Puppy Imprinting and How to Socialize the Perfect Puppy
By: Brittney Frazier
Late spring and early summer seem to be the most popular times to introduce a new dog into a family and we are certainly seeing a high volume of puppies walk through our facility doors for training. With the warm weather and added opportunity to socialize, there are many benefits to adopting a dog during this stretch of the year. With potty training and introduction to new experiences being high on puppy owners’ priority lists, I highly recommend using that period of time to their benefit.
As a trainer and having owned dogs throughout my lifetime, I have seen firsthand the benefit of imprinting specific experiences onto a young puppy. On the other hand, I have also witnessed the the consequences of waiting until a dog is much older to train or introduce a very important concept to no avail. Just like humans, the learning process for a dog becomes more challenging as they age, causing a dog to be a bit less malleable in developing skills. This is not to say “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” as the saying goes, but it is no secret that puppies will pick up new information quickly from an early age, whether you are trying to teach them or not.
Something important to understand when raising a dog is that a puppy is not the equivalent of a infant human baby. Although they require almost as much time and effort on the part of raising them, failing to treat a dog like an animal sets an off-balance tone to the puppy from an early age. Remember that dogs age much faster than children and should be considered “toddlers” as early as three months of age who should have boundaries and expectations enforced. Skills like walking, playing, and sleeping alone overnight are essentials in developing confidence in a puppy and are all skills that can be learned early in life.
One of the most harmful things you can do to a puppy’s upbringing is carry it through new experiences instead of encouraging it to follow you. While it is our job to protect it and make it feel safe, it is also our job to teach it how to deal with stress and experiences it may not be comfortable with initially. In raising puppies, I always find the first lesson in teaching stairs is the most beneficial to building a good relationship in trust and respect of expectation. Set a small goal for the puppy that you know the dog can accomplish and bring something positive to the lesson, such as their kibble and your praise. Guiding the puppy through a small victory allows them to see you as a leader and that you will never ask it to complete a task it is incapable of accomplishing.
I’ve found that the vast majority of the dog community agrees on the importance of socializing pet dogs, specifically young puppies. From seven weeks onward, a puppy’s most important social experiences should come from other dogs and a variety of people. Making these experiences rewarding with lots of structure, praise, or food is also very important. Watch the puppy’s body language and be aware of what they need in the moment. A shy puppy might need more space along with coaching to get through a stressful social experience, while an overconfident puppy may need more structure to be successful. Exposing a puppy to social experiences you would like it to encounter as an adult is the way to creating a dog-friendly lifestyle for the two of you as a team.
Something people might not realize about puppies is that the behaviors they learn during as early as 7 to 16 weeks of age will imprint on them and continue to resurface over time in adulthood. Once a behavior is imprinted on a dog, it is possible to train an alternative behavior to counteract it, however, that is an added step which can be eliminated if the dog is trained from an early age. The rule of thumb I use in training is to imagine the puppy as an adult dog and decide if the behavior is something you will approve of over time. If a puppy is allowed to jump up to greet guests, it is difficult for them to realize A dog does not realize what size is appropriate for jumping on people and will only continue to jump on people as a habit learned in puppyhood.
Introduction to different kinds of rewards and extending a puppy’s mental endurance between rewards is also a very useful concept to introduce at an early age. While treats are usually a person’s go-to for training, this may not be a sustainable way of training throughout a dog’s entire life. Getting a dog accustomed to viewing lots of things as rewards, such as praise, toys, or bones in exchange for a favorable behavior will allow the dog to understand those as just as valuable as treats in the long run, making training more dynamic and accessible in everyday life. Equally as useful is teaching a puppy how to be patient and not expect constant reward when you are busy. Teaching not only “down” but “stay” as well will be very useful in your future if you need your dog to function as a co-pilot throughout your life, because there will be many times traveling throughout life with your dog that you will need it to lie relaxed at your side.
As cute, loving, and cuddly as puppies may be, allowing them to mature and flourish on their own is the only way a puppy can develop normally, both mentally and physically. Independence, confidence, and adherence to expectation are all characteristics that will create the balanced dog everyone dreams of. Creating an easy and sheltered life for a puppy will not allow for a dog to learn how to deal with the stresses of life and overcome them before the dog lacks enough confidence to learn any differently. A puppy can never have too much mental nourishment and challenge; two essentials need to imprint learning experiences with you as both their leader and protector for a lifetime.