Tag Archives: puppy care

Rethinking Puppy Socialization

New puppy owners and breeders sending puppies off to their new homes will both benefit from the information in this excellent blog post by Lisa Mullinax.  Click on the title of the article to visit Lisa’s blog for more training advice!

Sally Gift, Mesa AZ

June 30, 2015

Lisa Mullinax, ACDBC

Why does my dog have a behavior problem?  I TOOK him to puppy class!”

I hear this – or variations of this – a lot.  Like, all the time.  In fact, at least half the dogs in my aggression cases have taken a puppy class.  That’s way up from 10-15 years ago.

While more dog owners are aware of the importance of socialization than they used to be, the complex concept of socialization has been boiled down to almost useless sound bytes.  Online articles give generic advice like “Socialization is very important.  Enroll your puppy in a socialization class.”

I taught puppy classes for many years.  And I can say that even the best puppy class provides only about 5% of the socialization that a new puppy needs.

A puppy class is held in just one environment, with one group of people and one group of puppies. Imagine if a child were only exposed to two places – home and the same classroom – for the first 10 years of their life…they would not be a well-socialized child!  Socialization means exposing a puppy to many novel sights, smells, sounds, and surfaces, in as many different environments as safely possible, ensuring a pleasant experience in those environments, especially for (but not limited to) the first 14 weeks of their life, the critical period of socialization.

Basically, be prepared to come home from work and take your puppy on a safe socialization field trip to a new location every day for the first six weeks in your home.  After that, you can drop it to 2-3 days a week until your puppy is at least 5 months old.  Ideally, until your puppy is past the adolescent stage (approx 18 months old).

Seem extreme? I didn’t say these trips have to last for hours. They can be quick trips to the local grocery store parking lot or even sitting on a local park bench (keeping new puppies off the ground) for 10 minutes before heading home.  But you need to do something new every day.

Or, you know, you could wait 6 months and then spend $900 or more to hire a trainer to help you undo your dog’s leash reactivity or stranger-directed aggression.  Totally your choice.

Socialization prepares your puppy for life in your world, which frequently presents unusual and even scary situations.

What is NOT a socialization program:

  • Breeder/rescue having a lot of dogs

  • Having a “friendly” breed

  • Having a puppy who is already friendly

  • Having other dogs at home

  • Having other people at home

  • Introducing a puppy to one dog

  • Taking a six-week puppy class

Just because your puppy is currently friendly to dogs and people now, in your home, or in one or two environments, does not mean you don’t need to provide the same amount of socialization that a more reserved puppy needs.  Not if you want to ensure that your puppy remains friendly.

The more novel experiences your puppy has which result in a positive, pleasant outcome, the more prepared your puppy will be for his or her future life.

Contrary to popular belief, a puppy does not need to make contact with dogs and people for socialization to occur.   This is why you can still provide socialization without putting your puppy at risk.



  • Carry your puppy into dog-friendly stores (this doesn’t just mean pet stores – you’d be surprised at how many banks and non-dog retail stores are willing to help a responsible owner with socialization).

  • Be generous with rewards.  Cheese. Hot dogs.  Small little tasty bits of meaty, cheesy goodness that accompanies all new and potentially scary experiences.  No, your puppy isn’t going to get fat.

  • Watch new people from a distance – overly-exuberant puppies can learn that they don’t get to greet everyone just because they want to (impulse control – important life skill), and shy puppies can learn that the appearance of strangers does not mean a scary encounter.

  • Carry your puppy into the vet for non-vaccination visits, and the groomer (if your dog will require grooming) for a quick treat without the shampoo.

  • Expose your puppy to other dogs…from your car: Sit in the parking lot of the dog park and let your puppy watch the dogs come and go.

  • Fill a kiddie pool with water bottles, boxes, and other strange objects and let your puppy explore…then repeat this in different areas of your house, in your yard, even on your front porch (if you can safely contain your puppy and prevent him/her from getting on the front lawn).

  • Buy a fun playset with tunnels and tents from your local toy store.  Fill the tunnels with toys and treats to encourage your puppy to explore.


  • DON’T ever force your puppy to approach, enter, or interact with anything that they aren’t willingly approaching, entering, or interacting with.  EVER.  Shy puppies sometimes need multiple approaches to work up the courage to interact.  Don’t force it.  If you do, I might just show up on your porch and squirt you in the face with a water bottle.  No!  Bad puppy owner!

