Puppy Socialization: What, Why And How

Socialize your puppy on time
John Walton
Written by John Walton

According to popular opinion the most sociable breeds of dog include the Labrador retriever, Poodle, Boxer and King Charles spaniel. At the bottom of the list you can find the Alaskan malamute, Chihuahua, Doberman and Yorkshire terrier.

Things are rarely what they seem though and the truth of the matter is that any dog can be as sociable or unsociable as YOU make them! You just need to know how to socialize your puppy, when to do it and why it’s vital to your dog’s development.

What is puppy socialization?

A definition would sound like this: the introduction of new experiences, repeatedly if possible in order to help the puppy learn how to react and interact with these experiences in a good way and without being frightened. These new experiences all fall within what’s known as the four S’s – sounds, sights, surfaces and species.

Socialization is also a time, a critical period of a dog’s life. It is thought that although socialization will be built upon throughout a dog’s life that the foundation has to be laid, and most of the work done in the first sixteen weeks. The door will slam shut on socialization at this time!

Why should we socialize puppies?

There are many reasons you should socialize a pup, one of the most important reasons being that you have very little window of opportunity to complete this vital task; vital to your dog for its happiness and well being and vital to an owner to ensure good behavior and a well-balanced member of the family.

Well socialized puppies will turn into dog’s that you can take anywhere knowing that they will meet, greet and interact with people and other dogs in an acceptable and friendly manner. They will cope with life’s curve balls and carry on regardless. You won’t have to change your route because there is another dog coming towards you and your dog. You won’t have to crate or put your dog in another room because you have visitors.

Dogs are very sociable animals and need good interaction with other dogs, their owners and people in general to be happy and well balanced. When socialized well they will thrive on life’s new experiences and enjoy an active social life with all around them.

Non-socialized puppies

Puppies that have not been well socialized tend to be shy, unconfident, scare easily, suffer with anxiety and are generally unhappy. Their behavior will be inflexible and they won’t respond to change or new things well. They’ll more than likely plod along just fine whilst in familiar environments encountering familiar things but when faced with something new they will fall apart.

In some cases a lack of socialization can lead to serious problems. It is entirely feasible that a dog that has not been acclimatised to noise will start to refuse to go for walks at noisy times of the day. If you do manage to get them out, they may slink along rather than walking with their tail between their legs and constant pulling on the lead towards home.

Puppy non-socializing and training

Other dogs may start acting aggressively towards people, other dogs and objects that they are unsure of. They will learn early on that anything they are unsure or afraid of they can keep at arm’s length by acting in an offensive manner. To learn more, you should definitely check out this article on fear aggression in dogs.

It is a sad fact but a far higher number of dogs given up to shelters and euthanized are for behavioral problems rather than medical issues. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior the number one cause of death (euthanasia) for dogs under three years old is behavioral.  No one wants their puppy to fall into that statistic and with good socialization they don’t have to!

When do you socialize a puppy?

For the first eight weeks of a puppy’s life they are taught social skills by their mother and the rest of their litter. This is one of the reasons a puppy should not be removed from its mother before being eight weeks old. A responsible breeder will always show you a litter of pups with mum proving among other things that the puppy’s socialization has begun.

Puppy playing with other dog

The next steps are up to the puppy’s new owner. They have a maximum of eight weeks to complete the majority of puppy socialization. As has been said before, the ability to complete this vital task will end when a puppy reaches sixteen weeks old.

The first step to socializing a puppy

Before you even begin to socialize a puppy you need to stop and think what you are trying to socially acclimatize them to.

There are many things your puppy will become accustomed to naturally due to the frequency that they will see, hear and experience them every day. These might include:

  • Hearing your doorbell
  • Seeing your children playing
  • Watching next doors cat prowling
  • Meeting a variety of visitors
  • Walking on different surfaces

The tendency here will be to think that because your puppy is fine with, for example your children playing in your home, that he/she will be fine with children playing anywhere. This is not the case and you should never generalise experiences. Children playing in a park will be a whole new experience for your puppy although somewhat familiar.

The children playing will be unknown to your dog, the environment will be different and there will be a range of different sounds. Your puppy will need acclimatizing to familiar sights, sounds, species and surfaces presented in different contexts.

