One blogger I just discovered made a great statement on her blog (Girls Who Wear Glasses) yesterday. OK, I wear glasses too so perhaps I just like her for her style. Nevertheless, her post was a well delivered (if exasperated) sermon on the stress of socialization—her puppy’s…and hers.

Years ago, a new pup was cause for celebration. New parents armed themselves with a collar, leash, food bowls and lots of patience for the housebreaking ahead.

In 2006, raising a new pup is often cause for consternation. It has, for some overwhelmed new owners, become an undertaking as rife with stress and moral ambiguity as raising a [human] baby. Parents are scolded for feeding X according to one source then admonished for not doing so in another, for using a leash before X versus Y weeks, for using or not using a crate, for housebreaking in X versus Y manner, etc. With so much conflicting information out there, what is a new pup parent to do?

One common source of distress, which our Glasses Girl bemoaned in her post, is the strict requirement to socialize a pup through a wide variety of means, lest it miss out on the small window of social development pertaining to the acceptance of people, places and things (and other dogs, of course).

Throughout her post, our dear writer expressed frustration with the obvious incongruencies inherent in socializing an animal when she herself lacks the selfsame skills. How do you socialize a pup when you know few people and even fewer dogs? How does one accomplish for another what one could never achieve for oneself? And how is said socialization even tenable when your vet (and every other expert and pseudo-expert) has put the fear of God into you on the subject of never allowing your pup’s feet to touch the unclean earth until it’s thoroughly vaccinated? Conundrums, indeed.

First, let’s address the less metaphysical aspects of her socialization dilemma, as socialization is not a complex concept and need not be a complex process. The idea is that a pup should (ideally) meet as many new people, places, things and other pets as possible while he is developing his [as yet moldable] personality. This tends to yield a pup with fewer fears and aggression triggers. The goal is a happy, well-adjusted good citizen with nary an aggressive bone in his little body.

Until social maturity, which occurs at around two years of age for most dogs, socialization is widely considered an excellent policy. According to most animal behaviorists, the earlier a pup is exposed to new things the less stress will come of interacting with them later. A high frequency of positive interaction further diminishes the possibility that they will interact adversely or unsafely. Early and often. Simple.

The process need not be cause for stress. It becomes so only when we listen to blanket assertions about how many interactions are necessary and how a checklist of situations need be addressed (one wheelchair interaction, one giant breed interaction, one woman-with-a-purple-hat interaction, etc.). When it comes to animal behavior (just as in raising a baby), hard and fast rules need not apply. Socialization, in particular, should be achieved in the context of a pet owner’s lifestyle with an eye towards safety first.

To this end, a new parent’s job is to expose the pup to situations their lifestyle might present. A total recluse, for example, has less cause for forcing their dog to interact with hundreds of different people. Someone who has no children and never comes in contact with them has no pressing need to demand their dog interact with them (though it`s still a good idea). If you live in NYC, however, your socialization job might be a bigger undertaking—but infinitely easier to achieve as it’s impossible not to see hundreds of people every day while taking your pup out in public.

No matter how much we socialize our pups, don’t expect your pup will always play well with others or remain relaxed in every situation. Some dogs will never reach a state where they’re comfortable and happy in new places with new people or other dogs. And no dog is ever 100% safe around others—they’re still dogs and, as such, they will always have their own mysterious quirks we’ll never quite understand.

This brings me to the health quandary. Most vets and dog care experts warn explicitly against having your pup interact with other dogs (or touch the ground) until she has received her entire series of pup shots. IMHO, this should only apply to cavorting with dogs of unknown health and vaccination status. The puppy park, for example, is no place for a pup younger than four months old. Who knows where the adult dog noses have been? And whether their owners are diligent about their pets` basic healthcare.

A few rules of thumb apply:

  • Keep your pup far away from unhealthy-looking dogs (diarrhea, coughing and sneezing are particularly problematic).
  • If you know a dog has recently been to a kennel or dog show, keep your pup away for at least two weeks.
  • A very young or very small pup should be steered away from common areas where dogs deposit their feces. Viruses can live a long time in these spots and it only takes one good unhygienic sniff or step to transmit parvovirus.
  • Know your play-buddies` parents. Your pup doesn’t need a full round of shots to play with healthy dogs you know are vaccinated and well cared for.
  • Stay away from dogs who don’t react well to pups. A parent knows. Ask first.
  • And finally, if your own pup is recovering from a bug, PLEASE don’t take him out and about in other dogs` company. The golden rule applies here.
  • After four months your pup is fully vaccinated and big enough to play with a wider variety of friends. Bigger = less likely to become deathly ill if they do happen to catch a bug from a play partner.
  • Is your pup really small? Stay away from the puppy park for at least the first six months—smaller guys are often more at risk for severe disease (not to mention trampling or predatory injury).
  • Your vet knows your dog better than I ever will. Solicit his or her advice.

Now—as to the human socialization component of Glasses Girl’s message. Don’t worry. I, too, get nervous at the puppy park gates. Everyone looks so comfortable and pleased with themselves and their dogs. And just because you’re there doesn’t mean you have to talk to anyone. But when dogs play, human discourse often becomes freer and easier. At the risk of sounding trite, being a dog play bystander can be a spiritual experience at times. Give it a try.

Like you, I often do a better job of making friends online than in my real life. But if your pup wants some real-dog play, consider taking the plunge. Even if you don’t, you’ll surely enjoy your pup and he’ll enjoy you—a pack of two isn’t such a bad deal.