other member of its species.  Older puppies will teach one another bite inhibition, play behavior and the beginnings of sexual imprinting (learning the behavior appropriate to one’s own and the opposite sex).  For this reason, it is important not to remove a puppy from the litter too early, otherwise he/she may have lifelong difficulty in getting along with other dogs.  Around 7 or 8 weeks is usually a good time, but if the puppy is left with the litter longer, then the breeder needs to begin socialization to people, strange dogs, cats, etc. so that further social imprinting can take place.

​Between about 8 and 10 weeks of age, a puppy is especially susceptible to fear-producing experiences, which may have lasting effect.

​What should you be doing as a new puppy owner to ensure that the puppy’s socialization continues on a positive note.

​Join a puppy class:  Good dog training schools usually operate a puppy class for puppies of 8 weeks and older.  The most important thing the puppies do here is play!  They spend time with other puppies, have a ball, overcome their shyness, get told off by other puppies if they get too boisterous, and generally learn the basics of dog manners.  They also learn that meeting other dogs is fun, and this does wonders for preventing dog aggression in later life.

​Meet People:  Expose your puppy to people of all shapes, sizes, sexes and colors from an early age.  Dogs discriminate extremely well, and many dogs are under socialized to certain groups; for example, dogs belonging to single women are often wary of or aggressive toward men.  It’s particularly important to introduce your puppy to children – but supervise the situation and don’t allow the puppy to be mauled or bullied.  Get people to feed him high-quality treats; remember the power of classical conditioning and try to make his socialization positive rather than neutral!  Older children can also feed the puppy.

​Go for walks:  Take you puppy into all sorts of neighborhoods – the nosier the better.  Get him/her used to traffic, sudden noises, crowds, shopping centers.  Please try to avoid places where he/she might be exposed to disease.  Also, make sure that your puppy is not becoming stressed by his surroundings.  If he seems to be struggling, take him/her out for shorter periods and feed him/her treats while he’s out and about.  Remember, you want to create a positive experience, not a negative one!

​Go to the vet:  Take your puppy to the vet a few times just for a visit.  Ask if you can take the puppy into the surgery for a few moments, and ask the vet to feed him a couple of treats.  This will make your life much easier later on.

Handle the puppy:  Go through a grooming routine with your puppy every day.  Examine his ears, teeth and feet.  Trim his toenails if you can.  Feed him treats while you do this.  Ask other people to do this as well! 

​Practice object exchanges:  teach you puppy to give up toys and other objects easily by giving another toy or a treat in exchange.  Do this with his food as well; pick up the bowl while he’s eating, add a couple of treats to it and give it back.  If you puppy objects to you removing his food, feed him from you hand for a couple of days.  This will go a long way toward establishing for a you as dominant and preventing resource hoarding in the adult dog.

Carry on teaching bite inhibition:  Puppies who have been left with the litter for long enough usually have quite good bite inhibition, but you can help.  Whenever the puppy’s teeth close down too hard on you hand, yelp in a high-pitched voice until the puppy lets go, and then withdraw your attention for a moment.  You can gradually shape the puppy’s bite to a point where he barely touches you.

Introduce your puppy to adult dogs:  Your pup needs to meet older dogs, and needs to learn to treat them with respect.  Find out how the older dog usually behaves with puppies before attempting an introduction; you don’t want your puppy to be bullied or even injured.  Most adult dogs are very tolerant of puppies, but will sometimes discipline them by giving them a quick shake and a growl if they get out of line; this is not a cause for alarm and is in fact often beneficial, particularly with a puppy who may otherwise get himself into some nasty chewing, biting or jumping.