The Unfamiliar

Wherever you go with your puppy there are bound to be new experiences. Brand new sounds, sights, species and surfaces await them. Some of these they will encounter frequently, some occasionally and some rarely. It is the occasional and rare that really needs to be concentrated on.

Sounds — fire engines, ambulances, reversing trucks, birdsong, loud bangs, music, fireworks, etc. Your puppy more than likely will hear all of the preceding noises at some time in its life. Familiarising your puppy with these sounds can be difficult due to lack of frequency but it isn’t impossible. You can download all these sounds and more from the internet and then play them on a regular basis for your puppy.

People — your puppy will meet many, many different people in its lifetime and every person will be different in some way to them. Wheelchair users, cyclists, skateboarders, walkers, runners, men with beards, women wearing hats, different races, children, the elderly, etc. All these will likely be unfamiliar to your puppy and you will need to introduce your puppy to them. Try to find as big a chunk of society as possible by walking them in public places.

An extra facet to unfamiliar people and your puppy is that due to the ability of a person to change their appearance, and to be participating in different activities when they encounter your dog, your dog may react in different ways even to the people it knows. Do not take for granted that your dog will greet and treat your best friend who has grown a beard in the same way as they did when they were clean shaven.

Socializing puppies seminars

Animals — most puppies will come across other dogs, puppies and the local cats. However unless you live in the country your puppy is unlikely to see rabbits, sheep, horses, cows, fish etc. It is worth remembering at this point that socialization with the local cats will more than likely mean your puppy will not see them as prey when they get older. It is also worth noting that just like humans, dogs will not necessarily get along with every dog they meet. Moving back to unfamiliar animals, take your puppy to as many places as possible that they will encounter them.

Surfaces — whilst carpet, hard flooring, concrete and grass will be your dog’s domain, cattle grids, wood chip, gravel, sand, leaf covered paths and rocky areas probably will not be. Many a dog owner has to do a detour to avoid areas their dogs just will not walk on or through. Again, this is easily solved by taking your puppy to places with these kinds of surfaces as regularly as possible.

How do you socialize a puppy?

Firstly and most importantly you must only introduce a puppy to new places, situations, objects, sounds and people when YOU can control the experience COMPLETELY. It is an owner’s job to protect a dog from and in any situations which unnerve or frighten them. An owner must be the pack leader at all times.

Never force a puppy to interact with someone or in a situation that makes them nervous or afraid. Allow them to retreat from the situation or gently remove them yourself and reintroduce at a later stage.

Socializing your puppy

Understand why and when your puppy shows fear or nervousness. Do not cuddle your puppy or make a fuss of them when they show fear it will only reinforce it. Instead show your dog that you have control of the situation and that it has no reason to be afraid.

Do take a puppy everywhere you can even if it means carrying them. Prior to vaccinations it is best to not allow a puppy to have contact with unknown dogs or places with high infection risk. Places you may not think of taking a puppy but should include: pet stores, shopping malls (as long as allowed), cafe, pub gardens, gas stations, car wash, farms, police stations, building sites etc.

Always reward a puppy’s good social behavior. Carrying their favorite treats and offering one on successful interaction or non-reaction is usually the best kind of reward.

Know what signals you are sending to your puppy. Make it clear that you are enjoying meeting new people and encountering new things and your puppy will more than likely enjoy it too.

Meeting people

Take things slowly. If you are introducing your puppy to a new person or a person you have asked to do something unusual, for example wear a hat or glasses etc and your puppy shies away, let them. Get your friend to sit somewhere and completely ignore the puppy. Allow the puppy to engage in its own time. Don’t lure with food, this pulls the puppy out of his comfort zone.

When out and about with your puppy ask people for help. You will find most people more than obliging especially since you are walking or carrying a cute bundle of fur. Try to approach different kinds of people so your puppy is exposed to a good variety.

Other dogs

Introduce your puppy into small groups of dogs before plunging into dog parks or other places you will find large groups. Always try to introduce dogs on neutral ground. Dogs can be territorial and introductions in yards and houses can lead to aggression.

Always ensure first meetings are on lead and ask other owners if you and your dog can approach before doing so. When approaching, keep the lead loose so your dog feels calm and able to manoeuvre. If you see another dog off leash watch for its body language. The last thing you want is an aggressive encounter with another dog that may affect your puppy’s relationships with all other dogs forever. In order to avoid this becoming a bigger problem, be sure to read up on dog aggression and how you can help your dog overcome it.

