In previous posts, I’ve mentioned some of the tasks I’d like to teach a new Great Dane service dog. That’s the long term view though, since a puppy has to be comfortable enough in various environments to actually be focused enough to do those tasks.
So yes, I begin at 8 weeks laying foundations for tasks, such as tugging on towels to open something or positioning the pup for a future brace front. But my main focus at 9 weeks on has to be what’s called “socializing” in public and stimulating intelligence at home.
To humans, socializing means a party or hangin with friends. Not for puppies. Pups are “socialized” by exposure to sounds and smells, people, animals, and activities outside the usual home environment. The younger they encounter these stimuli, the more easily they adjust and stay comfortable with them.
I’ve got a page to the right about socializing a puppy, and to summarize, start by building their confidence and curiosity in the smaller and quieter places and gradually build up to bigger and busier places. Meet every sort of person, place, and thing you can! But try to get as much in as you possibly can by 16 weeks.
And sign up right away for a puppy socializing class with a reputable dog trainer. They have to have doggie manners and people meeting manners. Very good manners, if not better than most any other dog if you are taking them places where other dogs won’t be allowed.
For a potential service dog, (or therapy dog too), that socializing is vastly more extensive. After all, how many companion pets are going to take a city bus? Or sit through a concert? Even go on a plane?
Have a plan if you have a purpose, though!
There are places I go frequently, places I go sometimes, and places I don’t go but would like to. There are more sounds, smells, sights, and such going on around us than we humans notice. I need to have thought about what those stimuli are in a place, and how intense they are too.
A grocery store is a really big outing for a little SD candidate. Prepare them a little through taping and playing it’s sounds at home, such as the rattling carts and beeps from the cashier’s scanner. Let them go with you into the pantry and check out all the rows of cans, boxes, bags, and onions.
Teaching them the names of things they will encounter in the store, (the stuff in your pantry), or walking around low obstacles, even looking at shelves as you walk by to “find” something, also helps a pup see something familiar and have some idea of what they can do in that environment.
Next I might take the pup to the parking lot to “meet” the rattling cart in person, and see that it moves, too. I’ll be having that pup nosing around in my grocery bags before he goes inside the store to find and buy with me.
Then when I think a little tots is ready, it won’t be the giant Wal-Mart or Price Cutter we go to first: it will be a small mom-n-pop. A convenience store is a good alternative, as it has a small number of aisles, and limited types of groceries. Then it’s a naming and “find it” game!
At this 9-16 week age I want them to encounter and interact with people and objects, so I don’t really start any “ignoring” practice for real yet. Just when we’re walking, they don’t get to wander here and there to meet and mess with stuff. When we stop, we meet and mess with stuff.
Taking a puppy to first watch the goings on in the park, with all the outdoor smells, and the running of children, the cars going by etc can be a bigger outing than we might think. We don’t notice every sound, sight, smell, and soccer ball, but a puppy will. All at once. So a first time there I’d pick a week day morning, or less crowded time.
Anything my pup shows interest in will get checked out: what’s it called, what’s it do, what’s it smell like? Do little toddlers pet too hard, or babies crawling mean he lays down? Swing sets swing! Some areas have grass, some have sand, some have bark mulch, some are concrete.
A startle response is okay, but coaxing them out of it to go investigate is what I do. “Soothing” a spooked puppy only reinforces that spook. A service dog in particular must be able to recompose themselves, to refocus, and figure out.
A couple big keys to making a socializing experience is you’re attitude, and matching the reinforcement to the wanted behavior. If you’re in a hurry, don’t have time to linger, or cannot just up and leave if the experience is too much for a pup, don’t go. Pick another time.
If you are looking forward to enjoying watching that new toddles discover what an elevator does, they’ll be primed to think maybe this could be fun. Matching the reward isn’t as hard to do as it is to explain either: the bigger, newer, or more potentially scary something is, that’s when you bring out the seriously good stuff and don’t be stingy with it.
Had a Dane that loved garlic bread, one who liked peach ice cream, another that would stand on his head for chinese chicken. Kenai loved butter of all things. Whatever it takes!
As experiences become accepted by the pup, the less of their favorite killer good stuff they get, and the less often they get it.
By the end of 9 weeks old, we are going on at least 2 small outings a day, or one sorta bigger one if they are showing themselves to be confident. Each week, I try to increase the number, the length, and the intensity of their new experiences.
That’s when having a good clicker trainer to take them out once or twice a week without me, to THOSE places is invaluable. There are places, sounds, crowds, etc that give me big anxiety or balance problems. So I will gladly pay to have a trained pro take my new puppy there for me. I’d rather spend the money on their socializing than even the difficult task training later.
If you trust your spouse, friends, or older kids to be good at watching and socializing the puppy, that’s great! Send them off (and hope they tell you more about it than “it was fine” *grin*). The more people they get used to, learn to adjust to, the better!