Short, Short Window
“Puppy socialization” is a technical term in canine behaviorism that describes the process when a puppy learns to be a dog between a 4th and 14th week of life. Socialization Period is believed to close at as early as 12 weeks of age, and never later than 16 weeks. That’s it. Poof! If the puppy is not given a chance to learn a wide repertoire of canine behaviors in the first 3 months of life, his chances to be socially appropriate towards other dogs and towards humans will be gone forever. If a puppy is socially isolated, he will never know how to interact with his own specie and with people in a socially appropriate way for each of those groups. When you consider that aggression and fearfulness are the two main reasons for euthanasia in dogs, claiming millions of lives each year, the stakes are as high as can be.
“Socialization” of dogs is probably the most colloquially misused word, perhaps because socialization in human sociology means a life-time learning. However, when we speak of puppies, the window of socialization is finite. Puppies can only learn basic canine behaviors when their brain is still very flexible. It is a very similar process to human babies acquiring the first language. If a baby is not exposed to any human language within so called “critical age” his ability to learn a language is lost forever, as brain physiology changes.
The terms “socialization” and “habituation” are also two different things in canine behaviorism. Socialization in its strict sense is a process of a puppy learning canine behaviors from other dogs and learning to distinguish canine from human world. “Habituation” is a way a puppy learns from its environment. However, when behaviorists talk about Socialization Period they mean both processes: the critical period of socialization and of habituation. The puppy learns to invite play with a play-bow while he also learns to accept a vacuum cleaner.
Little Investment With Huge Gains
Any puppy raised not in social isolation has a chance to learn most of what he will need. However, there are some critical behaviors that could be taught easily, for life, and prevent future disasters. Resource guarding comes to mind. Even one pattern-forming lesson to exchange a prized bone for another treat can create a lasting pattern of never protecting anything from humans but to let them take a chicken wing out of the dog’s mouth. Let me tell you, it comes in handy.
The kicker is a puppy learns new behaviors even with a very, very short exposure and those behaviors are now neural connections in the brain, patterns of recognition (vacuum cleaner) and patterns of behavior (give a bone to a human when asked).
In the future, anything the puppy was not exposed to during Socialization Period will be novelty, something to be weary of. And when it comes to behaviors, anything learned in puppyhood is a default. If any of those behaviors need to be changed, the process behaviorists call “behavior modification”, it would require much more time and effort to rewire the brain pathways to new patterns.
Importance of Sleep
All the pattern forming in the brain actually takes place during sleep. A puppy forms just the tiniest neural pathway during “active” learning and it is not until the puppy sleeps that a behavioral pattern or recognition pattern is being formed. Actually, “active” learning is more effective if it is very short and followed by sleep than if a repetition of behavior happens without sleep in between.
The take-away is:
- puppies have a short window of time in which to learn how to fit in canine and human worlds
- if they miss that window, it is irrevocable- some things cannot be learned after Socialization Period is over
- it takes very little exposure to learn a lot in puppyhood, it takes much more effort to change behavior later, sometimes a change is even impossible
- sleep is as important as “active” learning
Let the Games Begin!