Puppy socialization and learning how to socialize your new dog is arguably the most important thing you can do as a new puppy owner. Sure, training your pup to sit and stay is useful – but a well-socialized dog is going to be much easier to live with.
You can teach an old dog new tricks pretty easily. But it’s extremely difficult to re-socialize an adult dog.
That’s because adult dogs are naturally “neophobic.” In other words, adult dogs are scared of new things. A well-socialized puppy is exposed to a lot more things, so there’s less new stuff for your adult dog to be scared of.
For example, my own dog wasn’t exposed to many people wearing unusual clothing as a puppy. As an adult, he was scared of people with floppy hats, backpacks, trekking poles, and canes.
With some careful training, we were able to teach him that those sorts of clothes are nothing to be afraid of – but it would be much easier if his previous owner had just socialized him appropriately!
Managing an undersocialized dog can quickly become an exhausting task. It’s far easier to lay the groundwork early!
Proper socialization is important for all dogs, but it’s especially necessary for large breed dogs and dogs with protective tendencies.
Shepherds, Mastiffs, and Bully breeds are all somewhat predisposed towards being suspicious of strangers. Help reduce stigma against these breeds and enjoy living with your dog more by socializing properly.
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The critical period for socialization (or sensitive period, as it’s sometimes called) generally falls between the ages of about three to sixteen weeks of age. These short weeks are when you’ll have the easiest time socializing your puppy.
Your puppy’s brain is wired to learn about the world and what’s safe. Young brains of many social species are much more accepting of new things at a young age. The evolutionary bet is that if a ten-week-old puppy is experiencing something, it’s safe because Momma Dog let it meet her puppy.
On the flip side, if an adult dog has never experienced something before, it’s a safer bet to assume it’s dangerous.
This can have lasting behavioral effects for our modern pet dogs if they’re not exposed to thunderstorms, long car rides, or people of different races as young puppies.
There’s no precise moment when your dog’s socialization window “closes” – just like there’s no exact moment when your human childhood is over. Maturity does differ some from breed to breed, but those are just trends. Primitive breeds like Basenjis seem to have shorter socialization windows than puppylike breeds such as Labs.
There’s a bit of a misunderstanding of proper puppy socialization in many corners of the Internet. Some people think that taking their puppy everywhere will socialize the pup. Others tightly control their puppy’s entire young life, frantic over ensuring that the puppy only has good experiences.
Both of these approaches are well-intentioned, but neither is quite right. The extreme exposure method forgets about quality in favor of quantity; the helicopter parent does the opposite.
Bad experiences as a puppy can cause fear issues for the rest of your dog’s life – so the helicopter parents are doing something right. They don’t want to overwhelm the puppy, and that’s smart. But they also run the risk of sheltering your puppy and creating an adult dog who can’t handle situations on her own.
Meanwhile, the dog parents who aim to introduce their puppy to at least 100 people in 100 days run the risk of seriously overwhelming a shy puppy or creating a people-crazy outgoing puppy.
Your socialization approach should split the difference between these approaches.
I recommend allowing your puppy to interact with something new every day, but she should always have the opportunity to retreat.
For example, I like to put ball pits, dangling wind chimes, wobble boards, thunderstorm music, and skateboards in puppy playpens. The puppies can explore and interact at their own pace.
As far as introducing puppies to other people and dogs, this requires a lot more nuance from one puppy to the next. With a naturally shy or “introverted” puppy (like many Belgian Tervurens), you’re better off carefully introducing the puppy to fewer, more trustworthy people.
Allow the puppy to retreat and observe from a distance. Reward with treats as necessary for “being brave,” but don’t bribe the puppy with cookies or force her into the arms of a stranger.
On the flip side, brave and outgoing puppies (looking at you, Labs) often benefit from learning NOT to “go say hi” from a young age. These hypersocial puppies easily grow into over-excited greeters as adults, especially if they’re allowed to meet every single “friend” they see as a puppy.
The important thing is to be comprehensive with what you expose your puppy to – sounds, sights, locations, surfaces, people, dogs, cats, birds, strange movement, and anything else you might come across. If your puppy is nervous, move further away from the Scary Thing and let them watch. You can play the engage/disengage game to help the puppy learn that the Scary Thing makes treats happen.
Dr. Sophia Yin made a great puppy socialization checklist – there’s nothing wrong with it. However, you might have some extra needs (or fewer needs) depending on your lifestyle. For example, my mother lives in Boston and does not need to teach her puppy to be comfortable around horses. My father lives in rural Wisconsin and really prioritizes a dog that isn’t gun-shy. Their socialization checklists would be different!
