In the first few months of life, this period will ensure you'll have a happy, confident, and well-adjusted dog or cat.
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If you're one of the many people who have welcomed a pet into their family this year, you're probably looking for ways to socialize your new companion, which can be tricky to do during a pandemic. However, coronavirus aside, socialization is crucial for the long-term well-being of your pet because it establishes a baseline for future behavior, not only around you and your family, but also around other people and animals, says Dr. Andrea Y. Tu, D.V.M., medical director of Behavior Vets of New York City.

We consulted Dr. Tu for advice on socialization, how to do socialize your pet, and why it's important for their behavioral development.

two dogs sniffing each other in greeting
Credit: krblokhin / Getty Images

Socializing Cats and Dogs

"Socialization is not learning how to be social," explains Dr. Tu, noting that this is a common misconception. Instead, think of socialization as a sort of exposure therapy introducing your pet to different scenarios in order to help them overcome any anxiety and build confidence.

For dogs, desensitizing them to different environments is key. For example, if you live in an urban city, you should expose your dog to loud trucks and cars. If you live in the suburbs, you could help your dog become familiar with things like bicycles, deer, or even grass. The more environments your dog experiences, the easier it will be to travel with your companion. Physical touch is also important. If the animal is young, try touching them on their paws, ears, and in their mouths, to teach them to be cooperative with future healthcare. "If you do this consistently throughout their early years, they'll be less likely to have a problem with these actions later," says Dr. Tu. With older dogs and cats who may not be keen on being touched in certain areas, try small touches and reward them with treats each time to build trust.

Cats, as a species, require slightly different socialization methods. Historically, they are wilder than dogs, having been domesticated way after their canine counterparts. This means their wild instincts, such as hiding illnesses to appear less weak, are more prominent. This leaves cat owners at a disadvantage because you likely won't know your cat is sick until it's serious. So, how does socialization come into play? "Most people only pull out the cat carrier when it's time to go to the vet and that can become a stressor for your pet," says Dr. Tu. Instead, she recommends leaving it out all the time so your cat can play, sleep and hang out in it, thus removing the scary association with the vet. "Hard-sided carriers that you can take the top off of are better for vet appointments because you can leave the cat in the carrier where they feel safe, and examine them in place, rather than removing them from their comfort," says Dr. Tu.

What to Watch for in Their Body Language

When you're socializing your pet, watch their behavior very closely. While introducing your pet to another animal, cat or dog, their behavior will tell you everything. With small animals such as cats, birds and gerbils, you need to be extra careful because a dog's prey instinct can kick in, warns Dr. Tu. Early signs of distress are yawning, air licking, hard stares, backing away, being a little tense, or having their ears go back. You want to keep these experiences positive, so if any of these occur, give your pet a little breather. "Leave them wanting more," advises Dr. Tu. "End the interaction before it gets bad so they anticipate fun next time." She also reminds us that puppies and kittens have short attention spans, maybe five to ten minutes max, so it's important to give them breaks.

And yes, you can train cats. Dr. Tu has trained her own cats to high five, fetch, and even impersonate a meerkat by standing on their hind legs! "These tricks may seem silly, but they give your cat more ways to interact with people that are comfortable for them," she says. Due to cats' wilder nature, they are actually easier to train. Whereas dogs try to interpret what you're telling them, cats are more literal: "I do the thing, I get the treat." Socialization helps alleviate that fear while providing stimulation and enrichment.

Dr. Tu explains that while socialization contributes to your pet's personality, genetics can also play a big role in determining behavior. For example, Border Collies are one of the smartest breeds out there, but because they are bred to be cautious of their environment, these dogs can be genetically predisposed to anxiety. While many of these genetic traits can be helped through socialization at a young age and training classes, Dr. Tu says that some animals can also have a chemical imbalance that makes them more prone to certain behaviors. If your dog is showing signs of aggression, Dr. Tu advises taking them to the vet. It could be genetic, but it could also be a medical illness or pain (which is really hard to diagnose). "I'd recommend for all new pet owners, but especially for those with older rescues, to request a full blood panel, full chemistry panel, a thyroid test and urinalysis, as a baseline to understanding your pet's health when they join your family," says Dr. Tu.

Why It Matters

The ideal window for socialization is between 8 and 12 weeks of age, because that's when your pet's brain is still developing, making them receptive to learning new behaviors. That being said, while the socialization window will have closed if you rescue an older animal, it's never too late to desensitize or habituate those animals, says Dr. Tu. You just need to reach out to someone who can help, through positive reinforcement training only. "It helps your pet be set up for success for the rest of their lives," says Dr. Tu. "It's beneficial to their welfare and yours because it reinforces their bond with people."

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