Puppy socialization – When and how to socialize a puppy successfully

Puppy Socialization – what you need to know and how to get started.

Socialization is so very important to your puppy and the adult your puppy grows into. Socialization isn’t just puppy playmates and meeting the other dog in your household, it’s preparing your dog to accept new stressors without getting stressed. You may be wondering what I’m rambling on about, don’t worry below I’m going to dive into puppy socialization, why it’s important and how you can get started with your own puppy. No fancy tools needed, just you, your puppy, a leash and some treats

There is a lot of confusion on puppy socialization. I hope the following information clears some of that up for you.

What is puppy socialization?

Socialization for a puppy means learning to be comfortable and confident in the world and society we live in; filled with kids at playgrounds, people of various skin colors, dogs, other animals, fireworks a few times a year, dinner parties and so much more.

What people think puppy socialization is chart

Puppy socialization is the first thing I recommend to new pet parents (well besides pet insurance). Yes, this comes before training in my book because unlike training this does have a limited time frame. 

First, puppy socialization isn’t letting your puppy run up and meet other dogs, is it so much more than that. Socialization is exposing dogs in a calm positive manner to a variety of sights, watching dogs, sounds and smells allowing them to become acclimated to all types of sights/sounds.

I have one dog, Rossi, I socialized starting the day he came home from our breeder and another, Maggie, I adopted at over 6 months of age. Rossi hears fireworks and loves to stand outside and watch them, no matter the amount of socialization I have done with Maggie she is beyond terrified when fireworks go off – puppy socialization pays off – not just on the 4th of July but every day.

Dogs go through a few socialization periods, that we will dive into in the next section, which are the optimal time to socialize these occur before the puppy turns 6 months with the most crucial between 8-12 weeks of age and effect the dog for the rest of their life.

Improper socialization can lead to behavioral problems later through life stemming from fear and lack of confidence. These behavioral issues manifest as reactivity, fear-based aggression, anxiety, and more. 

While proper socialization can prevent a dog from being fearful of children, cars, fireworks, people of color, skateboards and other real world sights and sounds.

So you want a socialized puppy, right?

When to socialize your puppy?

It’s a misconception that key socialization can happen at any time or should happen after a puppy is fully vaccinated but that’s not true and often that’s too late (yikes!). Puppy socialization begins with your breeder (see why a good breeder is important here) and continues at home with you.

Puppies have a very short window of time for optimal socialization. This is the time when experiencing new things impacts your puppies life the most. During your dogs first three months sociability outweighs fear – and hence this is the prime window to show your dog positive experiences in the world.

Dogs and most animals are biologically trained to get used to things they encounter in their everyday environment … till they reach a certain age. Once they reach that age, they are naturally and instinctually more hesitant, suspicious and nervous of things they haven’t yet been exposed to or experienced. This is how they are instinctually cautious and afraid of things that could be dangerous.

Puppies are most accepting of new things between 3 and 12 weeks of age, so the work your breeder puts in but also the first few weeks with you are vital. Don’t worry, it doesn’t end there. From around 12-18 weeks the socialization period does continue and up to 6 months some studies show, but it gets more difficult with each passing week.

Ready for puppy socialization safely

After 18+ weeks can you socialize? It’s possible as some dogs recover from fears but it does take a lot more work and some never get over certain fears, each dog and situation is unique.

Countless studies have shown early socialization is essential to healthy puppy development.  In fact, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior [AVSAB] states, “…the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” By waiting until a dog has had their vaccinations, they will already be past the critical socialization period (8 weeks to 12 weeks old). 

How do I social a puppy that isn’t vaccinated?

This can be really overwhelming, your vet is saying don’t go out but yet science and studies show this is such an important time. What do you do? You do both safely.

You can safely socialize your puppy, I’ve done it with many, many puppies and you can too.

You got your perfect new puppy safely home from your breeder. The good news is this means your puppy already got one (or two) rounds of vaccinations.  So let’s stop there and discuss vaccinations for a very brief moment.

To preface this, I’m not a vet and yes I do believe in vaccinating my dogs but I also believe there is a happy medium, science has changed a lot in the last 10 years. When dogs get vaccinations they all get the same amount, this means the 100lb Rottweiler is getting the same vaccine as your precious puppy. What this means is more likely than not your dog has enough vaccinations for not only puppyhood but probably a few years (yikes). Listen to this short talk here to learn even more about vaccinations. If you’re really curious about your dog’s vaccination levels you can ask your vet to run a titer test and it will show if your pet is covered in immunity for the required vaccinations – I do this with my own dogs with my vet Dr. Patrick Mahaney. I do this every year at our annual check-up, Rossi is 4 now and hasn’t needed any vaccinations besides Rabies since I brought him home. The titer results are proof my dogs have enough antibodies which are accepted everywhere from our groomer, to set work, flying and more.

So back to socialization, more than likely your pet is covered but you still want to be careful because parvo and rabies can be deadly.

