Getting a puppy in the winter can be very appealing: holiday puppies can be adorable in photo opts, long chilly nights spent indoors seem like perfect bonding time, and everyone wants to come home to a wiggly, happy puppy after a cold wet day. There is also the appeal of having a well-behaved dog by summer break. What most people don’t realize is how difficult proper socialization can be in the winter months. It seems like common sense that potty training can be more of a hassle in the winter, but most people fail to realize that socialization can be too, and poor socialization can have farther reaching consequences than poor house training.
To define, socialization is the process by which you introduce your puppy to all sorts of dogs, people, and experiences in a positive way to help shape a confident and friendly dog. The key words here are “all sorts” and “positive.” Having people come over to swoon over your new furry addition is not enough. Introducing your puppy to your friend’s nice adult dog is not enough, and most importantly a puppy class is not enough.
Every day, I have clients with reactive or aggressive dogs tell me, “I don’t understand, we went to puppy class.” Puppy class is a fantastic way to get good information from a qualified instructor and introduce your puppy to a controlled group of people and other puppies. However, keep in mind that the people and puppies are the same every session. This means that a class is maybe 10% of the socialization you need to do with your puppy.
But now that it’s cold out, what can you do? In warmer months you are probably more active outdoors and having your puppy tag along is a great way to introduce them to dogs, bikes, people, horses, etc. out in the real world. In the winter, you probably get your exercise in a gym, which is not really the most dog-friendly place. Winter puppies need planned socialization outings, which means you need to have a plan.
One common recommendation is to visit a new place every evening until your puppy is 16 weeks old (birth to 16 weeks is a critical developmental period). This may sounds horribly stressful and tedious but these outings do not need to be long; a simple ten minute trip to the post office or to a local playground can suffice. Even if there are no kids playing, though even in the coldest weather there are usually a few bundled toddlers at the playground, the act of getting in the car and going somewhere new and seeing new things like monkey bars is a worthwhile trip.
Never force a puppy to approach a person or dog, especially if they seem uncomfortable or even over-excited, but you’d be surprised how many places will let you carry a dog inside. Banks are a great example. Letting your dog get acclimated to people and dogs at a distance is a great way to expose them while also working on self-control: park near a busy shopping area and feed your puppy for calm, quiet behavior to practice. While you may be tempted to use a local dog park, keep in mind that dog parks are for socialized dogs, not for socialization training.
You can also socialize your puppy to plenty of indoor experiences. Filling a baby pool with balls or empty water bottles is a great way to practice balance and swimming skills when it is just too cold out to practice the real thing. You can also teach your puppy to eat treats or meals on various surfaces in your home, particularly in the sink or on a table if they will need to be groomed in the future. If you know your neighbor has a really friendly and puppy-tolerant dog, you can invite them over for a play date. But even if you do this multiple times, remember that this is only one new dog, so be sure you take your puppy to meet a few more each week. A trip to the pet store for supplies is also a good option.
Getting a new puppy is always a big commitment in time spent training and socializing. Unfortunately, many people do not consider the fact that a winter puppy requires a little more creativity and dedication to properly socialize and an under socialized puppy will do well for a few months, but often leads to behavior problems down the road. If you do choose to get a puppy this winter, please plan to spend a lot of time seeking appropriate venues for socialization and training.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator