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If you have a puppy, you’ve likely heard about the need to socialize your new friend to prevent behavioral issues. But what exactly is socialization… and how do you go about it? Dog training books, the internet, and family friends have plenty of contradictory information to go around. We’re here to help you wade through it all and raise a well-adjusted companion!
Socialization essentially refers to the process of preparing your dog to be comfortable with the world around them. Whether interacting with other dogs, passing people on the street during a walk, joining their pet parents for lunch at a restaurant, or simply welcoming visitors into their homes and yards, a well-socialized dog has positive associations with a range of experiences — and that makes them better able to handle a wide variety of situations than a puppy who didn’t get enough positive experiences as they developed.
Socialization involves exposing your new dog to a range of stimuli — and supporting them as you do, so they’re able to learn normal everyday things that could come across as scary (like the vacuum cleaner or restaurant banners blowing in the wind) really aren’t a big deal.
Dogs are naturally social creatures who evolved from canine ancestors who live in group settings. Although most domestic dogs today don’t live with lots of other dogs full time, they do live with humans — and it’s important they know how to fit into the society we’ve established!
A thoughtful puppy socialization process is important for many reasons:
Like children, puppies are sponges in their early ages — which makes them ripe for learning and retaining good habits, lifestyle behaviors, and obedience training cues. Unpleasant experiences during this crucial phase can stay with a puppy well into adulthood, which is why exposing your young dog to as many stimuli as possible in the safest and most supported way will result in an adult dog who is able to handle everyday situations without signs of fear or aggression.
But when exactly should you start socializing your puppy? Do you need to wait until they’ve had all of their puppy vaccinations?
Preventative Vet states that the ages in which a puppy will get the most out of socialization is between birth and 12 to 16 weeks of age. This period is known as the puppy socialization window. Most puppies are ideally kept with their mothers and littermates for at least the first eight weeks of this time, in which valuable lessons and experiences take place. Basic social skills like setting and respecting boundaries, learning how to play, and understanding body language happen during this time — and once they come home with you, it’s your job to continue that education as they develop.
While early socialization is best for your dog’s long-term confidence and comfort in our human world, your pet’s health is also important. Most puppies begin receiving vaccination series at around eight weeks of age, which continue until around the 16 week mark — at which point a puppy is considered to be fully safe and protected from diseases like parvo and distemper.
Before puppies are fully vaccinated it is strongly advised that they not be taken into public spaces crowded with lots of other animals, like dog parks or day care centers, for socialization. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior does recommend that puppies should begin socializing before they are fully vaccinated, though, and suggests structured puppy socialization classes with reputable trainers as opposed to free-for-all get togethers in unmonitored spots.
While some tools for socialization — like attending busy puppy play dates or visiting doggy day care centers — are not recommended until your dog has fully completed their vaccinations, that doesn’t mean you need to stay home to avoid infectious disease. More on safe socialization in the next section!
Like any aspect of dog training or conditioning, there are specific things that are and are not recommended in order to see the best results. Improper socialization can have worse negative effects than a simple lack of socialization.
Some puppy training classes offer admittance after your dog has received their first set of shots and may provide for a safe, controlled atmosphere for a young dog to learn in. “I take puppies in my classes if they’ve had one set of shots, but I keep a clean room, don’t let sick dogs come to class, and tell folks not to do dog parks at this time,” says Shannon Freed, operator of AnimalKind Training in Stanwood, Washington.
We recommend looking for a positive reinforcement, or force free, trainer near you.
Many dog parents choose to hold their puppy when bringing them out in public. You can also use tools like blankets or bags to keep them from touching the ground. These small efforts can help you strike a happy medium of exposing your dog to the world around them without putting them at undue risk for illness before they’re fully vaccinated.
Consider rewarding your puppy with a treat in each new situation during your socialization sessions, like if they see a new person or object for the first time. Dogs learn by association and consequence. Allowing them to associate new experiences — especially ones that you expect they will encounter regularly throughout their lifetime — with food, a favorite toy, or your praise can help them know that these are safe situations with positive emotions and not anything to be afraid of.
An important note here: While food and toys can be a great way to build happy emotions in new socialization settings, be careful not to use rewards to coerce your dogs into things they aren’t comfortable with. If your puppy seems uncertain about a new thing, like an unfamiliar statue or a particularly tall person? Don’t lure them towards it with treats! This can create a sense of conflict that only heightens the negative emotions, especially if your dog decides to approach to receive the food and is then startled to find themselves so close.
Watch your puppy’s body language for signs of stress. Generally, it’s best to keep socialization outings short — this keeps your puppy engaged for just long enough to not become frustrated by the process.
Do your best to avoid putting your puppy in unsafe situations or exposing them to unknown people, places, or things that may traumatize them. Dogs who have unpleasant experiences early in life tend to carry those associations with them into adulthood, which only become harder to change over time. Prioritize structured interactions with people, dogs, and environments you trust rather than greetings with complete strangers.
Don’t assume your puppy is “socialized” just because they’ve encountered a situation one time. Socialization is an ongoing process that should be a regular part of your dog’s life throughout the years! Always be aware of your dog’s comfort when introducing them to other dogs, people, or places.
To make things easy, professional dog trainers like Dr. Sophia Yin have created different puppy socialization checklists. These cover a number of people, places, things, and experiences you can expose your puppy to when they’re young.
Dr. Yin’s checklist is broken down into sections, with each one designed to take place over the course of a week during the ideal puppy socialization window time frame. They include things like:
While we do recommend getting out and about with your dog as soon as you can, much of this checklist can also be complete inside and around your own home. Here, you can introduce your dog to sounds like doorbells and vacuums, surfaces like grass and cement, and safe visitors.
Once your puppy is vaccinated, playdates with other well-socialized dogs along with walks around the neighborhood all provide great settings for a puppy to become accustomed to life outside of the home. Sniffspot hosts also offer safe, private locations for dogs to socialize in safely!
When socializing your puppy, you can always only do your best, and no one will do it perfectly. That said, trainers and organized classes, like designated puppy socialization courses, can give your puppy their best shot at learning about the world in a healthy way that will benefit them over the course of their life.
When socializing in groups, or taking your puppy out in public, be sure to keep their vaccination schedule in mind, and consult your vet or a trainer if you’re unsure whether it is safe for your puppy to venture out.
Be aware that not all social situations will make for proper settings for a puppy to become socialized. For example: Many people assume that a community dog park can make for a great space for a puppy to learn the ins and outs of canine behavior — but dog parks can be very overwhelming, especially for young dogs.
When undersocialized dogs are met with a dog who is reactive, acts as a bully, or worse, is outright aggressive, these negative experiences can form lasting impressions, and can teach them to fear certain situations.
Instead, work slowly in smaller groups, either led by a pro or filled with dogs and people you trust, who will provide safety and structure when socializing your best friend.
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
These are the trainers that reviewed this article:
Erica Marshall CPDT-ka, CDBC
Owner/Trainer of Wicked Good Dog Training in Christiana TN
Author of "New Puppy, Now What?"
M.Ed. Humane Education
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner
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