It would be impossible to over emphasize the importance of puppy socialization. As with any animal (humans included!), if socialization is not adequate in the formative months/years, the animal will grow up lacking confidence and self-assuredness. In dogs this can often lead to fear biting or a growly, snappy or wimpy dog. So if at all possible – get your puppy to a reputable puppy class as early as possible.
The importance of puppy training or socialization was recognized in the early 1970’s. Various veterinarians and animal behaviourists have stressed the importance of exposing young puppies to different stimuli in order to prepare them for later life. Behaviourists such as Dr Roger Mugford, Dr Peter Neville and Dr Ian Fisher have produced books and videos on the topic. And Dr Dunbar produced a video in 1987 entitled “Sirius Puppy Training”, which has been widely acclaimed throughout the world.
At the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress held in Durban in 1994, Dr Ian Dunbar made the following comments: “ill mannered (uneducated) and unsocialised pets generally have very short life expectancies …”. He suggested that veterinarians hold “Puppy Parties”, at which owners and puppies could meet and learn from one another. He goes on to state that “over 60% of puppies grow up in homes without children and are highly likely to become wary of children unless given adequate opportunity for friendly encounters at an early age. Similarly, between 4-5 months of age, puppies tend to become shy of strangers, especially men. Puppy parties provide a wonderful forum for pups to receive numerous treats from a variety of strangers”. (It should be noted that Dr Dunbar is a veterinarian living in America, and the statistics mentioned above are therefore related to his own country).
Most clubs take puppies from 8 weeks of age, provided that they have had at least one inoculation. It really depends on the nature of the puppy and its inherent characteristics as to when it is time to move the puppy on to a more demanding environment, such as a more formal obedience class. Certain breeds are more susceptible to viruses such as Parvo than other breeds. For these (which include the Rottweiler, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Dobermann, etc.) I would strongly recommend that rather than wait until the puppy is 6 months old before introducing it to the world at large for the first time, you ask your veterinarian for an extra Parvo inoculation. (I do this routinely with my own puppies, as I like to start taking them to shows and friends houses from 9 weeks onwards).
Puppy classes teach the pups basic manners and make them more acceptable living companions. They learn that other breeds of dogs exist (providing, of course, that you don’t take the pup to a so-called “specialist” breed club, which only allows one breed), which in turn helps them to cope with their first show where they are suddenly surrounded by all sorts of smells and different looking dogs. If your puppy is not destined to enter the show ring, the classes will also benefit it. And who knows – you might develop an interest in one of the working disciplines.
Most dog schools try to expose the puppies to a wide variety of situations such that they might come across in later years. For example, a visit to the veterinarian. Puppies learn to keep still whilst their ears and teeth are examined, whilst their temperatures are taken and their nails cut. They learn to walk on different surfaces and are exposed to different sounds and smells. Children and old folk are generally encouraged to participate so that the puppies get used to seeing people who walk in different ways. Umbrellas and suitcases etc. are “explained” to them. They learn to hold and carry a variety of different obstacles in preparation for later competitions. They learn about bite inhibition, and when it is acceptable to romp and play, and when it is necessary to lie quietly.
Puppy classes benefit the handler as much as the dog. I can’t tell you how many people who have said they wished they’d trained a dog before having had children! Both puppy and handler learn mutual respect. They learn to read each other’s body language and can therefore anticipate problems before they occur. As all teachers know, positive reinforcement is far, far more effective than negativity. So if you can pre-empt a problem and redirect the behaviour before it becomes unacceptable, you do away with the necessity (and in fact the desire) to punish the puppy. This in turn leads to a more harmonious environment, and a more relaxed puppy and handler. So if you want to live at ease with your family and puppy, make sure that it gets properly socialized from an early age. Believe me, you won’t regret it!!