  • DON’T place your puppy on dirt or grass in public areas or in back yards where friends/family have lived for less than two years. That’s because viruses like Parvo can live in the soil for that long.

  • DON’T take your puppy to the dog park until they are at least 5-6 months old and have already been socialized to a variety of other dogs.  Dog parks are for socialized dogs, not for socialization.  Being charged, swarmed, knocked over, humped, and generally terrorized is definitely not a positive experience.

  • DON’T let well-meaning strangers overwhelm your puppy with enthusiastic greetings, invasive handling, or their own, special form of training that they claim to have gleaned from dog ownership.

  • DON’T let your puppy meet strange dogs you encounter in public unless you are prepared to embark on a significant behavior modification program.  Relying on a complete stranger to be honest and objective about their dog’s behavior is gambling with your puppy’s safety.

  • DON’T let your friendly puppy get away with murder in the name of socializaation. Part of socialization is learning how to interact with the world.  For confident, friendly puppies, that also means learning good manners around strangers and strange dogs.  Allowing a friendly puppy to treat the world like his mosh pit when he is little is going to make life super fun when he’s 60 lbs.

The best socialization program starts at the breeder or foster home, who introduces puppies to new sights, sounds, surfaces, and smells long before they come home with you.  This breeder provides a fun play area for her puppies:


Starting around 5 months of age, your puppy is going to freak out a little.  Part of this is normal adolescent behavior (oh, and has anyone told you that this is when teething really starts?), but adolescent dogs go through multiple and brief fear periods.  During this time, you’re going to need to renew your socialization efforts.

Here’s the key:  Listen to your dog.  If something is scaring your adolescent dog, the fear is very real to them.  Don’t force the issue just because you know it’s just a statue or garbage can.  Give your dog the distance they need to feel safe, then reintroduce the scary thing from a distance, accompanied by LOTS of great things.  This is where a good trainer can help you.  The goal here is for your dog to learn that a) scary things usually aren’t as bad as they seem and bravery is always rewarded, and b) they can trust you to keep them safe.


Waiting until a puppy has received a full set of vaccinations to begin a socialization program is too little, too late! Socialization begins on Day 1 with you.  The first 8 weeks in your home should be devoted to teaching important life skills that you only get one chance to get right.

Don’t worry about “obedience” training right away, outside of a good name response and recall. A solid down-stay is not going to make for drama-free nail trims or prevent your dog from biting strangers.

Could you skip all this work and still end up with a happy, well-adjusted pet?  Maybe.  But that’s a big – and expensive – risk to take with a 15+ year commitment.

Could you do all this work and still end up with a dog with a behavior problem?  Maybe.  There are a lot of other factors that contribute to aggressive behavior, including genetics (trainers can’t fix your dog’s DNA) and learning history (if a trainer tells you to yank on your dog’s pinch collar every time he sees another dog, he’s got a really good chance of getting cranky when he sees other dogs).

Dog behavior is about risk assessment and management. My recommendations to my clients are designed to minimize the risk that their dog will develop a behavior problem in the future.  There are no guarantees – behavior is not static, it changes and adapts depending on the dog’s needs. Your job is to reduce the odds that your puppy’s behavior changes for the worse.

By doing all this work, you significantly minimize the risk that your dog will develop a problem that could jeopardize his success in your home…or even his life.  If this seems like more work than you can handle, you might not be ready for a puppy.  Check out your local shelter for a nice 4+ year-old dog.  There are no longevity guarantees no matter what age dog you get, so you may as well pick a dog who fits your lifestyle now.  10 years with the right dog for your lifestyle is far better than 15 years with one who doesn’t.

Finally, if your puppy’s veterinarian insists that your puppy stay indoors until they are “fully vaccinated,” find a new veterinarian who is up-to-date on the importance of puppy socialization.

And if a veterinarian or a member of their staff tells you that you must physically manhandle, pin, roll, or shake your puppy to establish dominance, pick up your puppy and RUN out of that office as fast as you can!

Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your Gordon grow?

…how does your Gordon grow- or – do you know how to prevent injury and bone disease in your Gordon Setter puppy?

Chester in Red Coat MV
Photo courtesy of Paul Doherty

Whether you’re growing plants or Gordon Setter puppies they both have similar needs, a proper environment in which to grow and balanced nutrients. “Wait for him to mature, he’s still young” or  “my dogs mature slow, you’ve got to give them time.” what does that mean? Do we understand how the puppy grows and matures? You see, it isn’t about how grown up or mature the puppy appears on the outside, instead we need to realize that what lies beneath the skin, his skeleton, may not be as mature as you might think simply by looking at his outside.

