Health Topics

Socializing a New Pet

(This article was originally published in the May / June 2012 Issue of Pets Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

By: Dr. Dieter Kohlmaier, DVM - Westoak Animal Hospital in Oakville, ON

I thoroughly enjoy meeting new puppies and kittens - and their owners - during their first visit to my practice. This meeting provides me the opportunity to have a profound impact on the long-term well-being of the animal, and the quality of its relationship with its new parents, by educating owners about socializations and conditioning.

In my favourite analogy, puppies and kittens are like a ball of clay, and the owners are potters. The clay, like the young pet, can be worked with and moulded at will. As it ages, however, it begins to harden, and becomes more difficult to change.

Such is the case with young pets and how they become well adjusted in their world. We often hear the discussion of nature versus nurture. 'Nature' is the genetically predetermined behaviour with which each living being is born. 'Nurture' comprises the outside influences on the animal that help shape it into to the kind of pet it becomes - in essence, its personality. As pet owners, we can have little impact on nature, but we can influence our pets' personalities by how we shape their behaviour in the early stages of life. The critical window of opportunity to get things started off on the right paw is between eight and twenty weeks of age.

There are three factors affecting behaviour and socialization that we need to consider when conditioning our pets - namely other animals (people included), places and things. It is important to note that when conditioning a pet to something or someone new, the experience needs to be positive. For instance, if your pet's first exposure to a vacuum cleaner comes from your turning it on while they are asleep nearby, he will likely not respond favourably to it in the future.

Properly socializing your pet to interact with people is the most valuable thing you can do for them. After bringing home your puppy or kitten, they will quickly bond to your immediate family members. It is important to introduce your pet to as many individuals as possible during the short window of opportunity I've mentioned. If you don't have small children, you can take your pet to the local playground, or invite children to come play with him. You must supervise this interaction and ensure that the experience is positive. Mean can sometimes be intimidating to submissive puppies, and are therefore an important group to consider making contact with.

Check with your veterinarian before you begin to socialize your pet with other animals, as the best time to do this will depend on immunizations your pet will have received. You can decide which, if any, animals you wish to expose your pet to. Consider that, if you plan on getting a dog in the future, it may be wise to have your kitten socialized with a cat-friendly dog while it is young. Cats that are not exposed to dogs as kittens will often develop very fearful, and sometimes aggressive, attitudes towards them.

All puppies should be conditioned to other dogs. This includes both males and females of different sizes, shapes and colours. Again, you must ensure that the experience is positive - make sure that the other dogs are reliably friendly towards puppies.

There are many different places that puppies and kittens will want and need to go, so it is wise to expose them while they are still young. Most important is your veterinarian's office. Consider visiting your veterinarian on days where your pet will not receive any needles or treatments - if the visits are pleasant, they will come to enjoy the environment. If you plan to make trips with your pet, take them for frequent car rides to help them overcome fears associated with being in a car. If you envision having your pet professionally groomed, or boarding them at a professional facility, you should also pay 'pre-visits' to those places, as well.

Your pet must become accustomed to common household items and other things with which they will commonly come into contact. These include noise-makers such as the vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, cars, traffic, fireworks and thunder. Other items, such as brooms, knapsacks and even grocery bags, can frighten some pets if they aren't taught not to fear them. For the noise-makers, you should begin exposing pets at a distance when the volume is low, and gradually get closer where the noise level is louder, until they become accustomed to the experience. Your veterinarian can recommend other techniques to help you socialize your pet at an early age. It will pay huge dividends for the rest of their life.