So safe socialization should always be done, avoid busy places with lots of foot traffic don’t go to dog parks, don’t meet dogs you don’t know, don’t walk your dog in highly trafficked areas (like around the dog park, in an airport, etc – I will not ever put a puppy on the floor in these areas). 

Consider other means of letting your puppy view the world such as from a stroller, a backpack, from your arms, sitting on a blanket with you.

I carry my puppy clients everywhere – strollers, dog slings, dog bags are a great way for your puppy to safely experience the world – even without all their vaccinations. They can take in the sights and sounds without stepping on germs.

Rossi passed out in his stroller after doing some socialization with our vet at a pet event

Bring a blanket, sit on a bench and let your puppy sit on the blanket next to you while avoiding the germs around you and observe – from giggling kids on a playground to the bustling city sounds of busses and trucks – it’s an amazing way to keep our dogs safe while out and about. When at home from crate time to playing put on some sounds on YouTube at a low level and slowly work up to a louder volume.

Feel free to get some paw sanitizer and clean their paws on outings to be extra safe and cautious.

Why is puppy Socialization important? 

Socialization is crucial because you want a well balanced dog that you can bring out with you on adventures, trips and to see friends. A well-socialized puppy usually develops into a more relaxed, confident and happy dog that adjusts easily to new environments. They are accustomed to new situations, changes and people are won’t be as stressed or fearful. 

Poorly socialized dogs are more likely to react to new things with fear or aggression. New things could be as simple as honking cars on a busy street, a person in a hat or uniform, a larger dog, or maybe even a smaller dog, things you will come across in your day-to-day lives.

What to socialize your puppy to and socialization checklist PDF

It’s impossible to socialize your dog to everything, but by covering a wide variety of changes we can be sure our dog is set up for success when new things come along that change won’t be scary. 

Below is a checklist of things I would try to expose my dog to, of course, you know your lifestyle and should add anything else your pup may be in contact with. If you live on a farm, getting them used to all the animals for example will be different than a city dog that will probably never see a cow.

Don’t let new things and new people be more interesting than you

Now that you know what to socialize it’s important to quickly discuss that socialization isn’t meeting all these things, it’s often just observing. I know, this sounds confusing cause it’s called socialization after all and I’m telling you not to socialize. I’ve seen this a lot, almost more than anything else, the excited strong dog that is pulling their owner to meet and potentially jump on new people (or other dogs), because well… they were socialized to learn new people are exciting. 

So while greeting a few people is okay make sure the focus is on you and being able to focus and get your puppy’s attention while around new people (a touch or watch me is great to practice during these times).  Don’t let excited people train your dog that he too should be excited – you need to be more exciting than all these new things. While socializing and exposing your dog to new things let him take it in and also learn to walk calmly past these things, to ignore them and to focus on you – and I promise this will take you really far together down the road of a beautiful partnership for life.

Socialization Do’s and Don’ts

It’s important to ensure you are not over whelming your puppy, you want these sights to be no big deal and not scary. If you find your dog is freezing, nervous, won’t take treats, tail is tucked etc then you’re doing too much. While your intentions are good you need to try to tone it down. For example try to go somewhere quieter, instead of a busy street try watching cars on a residential street, instead of meeting large groups try meeting just one for two people at a time, do shorter sessions and only reward when your pup Is calm and relaxed – we don’t want to reward nervous energy.

You can socialize your puppy, a lot, a little or none that’s up to you, but know it will effect your dog for many years to come. 

Follow up calm socialization with belly rubs, praise, petting or treats. I often hear my dog doesn’t react to these things, and that is exactly the point. We are exposing them during a time they will be less likely to react, let them calmly observe, and then reward.

Socialization Do’s

  • Set up playtime with other puppies your puppies age. Not all adult dogs love puppies and that’s okay.  Many pet stores offer puppy socialization hours too (just for puppies)!
  • Carry your pup around the neighborhood, around town, and pet-friendly stores (Lowes, hobby lobby, and home goods are some of my favorites).
  • Sit down together on a blanket and check items off your checklist
  • Visit a friend or relative
  • Have puppy playdates in your own home or yard
  • Play sounds on your home stereo or laptop – YouTube is a huge resource of sounds. 
  • Reward and praise calm behavior.
  • Sit outside a mall entrance watching everyone. 

Socialization Dont’s

  • Visit dog parks
  • Visit public beaches
  • Walk around meeting strange dogs
  • Put your puppy in an overwhelming situation
  • Meet dogs you don’t know, stick with dogs your puppies same age or vaccinated adult dogs that enjoy puppies
  • Don’t pick up and cuddle your dog that is scared, instead made the experience less impacting (turn down the volume, move further away, etc) and reward the calm behavior.

Hope this helps set your puppy up on the right paw! Ready for some puppy training tutorials? Click to read what you need to train your dog and the first things I teach a puppy.

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