Socializiing with others

When allowing dogs to play together make sure it is in a controlled way and be ready to intervene if play becomes too vigorous or there is any sign of aggression.

If you feel you need a little more help you could always enroll your puppy in a socialization or behavioral class. You will find these being run up and down the country, and even if you are being successful can be a great place for you and your puppy to find and make new friends. The trainers there will specialize in how to socialize a puppy and will be able to help with any issues you may have.

Whichever route you decide to take, follow the guidelines here and you will have a well socialized happy puppy that you are confident you can take anywhere.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Therese Smithson

    Taking your puppy to a socialization class can be such fun. It also relieves tension in their humans! Dog socialization is a must and socialization class might be just the thing you need. Who can stand those puppy eyes and their boundless energy? Try it! It’s also good for you. :)

    • John Walton

      Another added feature is that you can find new friends in the socialization class that shares the same interests with dogs! It relieves stress and also makes your experience as a pet parent a lot worthwhile and engaging.

  • Chynna Lambert

    I tried to befriend my dog to my neighbors’ dogs of his same age. But I am quite not sure if he is shy or what, he doesn’t look scared, though. Someone introduced us to a good doggy care. Now, he is very sociable, but sometimes he picks a fight with other dogs. The trainer from the day care assured me that it is normal. What do you think? Please leave a comment. Thanks.

    • John Walton

      Doggy cares are great provided that you’ve already made a background check on the center’s reputation. It improves your dog’s socialization skills, and literally makes it a better dog to socialize with both dogs and humans at the same time.

  • Charlotte Kingston

    My puppy and I went to a puppy socialization for an hour with 4 other pups yesterday. Today at mid morning she got sick and had her tested. I got a call from the vet that she’s positive for coccidia. Should I call the trainer at the faculty to inform them? Although my puppy didn’t poo or pee while we were there. But could the puppy socialization group be at risk? I guess that’s the downside of being in a group huh?

    • John Walton

      Puppy socialization is incorporated with a slight risk of cross-infection because yes, you expose your dogs to unsuspecting carriers of microorganisms that can compromise its health. When engaging with this activity, always cross check on the facilities and how they screen «student puppies.»

  • Amandalyn Garcia

    My puppy is 11 weeks and gets his second sets of shots tomorrow. He’s afraid of everything. Especially going outside. (He’s a small breed, so we just use potty pads for now) I probably shouldn’t have, but when I got him at 8 weeks he wouldn’t use the bathroom outside. He would just shake and whine.
    He was very easy to pad train. The problem is he now refuses to go outside at all, not to play, he’s afraid of anything new… the car, the leash, new people. I hope he won’t always be so timid. I haven’t tried walking him outside yet since I’m waiting for his vaccines to be completed, but I read you don’t want to wait past 16 weeks to socialize him.. he’s almost 12weeks. I’m not sure if his shots will be complete by then?

    • John Walton

      Hi, Amandalyn,
      I would like to learn more about your dog’s breed. Some breeds are readily sociable, but there are some breeds that require a little more effort to socialize with people and other pets.

      • Amandalyn Garcia

        He’s a «Morkie» (Maltese/Yorkshire Terrier.
        He just completed all of his vaccinations on March 7th ? So he’s good for a year.
        The veterinarian was very surprised that a dog wouldn’t go outside at all.
        He recommended some spray called adaptil?
        To calm him and to try to take him out on his leash. I have tried to walk Oliver, but it’s like he is stubborn and just lays there and stares at me. Now, if we were inside on the leash, he will walk around on it. So I know he’s now just being anxious and maybe stubborn.
        He is barely 5 lbs and is 4 months old.

  • Lauren Bilkiss-Hayes

    I have a Red Heeler that is 15 weeks today. She is very scared of new people, sounds and dogs. She will go up to people and ends up giving them kisses in the end but dogs are a different story. He first 2 dogs she was with she ended up warming up to eventually and did fine. Recently we took her to a puppy class just for socialization and she was so scared she ended up trying to nip any dog that came to close for to long. We went on a walk and she nipped at an 18 month old dog as well. It’s 100% fear aggression but how do i get her over it? We’re doing walks everyday now to help. But do i smoother her with dogs or let her tell me when she’s ready to meet them? I don’t want it to lead to long term aggression.