Don’t Be Socially Awkward
What exactly is socialization and why are we concerned about it?
Socialization has been defined as a special learning process where an animal learns to interact with and tolerate members of its own species as well as members of other species. This is the process by which we learn to get along with each other.
Lots of research has gone into finding the perfect time during which socialization is the most effective for our pets. There is a critical period, a sensitive time in early life when socialization experience has a large effect on later behavior. This time ranges from 3–14 weeks in puppies and 2–8 weeks in kittens. (Freedman et al. 1961; Karsh 1984; Scott, Fuller 1998). Improper socialization and habituation during the critical period may result in the development of behavior problems. Proper socialization during this period helps develop a pet that is a joy to be around and a beloved family member.
The “window” for socialization in pets begins before we wean them or take then to their new homes. (While they are still with their mothers.) If at all possible we recommend getting new pets from reputable, well-educated breeders who are conscious of this time period and appropriate interactions with humans and other pets.
With kittens this “window” opens very early in life. The kitten sensitive period for socialization is 2-7 (or 9 depending on individual) weeks. The critical window to learn humans are good is 3-5 weeks. Kittens handled by a few people each day in a positive, predictable and non-overwhelming way can decrease kitten fear of strangers and help kittens allow handling for longer periods of time. This is very helpful when the kitten needs to come to the Veterinary office. Well socialized kittens are less stressed and there for better behaved than other kittens. By six to eight weeks of age, kittens respond to visual and scent threats. At seven to eight weeks of age, they have developed good eye/paw coordination. Social play develops between six to 12 weeks of age. From week 14 and up, social fighting may start. Kitten group socialization should be completed by this age other than socialization with their house mates. It is still important after 14 weeks to keep your pet gently exposed to lots of different circumstances.
The socialization window is a little longer in pups, opening at about 4 weeks and lasting until about 14 weeks. Just like kittens, puppies need to be handled by a few people every day in a positive, predictable and non-over whelming way. Start at home and gradually evolve all family members. We need to keep the interactions positive for both pet and human. If the human is nervous about a situation the puppy will sense this and be uncomfortable about it as well. If the pup is food motivated positive reinforcement with healthy treats is definitely approved.
We can think of this time like a scavenger hunt. There are lots of lists of situations available online if you need help finding more “enriching” environmental situations. Think new sights, sounds and smells. For example interactions with adults, children, elderly, people in raincoats, child holding umbrella, adult wearing athletic clothing, people dressed for church, small groups of kids, larger groups of adults, a short car ride, playing on tile flooring vs in a grassy yard, etc.. Remember positive interactions. When your pup is comfortable at home and adequately vaccinated against contagious diseases then it is time to branch out to the park and to formal puppy classes.
There are several class opportunities out there from small groups at a local pet store, veterinary office, or local dog club.
Earn a S.T.A.R. Puppy title
Show off your and your puppy’s hard work by earning his very first AKC title—the S.T.A.R. Puppy, which stands for Socialization, Training, Activity, and Responsibility. After completing a six-week training class, your puppy can take a simple test given by an AKC-approved evaluator. The test items include allowing someone to pet him, tolerating a collar or harness, allowing owner to hold him, and more (see a full list of S.T.A.R. Puppy test items here). Also, the owner pledges to be a responsible pet owner for the duration of the dog’s life. This program is open to both purebred and mixed-breed dogs up to 1 year of age.
The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen
The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test is an excellent goal for owners of dogs who received little training in their past (or even for S.T.A.R. puppies who are ready to take their skills to the next level). This 10-step test demonstrates that a dog can show good manners and basic obedience. From there, owners can go on to lead their dogs through the advanced CGC test, called Community Canine (CGCA), and/or the Urban CGC (CGCU).
After all of this information on how important socialization is for puppies brings up the question “what about older dogs?” If you’ve acquired a dog or cat later in life, you can still help him associate new or fearful situations with a positive experience, even though you’ve missed the crucial socialization period. Slowly reintroducing the pet to new sights, smells, and sounds, with careful supervision and an emphasis on positivity in the forms of praise and treats can help him overcome his fear or hesitation.
A well socialized pet makes a great member of the family and is a joy to be around.