Picture this scenario: You’ve enrolled your new Labrador retriever puppy in his first puppy kindergarten class, and in bound two Great Dane puppies. You recognize the respective owners from your child’s class at school, and you’re excited your three families have puppies together. As the first class continues, you notice differences in the two Great Danes. One is outgoing and friendly, and one is much more aloof, and almost fearful. You think that puppies from the same litter having such different personalities is odd, and you wonder what they’ll be like when they grow up. 

As the puppy kindergarten classes progress, the second Great Dane puppy begins to display different behavior. She becomes more like her brother in personality, almost matching his friendly attitude. However, she still has her shy moments where she becomes easily frightened. You overhear the trainer instructing the owners to continue socialization throughout the puppy’s life, to ensure she doesn’t regress back to her early nervous behavior, and you think about dog-breed differences, and how nature and nurture affect puppies as they develop. After all, your Lab puppy fits the breed stereotype, and is a happy, goofy pup who is best friends with everybody they meet. So, did he really need these socialization classes? Why do pet professionals still recommend early socialization for naturally outgoing, confident puppies? Let’s find out more about the importance of early puppy socialization.

The nature versus nurture debate in canine personalities

People commonly say about dog behavior, “It’s all in how you raise them.” If your dog is well-behaved and friendly toward everyone, credit is commonly given to the way you raised your dog. And, if your dog is fear-aggressive or reactive around other dogs, you are likely blamed for somehow failing to raise your dog correctly. However, genetics significantly influence your dog’s behavior. So, when you welcome home a new puppy, thinking you have a “blank slate” and can train them however you want, is not entirely true. Rather, canine temperament is considered roughly 40 percent genetics and 60 percent environment—and may be more environment-driven.

Temperament, personality, and behavioral tendencies are passed on genetically, meaning that if your dog’s parents were skittish, your dog is likely to be skittish. However, temperament isn’t completely inherited. Your dog’s surroundings, and how you train, socialize, and raise them also significantly impact their temperament. 

So, when you think puppy kindergarten classes and the socialization aspect aren’t important for your outgoing Lab puppy, think again. Without adequate socialization from an early age, your pup may not grow into a well-adjusted, happy, confident adult, despite their friendly personality as a puppy. Positive exposure to new experiences will help strengthen a confident puppy’s foundation, and help change a timid or fearful puppy’s mindset, allowing them to grow into a more confident dog.

Nurture can change nature

When you think you’ve got the whole “nature versus nurture” debate figured out, science throws in a sucker punch, and once again rearranges the way you view your pup’s personality. A parent’s experiences can cause permanent gene changes that are passed on for generations in a process known as epigenetics. Essentially, the nurturing experience of your puppy’s parents can become your puppy’s nature. If a female dog is pregnant and experiences stress or illness, hormones in her blood can impact the developing puppy fetus, particularly the brain. And, once the puppy is born, they can still be exposed to stress-related hormones through their mother’s milk, causing further growth and development changes. Adult dogs can also undergo genetic changes if they’ve been traumatized, or experienced continuous stress. These changes can make a previously calm dog hyper-responsive to stress and perceived threats. 

The importance of early and ongoing socialization for puppies

The ins and outs of nature versus nurture in terms of canine behavior make the need for early, positive puppy socialization obvious. Despite the best of genetics and bloodlines, a puppy from well-adjusted, confident parents can still be shy, aloof, nervous, and fearful.

However, by following the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior (AVSAB) socialization guidelines, you can set your puppy up for lifelong success. According to the AVSAB, your puppy’s first three months are the most critical for forming lifelong positive associations with their world. This time period, when sociability outweighs fear, is the ideal time to introduce your puppy to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as possible. Inadequate socialization during this period can increase the risk of behavior problems later in life, and could ultimately result in the puppy being relinquished to a shelter, or a behavior-associated euthanasia. Once that socialization window closes, your puppy will be much less accepting of new things, and at a much greater risk for developing fear, anxiety, and aggression.

If the nervous Great Dane puppy above had never received proper socialization, they likely would have continued on the negative path of fear, anxiety, and stress. As an adult, they may  resort to fear-based aggression when frightened, but positive socialization saved them from a lifetime of mental discomfort. For tips on properly socializing your new puppy, check out our blog post. If you have additional questions about socialization, contact Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital.