Dog and Puppy Socialization

old women socialize a white puppy

Socializing your puppy is the key to ensuring you’ll have a happy, confident, and well-adjusted dog. Below, learn the best time to socialize your puppy, how to do it right, and why it’s important. Socializing your dog through puppyhood and adolescence is one of the best ways to ensure that they become a friendly and confident adult.

When to Socialize Your Puppy

During your puppy’s first three months of life, he will experience a socialization period that will permanently shape his future personality and how he will react to his environment as an adult dog. Gently exposing him to a wide variety of people, places, and situations now makes a huge, permanent difference in his temperament.

When you buy a puppy from a responsible breeder, the socialization process should start before you even bring your puppy home. Gentle handling by the breeder in the first several weeks of your puppy’s life is helpful in the development of a friendly, confident dog. As early as 3 weeks of age, puppies may begin to approach a person who is passively observing them, so having a knowledgeable breeder who encourages a positive experience with people adults, and children will help shape the puppy’s adult behavior. As their puppies develop, good breeders allow them to experience safe inside and outside environments, car rides, crates, sounds, smells, and gentle handling.

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Why Socialize Your Puppy

The idea behind socialization is that you want to help your puppy become acclimated to all types of sights, sounds, and smells in a positive manner. Proper socialization can prevent a dog from being fearful of children, for example, or of riding in a car, and it will help him develop into a well-mannered, happy companion.

Having a dog who is well adjusted and confident can even go as far as to save his life one day. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, improper socialization can lead to behavior problems later in life. The organization’s position statement on socialization reads: “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” Start taking your dog out to public places once your veterinarian says it is safe, and he’ll learn to behave in a variety of situations and to enjoy interacting with different people.

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How to Socialize Your Puppy

As mentioned earlier, your breeder will start the socialization process as early as the puppy’s first few days of life, by gently handling him and allowing him to explore his surroundings. But when the puppy comes home with you, the crucial socialization period continues, so your job is to keep the process going. Here are the basic steps to follow:

Introduce the puppy to new sights, sounds, and smells

To a puppy, the whole world is new, strange, and unusual, so think of everything he encounters as an opportunity to make a new, positive association. Try to come up with as many different types of people, places, noises, and textures as you can and expose your puppy to them. That means, for instance, have him walk on carpet, hardwood, tile, and linoleum floors; have him meet a person in a wheelchair or using a cane, children, a person with a beard, wearing sunglasses, using an umbrella, or wearing a hood. Think of it as a scavenger hunt. Here’s a comprehensive checklist for puppy socialization that can be used as a guide.

Make it positive

Most importantly, when introducing all of these new experiences to your puppy, make sure he’s getting an appropriate amount of treats and praise so that he associates what he’s being exposed to and the feeling of seeing something new as a fun experience. Don’t forget to break the treats into small pieces that will be easy for your puppy to digest. Also, don’t be stressed yourself dogs can read our emotions, so if you’re nervous when introducing your puppy to an older dog, for example, your puppy will be nervous, too, and may become fearful of other dogs in the future.

Involve the family

By having different people take part in the socialization process, you’re continuously moving the puppy out of his comfort zone, letting him know that he might experience something new no matter who he’s with. Make it a fun game for the kids by having them write down a list of everything new the puppy experienced that day while with them, such as “someone in a baseball cap” or “a police siren.”

Take baby steps

Try to avoid doing too much too fast. For instance, if you want your puppy to get accustomed to being handled by multiple people he doesn’t know, start with a few family members and slowly integrate one stranger, then two, and so on. Starting this process by taking your puppy to a huge party or a very busy public place can be overwhelming and result in a fearful response to groups of strangers in the future.

Take it public

dog in public with young chinese woman

Once your puppy is used to the small number of stimuli, move outside of his comfort zone to expand the number of new experiences he’ll have. Take him to the pet store, over to a friend’s house for a puppy playdate, on different streets in the neighborhood, and so on. At seven-to-ten days after he’s received his full series of puppy vaccinations, it’s safe to take him to the dog park (but be sure to follow dog-park safety protocol.)

Go to puppy classes

Once your puppy has started his vaccinations, he can also attend puppy classes. These classes not only help your puppy begin to understand basic commands, but the most important advantage is that they expose him to other dogs and people. Skilled trainers will mediate the meetings so that all dogs and people are safe and happy during the process.

