Considerations when socializing your new pup in a playgroup

Early socialization is an essential component of any new pup's training. It helps them become well-balanced, allows them to practice pro-social behavior and exposes them to countless sights, sounds, people, places and things. Finding places and events where groups of pups can be together for play can be challenging, as can figuring out what to do with your new pup while you're at work. Here are some tips as you search for the right social experiences for your pup.


Do

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  • understand the critical developmental stages in puppies
  • know what to look for in a good play supervisor for your puppy
  • check out the play space carefully
  • know what to expect – review the House Rules for the group
  • be a sponge for knowledge, information and social connections
Don't

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  • force your pup to engage in play if he appears hesitant
  • expect your pup to “know” how to behave
  • take your pup to play group if she exhibits any signs of illness
  • wait until your pup is older or bigger to socialize him
  • assume that all dogs will want to interact with your pup

Julie C. Bernier‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand the critical developmental stages in puppies

Your pup is most open to new experiences from weeks 7 to 16 weeks of age and will experience adolescence between 5 and 7 months of age. Most folks bring home their new pup around 8 weeks of age, a time when pups are most open to new sights, sounds and experiences. Capitalizing on this openness is extremely important from the moment you get your pup. Exposing your puppy to other pups for play and socialization during the early weeks and months of ownership allows him to develop and hone skills such as setting boundaries and limits for himself, communicating likes and dislikes to peers and softening the strength of his bite. Puppies learn best from each other and need supervised time together to become balanced, confident dogs. By the time your pup approaches adolescence (a time when pups often become inhibited, fearful and testy), they should have had a multitude of healthy social interactions, countless exposures to new stimuli and lots of one on one training in a variety of settings.

Do know what to look for in a good play supervisor for your puppy

Proper supervision is the most important factor in determining whether or not to bring your pup to a play group. Inquire about the background and qualifications of the play monitor with dogs in general and puppies in particular.

The group supervisor will be guiding your pup in developing confidence, curbing unwanted behaviors and learning to read social cues from other pups, and will be responsible for keeping the environment safe and positive for all participants. Ask how misbehavior is managed, what the supervisor’s dog training philosophy is and whether owners are allowed to ask questions and watch the group at play. In some settings, owners are allowed and invited to participate in the group. In a carefully-supervised group, this is a wonderful opportunity for new owners to learn how puppies interact socially, what pro-social behavior looks like and when to step in if play becomes dangerous or potentially unsafe.

Do check out the play space carefully

A good play space for puppies includes appropriate fencing/gates for safety, stimulating interactive toys, places for shy/nervous pups to “take space” if desired and ample space for both active and passive play.

If possible, visit the puppy play groups offered in your area before you bring your own pup home. Is there ample space for pups to run, wrestle and interact with each other without crowding? Are the toys provided clean, appropriate and stimulating? Things like balls, tug toys and squeaky toys are examples of interactive toys that invite play between dogs.  Items like bones, certain chews and other “high value” objects can invite guarding, possessiveness and other unwanted behaviors in a group setting. Tunnels, ramps and jungle gym types of play equipment give fearful and socially-hesitant pups a place to watch the action safely and to escape the activity until they are ready to join in. The space should be carefully and thoughtfully fenced in for safety and ease of entry/exit.

Do know what to expect – review the House Rules for the group

Puppies have immature immune systems and you’ll want to balance keeping your pup healthy and illness-free against the importance of early social experiences.

Find out what immunizations are required for attendance at puppy play groups. Most reputable groups/supervisors require a minimum of the first set of standard puppy shots plus the kennel cough (bordetella) vaccine. Avoid groups that don’t have health standards for attendance. Bring your own water bowl and water for your pup and avoid a community water bowl even if there is one provided. This helps protect your pup against any unknown bacteria that could be lurking in a public bowl that may be used by countless puppies and dogs. Keep an alert eye and ear out when attending puppy play groups. Report any pups with runny noses, coughing or other signs of potential illness to the group supervisor immediately.

Do be a sponge for knowledge, information and social connections

When attending puppy play groups, be a sponge for knowledge, information and social connections. Watch with interest as the pups interact and play together. Ask questions if you are concerned about safety or about any aspect of your pup’s social interaction that is unfamiliar or curious to you.

Puppies are not children and their play can at times look toothy and harsh when, in fact, it is developmentally and socially appropriate. Each pup attending will have their own timetable for entering the social scene. Some will jump right in with confidence, while others may hang back and “watch and wait” for a while. Familiarize yourself with the ways and instances in which the supervisor breaks into play and reasons for doing so. Notice which pups your own pup is most drawn to for play and make a point to introduce yourself to the owners of those pups. Smaller play dates can be set up with those pups your pup likes to play with, and their owners can be a potential source of friendship and support in your new role.


Julie C. Bernier‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not force your pup to engage in play if he appears hesitant

All pups are different social beings and will present with a variety of emotions and behaviors when first introduced to a play group. Allow your pup to take his time getting comfortable and allow the group supervisor to manage and encourage his involvement while you step back a bit.