Today let’s talk about the puppy’s growth on the inside, the skeletal foundation upon which all else is built. We breeders, owners and exhibitors, we need to understand and be aware of what’s going on inside that gorgeous new puppy so we can make sure we’re taking the best possible care of his bones. We need to know how we can avoid injury and bone disease, as the wrong exercise or nutrition may contribute to either of these.

I’m not going to write you a book about this, that could get boring fast, but what I will do is to share some thoughts with you, along with resource links to make it easy for you to teach yourself, or to simply refresh your memory if you’ve studied this before. As a serious and responsible breeder and owner, I know that you , like me, want to know as much as you can about raising a healthy puppy. And, if you’re breeding you’ll want to share some pointers with your new puppy owners  so they too grow their puppy up right.

Growth Rate closure diagram
Growth Plate Chart

This chart shows the approximate age at which individual growth plates close. But, since growth plate closure is not an exact science and as all breeds vary, what this truly teaches is that growth plates close at varied times and sometimes within a large spread in the time-frame, the result being that we cannot judge, simply by looking at the pup or knowing his age, whether he is still growing and maturing. For example the distal radial epiphysis (say that fast 10 times in a row can you?) closes between 4.5 and 17 months – that’s a timing spread of over a year. Here is a link to a table at Provet Health Care that gives the average age of closure in days just to give you another reference. So, what is a growth plate and why does it matter?  Very simply put, the leg bones of your Gordon Setter puppy have soft areas of immature bone located at the ends of the bones, these are called growth plates. The diagram above identifies the areas and their names. Growth plates stay soft and pliable, some closing earlier than others, until our puppy reaches approximately 18 – 24 months old at which time calcium and minerals should have hardened the soft areas of the bone. After the bones harden dogs typically stop growing and the growth plates close.

“Taking the new puppy home” by Laurie Ward

What is vital for us to understand is that before the bones have completely matured, the area in and around the growth plate can be easily injured or fractured. (Click here to go to Google images of growth plate injuries.) High impact activities and pretty much any hard play, even something as simple as jumping down off a grooming table might cause your puppy’s bone to cease growing or to possibly grow the wrong way. If you’re breeding puppies you may want to share some advice with your puppy owners about proper exercise for the large breed puppy, many website articles can be found like this one at Puppies 4 Homes Puppy Exercise and Growth. On the Family Education website you’ll find Exercising Growing Puppies and on VetStreet is another article for runners  How to run with your dog the right way.  

Developmental Orthopedic Disease (DOD) a thing we all want to avoid while raising our Gordon Setter puppy. The most critical period for the initiation of DOD occurs during early bone growth when the skeletal system is most susceptible to physical, nutritional and metabolic insults because of increased metabolic activity. Large breeds like the Gordon Setter are susceptible because of their genetic potential for rapid growth and we should remember that a Familial history may be a predisposing factor for DOD. We can help prevent some skeletal diseases by appropriately feeding diets with optimized nutrients, however the biggest potential for harm comes from owners who over feed their puppy, or who improperly supplement. Maintaining proper weight especially during the puppy’s growth period is one of the most important things we can do for their development, keeping the puppy neither too thin nor too heavy. That roly poly puppy is at a high risk of injury and disease so maintaining proper weight is paramount.

I’ve covered only the basics here as there is more detailed information available on the web about growth plates, growth plate injuries and bone diseases. Following this article you’ll find links for some of the sites I found informational. For now I’m going to bring this article to a close. This is the place where I remind my expert friends to chime in to add information, clarification or correction to the material I’ve written. Please feel free to jump in, write an additional article, add information by comments in the comment section or send me an email at gordonsetterexpert@gmail.com and I’ll publish the material for you. Thanks so much everyone, I do hope you found something of value here!  Sally Gift, Mesa AZ

Talk to the paw
“Talk to the Paw” by Laurie Ward

Resource links for more information on growth plate injuries and bone diseases: Link to an excellent article at DVM 360 that includes material about nutrition and Developmental Orthopedic Disease (DOD)

The Merck Manual Pet Health Edition link to bone diseases

You may also enjoy this newly published blog here on Gordon Setter Expert – Appropriate Exercise Gordon Setter Puppies.