The critical socialization period begins at 3 weeks and continues until the puppies are 12 weeks old. The work—or damage—that is done (or not done) to a puppy’s social and emotional development during this period determines who the puppy is as an adult and can set the puppy up for failure or success. The work done at this stage can take many, many months, or years to change, if it can be changed at all. For example, a puppy that isn’t properly socialized can easily turn into a fear biter. If you ask any qualified trainer, she or he will tell you that fear biting can take a very long time to merely control, and it often can’t be completely eliminated. This translates to lost quality time with your dog, increased cost of long-term interventional training as well as increased exposure to financial and social liability.
Socialization isn’t merely introducing puppies to people. That’s part of it, but that also has to be handled with tact. For example, I’ve seen breeders who say their puppies are raised in a day care they also run from their home. That can be a great thing, or it can be very bad for the puppies. If the child-puppy interaction is carefully timed according to developmental stage and carefully monitored the entire time the child and puppy are interacting, then it can be a good thing. If the kids and puppies are simply left together—even if the puppies are in a separated pen—it can be very detrimental. Kids can be scary to puppies. They need to be properly introduced in controlled situations. Even if a puppy interacts with a group of children just fine for a week or two, if the puppy then enters a developmental fear stage, then something it was previously fine with can turn into something that is emotionally scarring. We implement very specific socialization protocols with very specific safety guidelines as we begin the socialization process with each puppy.
Socialization also includes specifically timed enrichment, problem-solving, and exposures to help introduce puppies to sights, sounds, smells, textures, and experiences. Truly good socialization requires a knowledge of puppy developmental stages, a knowledge of scientifically sound dog training methods, and a knowledge of how to tactfully present experiences to the puppies.
We take specific steps to help avoid potential future aggression in our puppies. Aggression most often stems from frustration. Have you ever noticed someone working on a car or construction project get mad and throw a tool on the ground? Barring some serious deep-seated psychological problem, that aggressive tool-tossing is almost always preceded by severe frustration. It’s similar with dogs. Frustration typically precedes aggression.
So we have very specific protocols we use with our puppies to teach them frustration tolerance. This includes problem solving experiences. Many breeders put toys in the puppy pen and call it “enrichment.” That’s part of it. But a larger part of enrichment involves planned problem-solving experiences. Teaching solid problem-solving skills to a puppy produces an adult that has a much higher frustration threshold, and therefore reduces the potential for aggression and increases the emotional resiliency of your puppy.
An added bonus of the way we socialize and train our puppies is that it provides a way for puppies and dogs to communicate with us. Obedience isn’t a one-way street. Dogs are not just little robots that listen to everything we say. They are living, sentient beings. They have feelings and emotional needs. Our training methods teach our puppies not only how to listen, but also how to properly communicate with us if they need something. That’s not to say your dog will approach you and say to you “dear human, I am feeling bereft of the ability to discern whether my interactions with you are true and right, or if you care not for me and am facing wanton despair.” But she will, for example, come and sit in front of you and let you know she wants attention or affection. Or to play. Or needs water. Or lead you to the door to go outside. Expression and recognition of a dog’s emotional needs is another way we help avoid frustration and the problem behaviors associated with frustration.
It's critical to understand that your puppy needs to be socialized through it's first year of life, so you should be providing regular socialization experiences for your puppy's first year. Once or twice a week is an ideal minimum.