By Dr. Erin West, DVM
As a veterinarian, I give a lot of advice. My job is basically giving constant recommendations on all possible topics involving companion animals. So when I say that one the most valuable pieces of advice I can give a pet owner is to socialize their pet, it is a pretty big deal.
The American Veterinary Medical Association defines socialization as “the process of preparing your dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places and activities. Ideally, socialization should begin during the “sensitive period” which is between 3 and 14 weeks of age for puppies, and 3 and 9 weeks of age for kittens.”
So what does that mean, really? The simple answer is that well-socialized animals can more easily adapt to change. They tend to be more relaxed and accepting of big things (like new babies or moving) and small things (like visitors in the home or the new dumpster on the curb). Because of this, they are often a more integral part of their families’ lives, as they are able to go places and interact with new experiences more easily.
Contrast this to poorly-socialized animals, which are often fearful and sometimes reactive or even aggressive towards new situations, people, or animals. They may lunge at other dogs or snarl at strangers, and even little stressors cause a major response.
People often assume that their new rescue dog has been abused, when in the vast majority of cases he or she was actually poorly socialized. Life for these dogs can be rough, because everything is scary. Behavior modification, training, and medications can absolutely help, but the best treatment is to invest in the time and effort to socialize your puppy at the very beginning and hopefully prevent a lot of these problems.
If you have or are planning on bringing home a new puppy or kitten, then do your homework and put in the time- I can promise you won’t regret it. Enroll puppies in puppy socialization classes (many training facilities have free sessions) AND puppy obedience classes to make sure they become good citizens. There are some great resources and books available- I typically recommend the books by Dr. Ian Dunbar and Dr. Sophia Yin as great references. Use positive reinforcement to make new things fun and engaging for your new pet, and get out there and introduce them to the world (but please talk to your vet about vaccinations before letting them interact with other dogs or cats, as it is important to protect puppies and kittens from some serious contagious diseases).
If your dog or cat is past the optimal socialization period, don’t despair! While it is definitely harder after that critical period, it is certainly possible and worthwhile to talk to your veterinarian and your local trainer (or even better, veterinary behaviorist) about ways to help improve your dog or cat’s quality of life and help them be more relaxed in their environments.