Earn a S.T.A.R. Puppy title

Show off your puppy’s hard work by letting him earn his very first AKC title the S.T.A.R. Puppy, which stands for socialization, training, activity, and a responsible owner. After completing a six-week training class, your puppy can take a simple test given by an AKC-approved evaluator. The puppy will be tested on allowing someone to pet him, tolerating a collar or harness, allowing you to hold him, and more (see a full list of S.T.A.R. Puppy test items here). Also, you must pledge to be a responsible pet owner for the duration of the dog’s life. This program is open to purebred and mixed-breed dogs up to one year old.

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Socializing a New Puppy

Socializing your puppy means teaching them to be well-behaved around other animals and humans. Socialization helps your puppy be comfortable in new environments and keeps them confident in new situations.

The first three months of your puppy’s life are important for their development. During these months, the desire to be social outweighs their fear.

What Age Is Best for Puppy Socialization?

There has been debate about whether you should socialize your puppy before they are fully vaccinated. However, puppies can handle new experiences best between 3 and 12 weeks old. After that stage, they become cautious about new things they haven’t encountered before.

Puppies can begin socialization classes as early as 7 to 8 weeks. Veterinarians recommend at least one round of vaccines 7 days before socialization and the first round of deworming.

After the first 12 to 14 weeks of your puppy’s life, continued socialization and introduction to new environments are important. This reinforces good behavior. Keeping a positive environment is important for puppies to feel safe and secure while learning new things.

Why Is Puppy Socialization Important?

A well-socialized puppy creates a behaved, relaxed, safer dog. If your puppy is comfortable in a wider variety of situations, they’re less likely to use aggression in moments of fear. Not socializing your puppy can lead to dangerous situations in the future.

According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the number one cause of death for dogs under three is behavioral issues, not an infectious disease.

How Does a Puppy Need to Be Socialized?

There are different methods of puppy socialization: at home, in classes, or in puppy playdates. Socializing your new puppy also requires more than meeting new people and dogs.

Your puppy needs to be exposed to new sights, sounds, and textures. Letting children play with your puppy, in a controlled setting, and getting a variety of people to play with your puppy helps as well.

Do I Need to Do Anything Special When I Socialize My Puppy?

When socializing your puppy make sure to take it slow and be aware of your puppy’s limits. Make the interactions positive and give plenty of treats and praise. Everything is new to your puppy, so every encounter is an opportunity to make a positive association.

Try not to stress yourself when introducing your puppy to older dogs, as your puppy can pick up on that. Take baby steps and try to avoid doing too much at once. Take introductions to family and strangers slowly, if your puppy feels overwhelmed they may have a fearful reaction to large groups or settings in the future.

Handling

Young puppies should be cuddled and handled daily by as many different people as possible. Keep the contact gentle and pleasant for the puppy. Hold the puppy in different positions, gently finger her feet, rub her muzzle, stroke her back and sides, look in her ears.

Sounds

Acclimate your puppy to lots of different sounds, being careful not to overwhelm him with too much noise too fast. Expose him to kitchen sounds, telephones ringing, children playing, sportscasters yelling on TV, radios playing, buses moving by, and so on.

Food bowl exercises

Teach your puppy to enjoy having people approach her bowl while she’s eating. This will help to prevent resource guarding, which occurs when dogs feel anxious about others approaching their own valued resources. Walk up to your puppy while she’s eating her food, drop an even tastier treat into her dish, and walk away. Repeat once or twice during each meal until your puppy is visibly excited about your approach. Then walk up, physically pick up her dish, puts in a treat, gives the dish back, and walks away.

Teach your puppy to be alone

Puppies should learn to tolerate being completely separate from other people and animals every day to avoid developing separation anxiety.

Prevent aggression

There’s no need to show the dog who’s boss or try to dominate him. Confrontational approaches like pinning your dog down or scruffing him frequently backfire and create the aggression dog owners seek to avoid. Focus on rewarding correct behavior and preventing undesirable behavior to teach your puppy human rules and build a trusting relationship.

Introduce your puppy to new people

Introduce your puppy to several new people every day, keeping the interactions pleasant and unthreatening. Focus especially on setting up pleasant encounters with unfamiliar men and well-behaved children.