While checklists are a great place to start, the important thing is keeping in mind what your life is likely to bring to your puppy. Long car rides? Bus or plane rides? Babies? Snow? Thunder? Fireworks? Stairs? Shiny tile floors? Frequent dogsitters? Regular hikes or doggie daycare visits? Noisy neighbors? Therapy work? Incorporate relevant socialization items based on your pup’s future lifestyle.
If at any point you notice something isn’t going well on your checklist, that’s ok. Just make a note to revisit it. For example, I once fostered a litter of puppies that did well with one adult dog at a time, but hid under my chair if they met two or more dogs at a time.
When I realized this, I immediately removed them from the situation (no sense in scaring them more). Then I found friends with trustworthy adult dogs and sat with the foster puppies further away from the dogs.
We found the distance where the foster puppies noticed the adult dogs, but weren’t worried yet. We played and ate treats there, then moved a bit closer to the adult dogs. Within a few days, the puppies were happily hanging out around small groups of adult dogs.
Socializing your puppy is supposed to be relaxing — a positive experience without being thrilling. Try to keep calm and enjoy the process.
If you notice your puppy is constantly fearful of, aggressive towards, or over-the-top enthusiastic about things despite continued work, consider working with a professional trainer!
Puppies who haven’t been fully vaccinated are at risk for all sorts of preventable diseases. Parvo and distemper are both highly contagious and very dangerous. That said, once your puppy has started with her vaccinations, you don’t have to keep her on house arrest.
Unvaccinated puppies should not go to the dog park, walking paths that are frequented by other dogs, or to areas where lots of dogs may hang out. Puppy socialization classes and veterinary clinics are properly cleaned and are OK to visit, but avoid places like pet stores where there’s a lot of traffic of other dogs.
Instead, socialize your puppy by visiting the vet, visiting home improvement stores that are dog-friendly, and having friends come over to visit you. Socialization involving sounds, surfaces, strangers, and more can all take place inside your home!
A 2013 study found that puppies who attended puppy socialization classes were not at higher risk for getting parvo than puppies who stayed home.
Even once your puppy is fully vaccinated, it’s best to avoid dog parks. You just can’t guarantee that your puppy won’t get bullied there, giving your puppy a bad experience that can make her fearful later in life.
Puppies are most easily socialized between the ages of about three weeks and sixteen weeks of age (21-112 days old). This means that lots of socialization generally happens at the breeder’s home. Breeders who adhere to Puppy Culture and similar programs do a great job of providing puppies that are already well-started with socialization.
Once your puppy is in your home, it’s time to get to work! Don’t waste time with too much training, as socialization is on more time-sensitive schedule.
Unvaccinated puppies should not visit places that are likely to contain doggie germs. Avoid dog parks, doggie daycares, pet stores, and popular walking paths where lots of dogs are likely to pee and poo.
However, most dog-friendly businesses are generally safe for your new puppy. The likelihood of unvaccinated dogs leaving feces in most dog-friendly breweries is very low. Home improvement stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, ACE Hardware, and others are great places to take your puppy for socialization.
Your vet’s office and puppy kindergarten are also great places for puppy socialization. Hiking trails can also be generally safe, as long as they dogwalkers in your area tend to be diligent about cleanup and most dogs in your area are vaccinated.
Talk to your vet about when and where it’s safe to take your puppy. Once your puppy has completed her vaccinations, she’s generally safe to head out to the rest of the world!
Puppy kindergartens are classes that are specifically designed for young puppies. Most have a focus on socialization rather than training. The puppies are exposed to many of the items listed above in our socialization checklist in a controlled, safe manner.
These classes are often offered for low cost (or even for free) with drop-in options. Good puppy kindergartens will include things like handing classes, basic Q&A about puppy problems, exposure to vacuums and skateboards and such, and a bit of playtime.
Avoid puppy kindergartens that focus exclusively on off-leash playtime for the puppies or exclusively on training if you can – find a class that focuses on socialization and surviving puppyhood. Training can come later.
If your puppy socialization class is taught by a decent trainer, it’s certainly better than nothing. In fact, one of the best predictors of whether or not a dog stays in its home as an adult is if it attended puppy socialization classes (see the research here).
Even a less-than-perfect puppy socialization class will generally serve to help you learn how to deal with your puppy’s basic problems. Your puppy will meet other people, go for car rides, and meet other dogs. In good puppy socialization classes, your puppy will also be exposed to many different sounds, sights, scents, movements, surfaces, and more than you are likely to do at home.
If you can take your puppy to socialization class, do it. At the very least, you’ll be able to identify problem areas and get to know trainers and other puppy owners!
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Forrest is a lover of dogs, the wild outdoors, deep mysterious conversations… and coffee. He is the owner of several websites, including Canine Weekly. He resides in Austin, Texas.