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This information provided by veterinarians for Hill's Science Diet pet food.

Hill's veterinarian Mark Brady, DVM, DACVECCPuppy socialization is important in helping your pet grow up to be a confident, reliable and happy family member. In terms of behavioral development, it prevents fearfulness, which can translate into aggression as your pet matures. Socialization starts at about 3 weeks of age, around the time of weaning, and continues through approximately 12-14 weeks of age. This time frame would be considered the "critical" or "sensitive" period of development. It is paramount that a plan is established during this impressionable time to help your puppy grow into a friendly and confident dog. Your puppy will grow up very quickly, and it is much better to prevent behavioral problems with proper socialization than to try to resolve temperament issues as an adult. How do you go about accomplishing this task?

Get your puppy out and about to experience the world while he or she is still young. This will allow them exposure to as many situations as possible so your pet becomes confident as an adult. Do not keep your puppy a secret. Strive to provide numerous positive experiences with all types of people, dogs and other animals they may encounter, and changes in their environment. The primary goals of socialization for your puppy are to 1) learn how to play with other dogs and with people, including children, 2) learn how to cope with change, whether meeting a new dog or moving to a new home, and 3) learn how to sort out conflict now, before reaching an age where conflicts can become more serious.

Your puppy will require significant help to be comfortable around people, especially around children, men and strangers. The goal is to teach your puppy not to just tolerate, but to thoroughly enjoy the presence and actions of people. To accomplish this goal, expose your puppy to children, even if there are none in the home where the dog will live. Children are loud, excitable and make sudden and erratic movements. Exposure to this behavior desensitizes your puppy to potentially threatening situations including petting, handling, hugging and restraint. Special attention should be paid to potential problem areas such as the food bowl or toys. Puppies should be encouraged to explore, investigate and manipulate their environment. Creating a safe place, such as a puppy pen, can foster independence and avoid over-stimulation.

Puppy classes can offer a safe and organized means of socializing puppies. Classes can also help to improve responsiveness to commands and training. Your puppy and others in the class should have up-to-date vaccination histories and be disease and parasite free before entering class. Until your puppy's immune system has matured, avoid areas such as dog parks, which cannot be sanitized. These areas may also expose your puppy to dogs of unknown vaccine or disease status. Fear of your puppy contracting a disease should not, however, outweigh good judgment when it comes to socialization. The combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance for serious behavioral problems without proper socialization.

Early and adequate socialization can go a long way in preventing behavioral problems and improve the bond between you and your dog. While the first three months of life are the most important time for socialization, owners are strongly encouraged to continue this process through life. This initial effort will reap the reward of a confident, outgoing and sociable dog to enjoy for years to come.

This article was written by Hill's veterinarian Mark Brady, DVM, DACVECC.