Imagine being picked up by a stranger and transported to a completely new world, where everything is new to you. Everything you see, hear, touch and smell is scary. That’s what happens when you bring a new puppy home. Your world is foreign and maybe even a bit scary to her. This is why puppy playtime is important: to socialize your dog! During puppy development, your dog is learning what the world is, either full of fun things or scary things. It’s up to you to do everything you can to properly socialize your dog to a wide variety of people, dogs and anything else she may encounter during her life so that she sees the world as a wonderful place to be and can relax within your home.
What is puppy playtime?
Puppy Playtime is really a training session where you are working with your puppy to socialize her with other dogs, people and things. Puppies have a critical socialization period from birth to about 12 to 16 weeks, explains Dr. Carley Faughn, a certified applied animal behaviorist with a PhD in Cognitive Science focusing on animal behavior and cognition, who works as a senior strategist at Best Friends Animal Society.
During that time, it is essential that your dog be exposed to as many things as possible. The key, however, is to have those exposures be positive, says Amanda Cornell, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed and owner of Accomplished Canines.
Both Accomplished Canines and Best Friends Animals Society offer robust puppy playtime programs to help socialize young dogs and get them started on the right paw in life. At Best Friends, littermates are brought into a sanitized room each day. During their playtime, volunteers come in to act as friendly strangers. Some with sunglasses. Some with hats. Some tall, some short. Puppies are also introduced to things they may encounter in their everyday life, such as the vacuum, umbrellas, bikes, etc.
The key is to make these interactions positive, so your puppy learns to like meeting new people or can sleep through the vacuum cleaner. To do this, pair something the puppy likes with these new experiences. Reward your puppy with a food reward when she goes toward a stranger or checks out the vacuum (turned off at first) or hears the microwave door open and shut, Dr. Faughn says. Some puppies may also like petting as a reward. Others may need higher rewards, like chopped-up hot dog or cheese, if they are more nervous or stressed, she adds.
A positive association with handling is another key to puppy playtime. Dr. Faughn says to introduce your puppy to collars, leashes and harnesses, as well as being touched everywhere and being picked up. For some puppies, these things are no big deal. For others, you will have to go slow and offer high rewards. For example, you may have to reward your puppy for just looking at the collar at first, working up to her being OK with it going around her neck.
We do a lot of strange things with our dogs that we expect them to be OK with — from taking car rides and wearing clothes to getting vet checkups and chilling out on the couch to a loud movie. Puppy playtime is important in order to create that well-adjusted, laid-back dog everyone wants, Amanda says.
All this puppy socialization may seem overwhelming to you. But really, it’s just taking a few minutes each day to expose your puppy to something new. Here are some steps to socializing your dog with puppy playtime:
- Have puppy playtime daily.
- Make sure all interactions are positive for your puppy. Reward her and pay attention to her body language so you know if you have to change the situation if she is getting stressed or anxious.
- Have a checklist so you can keep track of what and who you have exposed your puppy to, Dr. Faughn suggests. This is also a good place to keep notes if you need to remember what your puppy had a hard time with so you know to work more on that.
- Don’t stop socializing at 16 weeks of age, when the critical period is over. This training should continue into adult and, for some dogs, longer.
- Don’t overwhelm your puppy. Things like “puppy parties,” where you invite everyone over to meet your new dog, can actually overwhelm them Dr. Faughn says. It’s better to just have a short visit with one or two people, or one friendly dog.
- Keep playtime short. Puppies have short attention spans and do best with short, positive sessions.
- Focus on just a couple things at a time. Rather than try to expose your puppy to everything at once, pick two or three things each day to work on.
Finally, don’t forget that your puppy also needs to be socialized to other dogs. Usually, puppies get socialization from their mom and littermates for the first eight weeks of their lives, Dr. Faughn explains. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need continued interaction with other dogs.
Socializing with other dogs teaches them social skills, like how to navigate different dog personalities and play styles, Amanda explains. These are vital lessons so your dog can be a good canine citizen around other dogs. When dogs interact, the adults will correct puppies, teaching them the lessons they need to socialize properly throughout their lives.
Whether you are socializing your dog with people, things or other dogs, it’s important to learn dog body language (check out this poster of dog body language that you can buy) so you can tell when your puppy is stressed or nervous at any time. If she is, put space between her and whatever is making her nervous and/or up the reward so you can help her overcome her fear. Otherwise, those fears will stay with your dog throughout her life and may even get worse.
Because the critical socialization period ends between 12 and 16 weeks, start socializing puppies with other dogs immediately, Amanda says.
But what about vaccines? Recent findings from the veterinary field shows that puppies typically are fully vaccinated at 16 weeks, when they get their last round of shots, Dr. Faughn says. She adds that it’s best to talk to your vet about any concerns you may have.
So, what do you do until 16 weeks so you can still socialize your puppy with other dogs? The best thing to do, if they cannot interact with their littermates, is to find puppies on the same vaccination schedule — or close to — or fully vaccinated, dog-friendly adult dogs, Dr. Faughn says.
Setting up playdates for your puppy
Puppy playdates for dog socialization must be done safely. This means making sure all dogs are vaccinated and that any dog you are introducing your puppy to is known to be dog-friendly. If you are not sure if a dog is good with puppies, put your puppy in an X-pen (an enclosed exercise pen) at first, Amanda suggests. This way, both dogs can be off leash, but there is a barrier to protect your puppy until you are sure the other dog is well-behaved around puppies.
Socializing dogs is a tricky business. You do not want your puppy attacked or frightened. Meeting one friendly dog at a time is best. This is one of the reasons why dog parks are not a good idea for puppies. They can become quickly overwhelmed if a rush of adult dogs comes at them. Dr. Faughn also points out that dog parks are full of disease and germs that your puppy is not vaccinated for yet. Pet parents often do not watch their dogs very closely at dog parks either, which can lead to trouble if a dog decides to play rough or gets aggressive with your puppy.
Is puppy playtime important?
Puppy playtime is a necessary and crucial part of puppy raising. All pet parents need to make sure they are doing everything they can to help their puppy grow into a well-socialized adult dog. Of course, you can do all the right things and still end up with a dog who is nervous about some things or becomes reactive. This is due to the fact that their genetics, including temperament and instincts, play a role in their personality, as does whatever they experienced before they came into your home, Dr. Faughn explains. The best thing you can do if you encounter something you are not sure about is to remain calm yourself — if you get anxious, your puppy will just be more stressed — and get in touch with a certified dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement techniques. To find a certified trainer in your area, check out the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.