Nature and Nurture combine to make great pets



The puppies rolled and chased and tumbled over each other in mock battle. A squeal here and there, a tiny growl as two pups wrestled with a soft toy, a yip as an ear got bit or a pup stepped on a littermate.

The breeder watched, gently moving a bullying pup away from its squealing sibling, introducing a new toy to a stand-offish pup, and encouraging each pup in turn to come to her for a treat or a belly rub.

Yesterday the pups were introduced to puddles on the sidewalk and a stiff breeze that pushed the rain clouds far to the east. Today they were enjoying the sun; tomorrow they’d take their first ride to the veterinary clinic for vaccinations, and a few days later they’d get their first grooming lesson.

Before long, potential buyers would arrive to visit the pups and make a final decision about which one to take home – if the breeder and the family agreed on which pup (if any) was suitable for their circumstances. Within days, each pup would go to a new home, meet new people and other pets, walk on new surfaces, and experience a whole new world of surprises and adventures. Within weeks, the pup would have all of its vaccinations and head off to puppy kindergarten class.

This initial period of puppy handling and training is known as “socialization.” While it makes good sense to provide such stimulation and limits on an animal that must blend into a cross-species (human and canine) family, “socialization” has taken on a mystique that goes far beyond this simple principle. Some experts blame every behavior problem on “lack of socialization” and exhort new puppy owners to socialize their puppies to avoid behavior problems. But socializing is simply shorthand for learning how to get along with people and other animals in a variety of circumstances that benefit the human-canine association.

A good foundation

Dogs are social creatures genetically designed to operate in a pack for maximum opportunity to survive. Descended from wolves, they maintain highly-evolved patterns of behavior that help them fit into a human or dog family, but those behaviors must be triggered and nurtured in order to fully develop.

In the wild, wolf mothers teach their cubs to submit to more powerful pack members and to hunt for food. Cubs leave the den, romp together and with other pack members, and experience extremes of weather and variations of terrain. A wolf’s life involves limited contact with other animals, however; after the hunt, the pack plays and sleeps together, but there is no need for them to cope with interspecies communication and adjust to a broad and expanding set of experiences that confront dogs every day. Therefore, an early period of teaching puppies how to learn and survive in their environment – also known as socialization – is critical to building the bond between human and dog and assuring that the dog becomes comfortable in his surroundings.

Thoughtful breeders begin the process by handling puppies from the moment they are born. They weigh each pup in a baby scale, move them gently when cleaning the whelping box, provide blankets of different textures as padding, and make sure every puppy has an equal opportunity to nurse. As the weeks go by and the pups can see, hear, and get around, breeders expose them to normal household sounds, music, different surfaces and temperatures, a variety of toys, and people and accustom them to a daily routine that involves outside exercise time, a bit of grooming on a table, playtime that increases interaction with human family members, short trips in the car, and other experiences.

Since dogs are already social animals, we don’t need to teach them to interact with other dogs unless they were denied opportunities to play with littermates and Mom as puppies and have become fearful or aggressive as a result.

As social animals, dogs are programmed to interact with people as well, but they also need opportunities to do so as young puppies. Dogs of the guardian and other breeds that are aloof and suspicious of strangers need more such occasions than dogs developed to serve as companions to avoid behavior that is over-protective or aggressive. Terriers and high-drive dogs of a feisty nature can be more difficult to socialize in families with small children and those with a sedate lifestyle. Individual dogs that are shy or fearful also need additional attention to help them adapt to family life.

Unless a puppy is very shy or fearful, this introduction to life among humans should suffice as a foundation for a career as a pet, show dog, or working dog. However, it is only a foundation; the puppy buyer must follow-up with more learning opportunities, including broader exposure to the world, introduction of limits on unacceptable behaviors, and training for good manners at home and abroad.

Life is different for each dog owner, so the socialization of each dog is an individual matter once the dog goes home. A dog living in a family with small children must learn to cope with the sounds and motions of child play and the visits of other children without fear or over-reaction. A dog living with elderly family members must learn not to get underfoot. A dog with a future as a service dog must be accustomed to the sights, sounds, and confusion of life in the public eye. A dog that will compete in conformation, obedience, or other contests must get along well with other dogs and learn to handle the noise and crowds at indoor and outdoor dog shows.


Puppy buyers can make socialization easier by

Norma Bennett Woolf

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