Several times a day I hear from owners of newly adopted or re-homed pets that their animals must have histories of abuse because they are afraid—of men, of the door opening, of teenagers or even something as simple as the sound of their owner rustling the newspaper pages while reading. The list of what can set off a fear response seems nearly endless. Why are so many pets fearful? I urge owners to think of an explanation that is a much more likely option than abuse: The majority of dogs and cats are vastly under-socialized during the period of their lives in which they are most open and willing to accept new experiences and learn to deal with change.
From about 3 weeks to 3 months of age, puppies and kittens are quite open to exploring their worlds. The sights, sounds, and experiences they have during this time make impressions that will stay with them for a lifetime. Behaviorists call this age the socialization period. Think about what happens to many puppies and kittens during this time. Early on, their eyes and ears have just opened. They begin actively exploring their surroundings. The people in their lives, other pets in the house, their littermates and all of the sights and sounds they encounter are accepted as normal. They begin to form bonds with the people and animals around them.
If you’ve been around puppies and kittens during this period, you’ve likely seen their dramatic startle response. Kittens at play will sneak up on each other, jump out, scare each other and then quickly recover. Both puppies and kittens startle easily at this age, but they quickly redirect their attention.
It is important during this time to socialize young animals to anything they are likely to encounter later in life. The list is endless, but it should include the car, bikes, other species of animals and not only men but also but men with hats, men with beards, men of different skin colors and men with glasses. For years, we encouraged owners not to take their puppies out into public until they were fully vaccinated. Puppies and kittens aren’t considered fully vaccinated until they are 16 weeks old. This is beyond the critical socialization period. We now recognize behavior problems as one of the leading reasons dogs and cats are surrendered to shelters. For that reason, veterinarians have dramatically changed their thinking. We now recommend that owners get their puppies or kittens vaccinated at the appropriate ages but also take them out in public and assimilate them into as many new situations as is safely possible.
High-risk areas such as pet stores and the dog park should be avoided. But play dates with other well-behaved, vaccinated pets are encouraged. In fact, owners should make aggressive attempts at socialization during this critical window for dogs and cats. Owner also should know that natural variations exist among breeds, and individual personalities will always make one animal more accepting over another. If you’ve missed the socialization period with your pet, it doesn’t mean it can’t be trained to accept new experiences. You simply have a little more work to do. With patience and coaching, you always can desensitize your dog or cat to situations that cause fear.