If you follow this blog, you will be seeing lots of posts about us working on Murph's socialization in the coming months. My firm belief is that training, exercise, and socialization will keep your puppy from developing the vast majority of serious behavior issues, both now and when he's older. If I could wave a magic wand and have everyone with a puppy do just one thing, it would be to thoroughly socialize their puppy. (Well, and spay or neuter, but that's another post.)
What do I mean by socialization? Socialization refers to exposing your puppy to all sorts of people, places, other animals, noises, situations, sounds, smells, etc. in a safe and positive manner so they become familiar, normal, and non-threatening to your puppy. For example, when socializing him to other people, you want him to meet all kinds of people: big people, little people, kids of all ages, old people, people with loud booming voices, people with facial hair, people wearing hats, people carrying umbrellas, people wearing all sorts of different clothing styles, people with different skin tones, etc, etc, etc. You want to bring him out to meet people in other places and also have people come to meet him in his home.
When working on socialization, make sure to plan and control the situations as much as possible to ensure every experience is a positive one. Never force your puppy to interact before he is ready, but rather let him approach the new situation/person at his own pace. If he's scared, stay calm and matter of fact - he's going to take his cues from you. Soft, stinky treats can help if he's nervous, especially if your puppy is highly food-motivated. If he's really shy, you might want to consider a consult with a professional trainer to make sure you know how to help him gain confidence as he's experiencing new people and situations.
The picture above (it's a freeze-frame from a video, so forgive the quality) is from a formal, supervised puppy playgroup put on by Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley. Playgroups like this are a great way to socialize your puppy to other dogs and a few people, and also to help him learn how to play appropriately with other puppies. If you're new to puppies yourself, they'll also teach you how to recognize any red flags to look for when your puppy is playing with others.
It is important to work on socialization while your puppy is young. The early months are a time of tremendous development in all areas, so he will be especially receptive to this type of exercise at a young age. He will grow up with confidence because the world isn't nearly as scary when you aren't constantly being bombarded with situations that are unfamiliar. And it is far easier to introduce a puppy to new things in a positive way than it is to try to get a grown dog to overcome a fear later. Prevention is always preferable trying to fix something down the road. And frankly, having a social dog could very well save his life someday. Not only will he be less likely to become a fear-aggressive dog, but if something happens to you and you are no longer able to keep him, it will be very difficult to find a new home for him if he doesn't get along with people and other animals. I've been immersed in rescue work for over a decade now - believe me, this is real stuff. None of us ever wants to think we'd be unable to care for our beloved four-legged family members, but it is reassuring to know that as long as your dog is friendly and social, he's very likely to be adoptable if you become unable to care for him.
Since I hope to train Murph to be a therapy dog, my plan is to also socialize him while he's still very young to some of the different things he'll likely run across in that kind of work - wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, little kids, older folks, persons with different disabilities. Even if we don't end up following that path, the great part about socializing your puppy is there are no downsides - it is fun to put in the time with your puppy while you are doing it, and you end up with a friendly, social dog for the rest of his life.