Prevent biting

Provide appropriate toys to redirect your puppy’s biting. When your puppy bites too hard during play, making a sudden noise (“Ow!”) and end the game to help him learn to use his mouth gently. Never squeeze your puppy’s mouth shut, yell at him, or hold him down. This will frighten him and likely make biting worse. Note that while puppies under five months tend to explore the world with their mouths, dogs past this age are considered adolescents and should no longer be play biting.

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Socializing your adolescent dog

Though a dog’s sensitive period of socialization typically ends around 4-5 months old, we recommend continuing to socialize your dog for at least the first year of their life.

Keep introducing your dog to new people

Dogs only remain social when continually exposed to unfamiliar people. Continued pleasant exposure to new people keeps the idea that strangers are good news in the forefront of your dog’s mind.

Keep introducing your dog to other dogs

There are lots of ways to do this: dog parks, play groups, play dates with friends’ dogs, and simple leash walks can all help accomplish this. Without this experience, dogs can lose their ability to know how to behave appropriately around other dogs.

Vary your walks

Try to avoid taking the same walking route every day. Let your dog experience a variety of environments, from sidewalks to dirt roads. This will provide your growing dog with much-needed mental stimulation.

Teach your dog to be alone

Scheduling daily alone time with neither people nor other pets nearby is critical to preventing separation anxiety. Use a baby gate or crates to prevent your dog from shadowing you constantly when you’re home. Ask a friend to pet sit for an hour regularly.

Don’t punish fear

Most displays of aggression are the result of fear. Many owners are caught off guard when their normally easygoing pup reacts fearfully to a new dog or person. However, this change often coincides with the end of the sensitive period of socialization. Starting around 5 months old, your dog may start to interpret anything unfamiliar as a threat and will typically either flee or confront what frightens him. Punishing this reaction will only confirm his fear, so instead remove your dog from the situation and ask for a different behavior (like “sit”).

Continue handling your dog

Make sure your dog is comfortable with different parts of his body being handled.  This will ensure that if he must be handled in an emergency he will be less likely to bite. Be on the watch for a stiff body, whites of the eyes showing, a closed mouth, and escape attempts. If you see these signs, stop handling your dog.

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What About Older Dogs?

All of this information on how important socialization is for puppies brings up the question “what about older dogs?” If you’ve acquired a dog who is no longer a puppy, you can still help him associate new or fearful situations with a positive experience, even though you’ve missed the crucial puppy socialization period. Slowly reintroducing the dog to new sights, smells, and sounds, with careful supervision and an emphasis on positivity in the form of praise and treats, can help him overcome his fears or hesitation. (Severe cases of fearfulness should be treated with the help of a veterinarian and/or animal behaviorist.)

The AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test is an excellent goal for owners of dogs who received little training in their past (or even for S.T.A.R. puppies who are ready to take their skills to the next level). This 10-step test demonstrates that a dog can show good manners and basic obedience skills. You can then go on to lead your dog through the advanced CGC test, called AKC Community Canine (CGCA), and/or the AKC Urban CGC (CGCU).

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Socializing your adult dog

“I need to socialize my three-year-old dog. How do I do that?” We hear this question frequently because owners want to give their dogs the fullest life possible, which many assume includes playing with other dogs. In reality, adult dogs can lead perfectly happy lives without visits to the dog park or off-leash play.

Play in puppies vs. adult dogs

Off-leash play is beneficial to puppies learning behavior cues, but the same practice can have detrimental effects on adult dogs. While there are exceptions, when dogs reach social maturity between ages one and three, they often no longer enjoy playing with large groups of unfamiliar dogs. They may either attempt to avoid the dogs, stand close to their human family, or even growl and snap at boisterous young dogs that come too close to them. This behavior is often misidentified as abnormal, when in fact it is quite common.

Setting up playtime for your adult dog

If your heart is set on social time with other dogs, start by introducing your dog to one dog at a time. Invite a friend to bring her gentle, easygoing dog on a walk with you and your dog. Allow a polite distance between dogs while they get accustomed to each other. If both dogs appear relaxed throughout the walk, allow them to sniff each other briefly. Keep leashes loose and each interaction short. If either dog appears to be tensing up, call the dogs apart with pleasant, relaxed voices. If both dogs’ bodies appear loose and tails are wagging, consider an off-leash session in one of your fenced yards with leashes dragging, using the same short sessions and reinforcement for relaxed behavior.

Dealing with leash aggression in your adult dog

If your dog lunges, pulls toward or barks at other dogs on walks, you know how stressful and embarrassing it can be.

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