What your pup needs most is a calm, secure owner who allows him to explore his social environment in his own way and on his own timetable. Maintaining a quiet, calm presence for your pup is exactly the right thing to do if your pup is hesitant. Don’t misinterpret your pup’s initial fearfulness or shyness as a cue that “he doesn’t like other dogs” or doesn’t want to play. And on the flip side, don’t scold your pup if you think he is too energetic or forceful during play. A good group supervisor will know how to make the environment safe for each pup and will allow each pup to enter into play on their own timetable. Patience and confidence in the group leader, in addition to good supervision of the more confident, exuberant pups, will go a long way in drawing out the shy/nervous pups.  Your shy/nervous pup may also be somewhat harsh in setting boundaries at first with other pups. That is normal and those tendencies will fall away as your pup gets comfortable in the social environment and practices setting boundaries and limits with other age mates during play.

Do not expect your pup to “know” how to behave

Gentle guidance and constant and continuing exposure to social settings paves the way toward a well-balanced social personality in your pup. Your pup will need lots and lots of training, using positive rewards, during her first year of development.

She won’t come to you knowing how to walk on a leash, knowing not to bite harshly when accepting treats or knowing how to properly greet you and guests at your home. All of these skills need to be taught and then reinforced daily, most preferably using delicious rewards that show your pup that you like what they are doing. The same is true of your pup in a social setting: he or she may not know how to behave and interact with other pups at first, but with time (exposure) and appropriate feedback and rewards, she will quickly come to understand social cues and become savvy at initiating, participating and ending play sessions with a variety of playmates.

Do not take your pup to play group if she exhibits any signs of illness

Familiarize yourself with the hallmarks of the most common puppy illnesses and keep your pup at home and away from other pups if not in good health. Err on the side of caution at all times when exposing your pup to others to reduce the spread of illness and keep your pup healthy and active.

Your vet will be happy to advise you of the signs and symptoms of the most common illnesses affecting the health of puppies. It’s likely that your pup will develop one or more of these illnesses during their first several months in your home, so it’s to your benefit to know what to look for and when to seek the assistance of your vet. Conjunctivitis (an easily-treatable but highly-contagious eye infection), Bordetella or kennel cough (also referred to as canine influenza) and diarrhea (which could have a number of causes including bacterial sources) are among the most common puppy illnesses. If you suspect that your pup is not in top health, keep him at home. If your pup is diagnosed with a contagious illness, contact the facility where the puppy play group is offered and report it to the management. This way, they can alert others who may have been exposed, thereby helping to stem the spread of illness to other pups.

Do not wait until your pup is older or bigger to socialize him

Time is of the essence when it comes to socializing your pup with other puppies and also to a wide variety of stimuli that he may find scary, exciting or which may provoke a wide range of reactions.

The window for socialization of your new pup begins to close around 16 weeks of age. Thereafter your pup will be less open to new experiences, people, places and things.  Engaging your pup in the wide range of experiences available in and around your home and community is the key to having a well-adjusted, socially confident dog for life. Many trainers recommend “100 exposures in the first 100 days” of ownership of your pup. Take your pup with you to as many places as possible. Sit on a city park bench and watch the world go by.  Visit pet retailers who allow dogs into their stores. At home, run the vacuum cleaner as you normally would. Use the lawn mower and leaf blower as soon as possible after bringing your pup home. Sweep, shovel and rake (or at least pretend to) so that your pup gets comfortable with these tasks happening around him. And by all means, introduce your pup to as many other puppies and puppy-tolerant adult dogs as possible, allowing off-leash play if at all possible.

Do not assume that all dogs will want to interact with your pup

Puppies are wiggly, squirmy, excitable goof balls when they are young. Many adult dogs don’t enjoy interacting with young puppies because they lack boundaries and social skills. Ask before allowing your pup to interact (especially on-leash) with dogs unfamiliar to you: “Does your dog enjoy puppies?”

Countless injuries could have been avoided had puppy owners realized that adult dogs often react harshly to the antics and out-of-control behavior of puppies. There are many adult dogs who are calm and non-reactive and have patience with puppies. If you have the good fortune to know someone with a puppy-loving adult dog who would be willing to engage in play with your pup, by all means, schedule a play date. However, err on the side of extreme caution when exposing your vulnerable young pup to adult dogs whose reactions you cannot predict. Not all dogs will want to meet your pup and it’s best to steer clear of those who seem less-than-excited when your sweet, well-meaning pup wants to drag you over to meet them.  Watch the body language and social cues of adult dogs. Body posture that’s stiff and rigid and glaring eye contact (called the “whale eye”) are clear signs of discomfort and warning in adult dogs, for instance, and should be acknowledged and heeded.


Summary

Many of us either have owned or know people who have dogs who “don’t like other dogs.”  The primary cause of this aversion to those of their own kind is lack of proper exposure and socialization when they were puppies. You are doing your pup, as well as yourself, a huge favor when you opt to enroll him in puppy play groups as a youngster. With careful planning and an appropriate amount of caution, you can find wonderful, socially-stimulating and appropriate play opportunities for your pup in your community, as soon as you bring him home. Consult with your vet, animal shelters, dog daycares and pet retailers locally to find out where and when social groups are being held for puppies in your community.

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