How To Socialize Your Puppy

* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

If you have a puppy, you’ve likely heard about the need to socialize your new friend. Socialization refers to the process of preparing your dog to, essentially, be comfortable with the world around them. Whether interacting with groups of other dogs, passing people on the street during a walk, joining their guardians for lunch at a restaurant, or simply welcoming visitors into their homes and yards, a well-socialized dog is better able to handle a variety of situations. 

Socializing your puppy will not only allow you to enjoy more experiences with your canine friend throughout the course of their life, it will also lead to a dog with higher confidence and less insecurity, both of which can foster safety when engaging with others. 

Importance of puppy socialization

Dogs are naturally social creatures, and live in pack settings when left to their own in the wild. Although most dogs today don’t live in dog packs, they do live with humans, often interacting with the society we’ve established and domesticated them to fit into. Puppy socialization is important for a few reasons: 

  • A properly socialized puppy has a better understanding of boundaries and manners among people, which will allow them to go more places with you.
  • Dogs socialized with each other are often less prone to fear, aggression, and insecurity, which can manifest in dangerous ways.
  • Canines learn much of what they carry into adulthood during their first three months of life, which is why early socialization is so encouraged.
  • Dogs who were socialized well as puppies and into adulthood are usually more confident and secure than unsocialized canines.

Like children, puppies are like sponges in their early ages, which makes them ripe for learning and retaining good habits, behaviors, and commands. Unpleasant experiences during this crucial phase can stay with a puppy well into adulthood, which is why exposing your puppy to as many stimuli as possible in the safest and most positive way will result in an adult dog who is able to handle everyday situations without fear or aggression. 

dogs playing

When to socialize your dog?

When it comes to socializing your puppy, the earlier the better, with a couple of exceptions. 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. 

While early socialization is best, your pet’s health, and the health of those around them, is equally important. Most puppies begin receiving vaccination 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. 

Some tools for socialization, like attending puppy training classes or visiting doggy day care centers are not recommended during this time, but other tips can get your puppy started on their social journey. 

Before puppies are fully vaccinated it is strongly advised that they not be taken into public spaces, like dog parks or day care centers, for socialization. Alternatively, some puppy training classes do 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. Additionally, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states that puppies should begin socializing before they are fully vaccinated, and do recommend puppy classes with reputable trainers. 

How to socialize your puppy

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. 

  • DO: reward your puppy with a treat in each new situation, like meeting a child. Dogs learn by association, and consequence, so allowing them to associate new experience that you expect they will encounter regularly throughout their lifetime with a reward, like food, a favorite toy, or even love and praise, will not only allow them to trust that these are safe situations, but may encourage them to look forward to them in the future.
  • DO: watch your puppy’s body language for signs of stress. Generally, it’s best to keep sessions short, which will keep your puppy engaged for just long enough to not become frustrated by the process. 
  • DON’T: place your puppy in unsafe situations, or expose them to 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, and may even lead to unmanageable behavior later on. 
  • DON’T: assume that 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, so always be aware of your dog’s limits and talents when introducing them to other dogs, people, or places. 
dogs sniffing each other

To make things easy, Dr. Sophia Yin has created a puppy socialization checklist, which covers a number of people, places, things, and experiences you can expose your puppy to to get them properly socialized. The checklist is broken down into sections, with each section designed to take place over the course of a week, during the ideal puppy socialization window time frame. Each section covers a number of new things to introduce your puppy to, including: 

  • Handling: touching the ears, feet, etc…  
  • Unfamiliar people: people in glasses, hats, people with canes, loud children, etc… 
  • Unfamiliar dogs: always look to introduce your puppy to a dog who plays well during this time
  • Other animal species: cats, livestock, etc…  
  • New surfaces: concrete, slippery floor surfaces, grass, etc… : 
  • Scary sounds: delivery trucks, vacuums, etc…  
  • Objects with wheels: skateboards, shopping carts, bikes, etc… 
  • Man-made objects: umbrellas, plastic bags on the street, etc… 
  • New environments: inside buildings, a busy city street, etc…  

The best places to socialize your puppy before vaccinations are completed are right inside and around the home. Here, you can introduce your dog to sounds, like doorbells and vacuums, surfaces, like grass or cement, and safe visitors of all ages and dispositions. Once your puppy is fully vaccinated, playdates with other well-socialized dogs and puppies, and 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.

dog play bow

A few things to keep in mind

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 puppy classes, can give your puppy their best shot at becoming socialized 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. 

Additionally, be aware that not all social situations will make for proper settings for a puppy to become socialized. 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. Dog parks can be very overwhelming, especially for puppies or dogs who don’t have much socialization under their belts. 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.

Trainer Review of this Article

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.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Shannon Finch
AnimalKind Training
M.Ed. Humane Education
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Certified Tellington TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner