Socializing young puppies key to their development
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By Mickey Zeldes  August 22, 2014 12:00 am

We recently received in a stray pup that was only about 6 weeks old. Besides the obvious question of how did such a young and tiny puppy (it was a pit bull but still quite small) manage to wander away unnoticed (he wasn’t abandoned, as the owner actually did come in and redeem the pup), is the bigger question of why was such a young dog away from her mother in the first place.

The owner said she got the puppy from a responsible breeder. I have to disagree. First, there is nothing responsible about breeding pit bulls right now when the shelters are bursting full with them. And second, no responsible breeder would separate the little ones from the mom that young. People who do that are setting up the puppy for difficulties later in life. Besides the health benefits of continuing to get antibodies from the mother’s milk (assuming, of course, that she is a vaccinated, healthy dog), there are very important social skills that are learned from the mom and even more from the littermates. When puppies play together they learn bite inhibition and how to understand canine communication, which helps them learn about their place in doggy society – all essential skills for a well-socialized dog.

There are stages that puppies go through, much like children, and damage done during one of those stages, even if unintentional, can have a lifelong effect. During the fear imprint stages (8-12 weeks and again at 8-12 months) anything that frightens the pup can have a lasting result. This same timeframe is also a critical socializing period when the young dog needs to be exposed to new people, animals and experiences in order to be friendly and well socialized. Many people mistakenly assume that a fearful dog has been abused when in reality he was most likely just poorly socialized as a puppy. Once this stage has passed, it can’t be regained. It takes much more work to help an older dog get socialized, and often there are limits in how much improvement can be made.

Dr. Ian Dunbar, a well-known animal behaviorist and founder of Sirius Dog Training, claims that a new puppy should meet 100 new people every week to become completely socialized. That means having a few parties and a lot of sitting at a busy Starbucks’ encouraging passersby to meet and treat, your new fur-baby. You cannot over socialize a new pup but most people simply don’t have the time required and keep saying that they will do it “tomorrow.” Every day that it is put off is a missed opportunity that you can’t get back.

That’s why I worry about this youngster that was taken away from her mom too young. Especially a pit bull that needs all the socializing skills she can get. We sometimes see the opposite problem, too. We also have four identical young dogs that were found stray in the same area (coincidence?). By their lack of social skills and obvious ignorance of what a leash is, we can surmise that they were littermates that were kept in the backyard together and given little attention or training. They are not unfriendly to people but a bit fearful and pee if you pick them up or approach quickly. They fight being on a leash and twirl around like we’re hurting them instead of getting excited and recognizing the signal for a walk. These dogs are great as a “pack” but will take some serious socializing and slow, positive training to get them to be regular pet dogs (anyone willing to take on a foster project? We’re looking for four foster homes for these dogs). So sad, and so preventable! 


Upcoming events: 

• Moonlight Madness Adoption Event, Saturday, Aug. 23: The shelter will stay open until 9 p.m. (doors open at 1 p.m.) and all dogs/cats/rabbits will be available for just $25. Puppies and kittens under 1 year will be just $50.


• Registration is now open for the Mutt Strut. Create your pledge sheet now and help the animals. Know someone who makes and/or sells pet related items or crafts? Still room in our vendor village. Contact the shelter at 584-1582 for details.


Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at

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