When puppies are brought to their forever home, not only do they need to be fed, cuddled, played with, and house-trained, but they also need to learn to interact with people, other animals, and the outside world. This is where puppy socialization comes in.
Socializing a puppy during the first few months of life sets them up for success as they integrate into the world. It helps puppies become comfortable with the different sights, smells, sounds, and inhabitants (objects, people, and other animals) they’ll encounter throughout their life.
Here’s why socializing a puppy is so crucial and how to do it right.
What Is Puppy Socialization?
The socialization period is the time in a puppy’s life where they learn how to be a social member of the dog world, typically at 3–12 weeks old. During the socialization period, the puppy’s brain is most receptive to introductions and interaction with other members of their species.
When a puppy is being socialized, the pet parents are using the socialization period to expose their puppy to as many new experiences as possible. These experiences allow the puppy to acclimate to new stimuli and mature into a well-adjusted dog.
Socialization is needed to help puppies become comfortable with:
New sights, sounds, and smells
Different objects and surfaces
People of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities
Other animal species
Why Is Socializing a Puppy Important?
Socialization is important because dogs are expected to navigate a lot of stimuli in the modern world. Many dogs live in cities with busy streets and cars, buses, and trucks roaring by and honking from every direction. They may encounter fast-moving objects such as joggers, cyclists, and skateboarders, as well as novel stationary objects like garbage cans, statues, or inflatable holiday decorations.
Strangers and children might approach your dog and want to pet them, sometimes without asking permission. Some pet parents will want to take their dog with them to outdoor cafés or pubs, or to an off-leash dog park. Early exposure to these situations will help your puppy be comfortable when faced with them in the future.
When a puppy is being socialized, the pet parents are using the socialization period to expose the puppy to as many experiences as possible.
Puppies that have not been exposed to experiences outside the limited world of their home are more fearful and anxious. They may mature into fearful, anxious adult dogs that have a higher likelihood of behavioral disorders.
When Should You Socialize a Puppy?
The best time to socialize a puppy is from 3–12 weeks of age.
Because most puppies go to their forever home at 8–12 weeks old, early socialization (between 3–8 weeks of age) should be performed by your breeder or, if the puppy is from a rescue or shelter, by the foster parents or shelter staff.
For some puppies, the socialization period may extend to 16 or 20 weeks. This extended period is influenced by breed and the individual puppy.
How To Socialize a Puppy
Before heading outside to introduce your puppy to the world, make sure it’s safe to do so. Taking your puppy into a public place isn’t recommended until they’re fully vaccinated. This is because puppies can be exposed to serious illnesses like parvovirus, leptospirosis, and kennel cough.
If your puppy isn’t fully vaccinated yet, there are workarounds you can use to keep them safe during socialization outings. For example, you can set up a blanket area to the side of a busy public space and have the puppy stay on the blanket.
Only let your puppy interact with healthy, fully vaccinated dogs. Avoid letting your puppy walk on the ground in public areas frequented by dogs, as this poses an infection risk. Use a stroller, sling, or carry your puppy instead.
Talk to your veterinarian for guidance on keeping your puppy safe when socializing them.
1. Prepare Your Puppy
Before taking the puppy outside for socialization, pet parents should have the right supplies. This includes:
A treat pouch filled with a variety of high-value, tasty dog treats
Fresh water and a portable water bowl
Pet-safe sanitary wipes for any necessary cleanup
Hand sanitizer for anyone who wants to pet your puppy
2. Provide Positive Reinforcement
The goal of puppy socialization is to show your puppy the outside world is an interesting, positive, and fun place to be. It’s important to make sure the puppy is having a good time outside, so offer plenty of praise, treats, and affection. Give your pup a break if they seem tired or scared.
3. Take It Slow With New Stimuli
Puppies need to be introduced to new objects and experiences slowly. Stand at a distance where the puppy can first observe the stimuli and take in the sights without feeling overwhelmed. Watch the puppy’s body language for negative responses, such as:
Vocalizations such as whining or whimpering
If the puppy is fearful or anxious, they may need to be moved farther from the object. If the puppy has their ears forward, is looking at the object, is wagging their tail, and/or is moving forward, you can slowly approach the new object.
If the puppy becomes startled, quickly distract and redirect their attention to you or a toy. This can help reduce the possibility of the puppy becoming scared and developing a negative emotional response to the experience.
Remember, your puppy doesn’t need to experience everything at once, especially in a busy public place. Just a short exposure or moving the puppy a few steps closer toward a desired location can be enough for their first few experiences. Gradually build on these positive experiences instead of rushing your pup.
Remember, your puppy doesn’t need to experience everything at once, especially in a busy public place.
4. Make Introductions to People
Allow brief, positive interactions with adults and children. If you don’t know anyone with children, take the puppy to a park and sit on a blanket near the playground, allowing the puppy to see and hear children. Do not allow other people to pick up your puppy, as it could potentially scare your pup.
5. Enroll in Puppy Socialization Classes
Puppies can enroll in socialization classes once they have been dewormed, tested negative for intestinal parasites, and received their first DHPP/DA2PP vaccination.
During puppy socialization class, puppies are expected to meet and interact with other puppies of different breeds, ages, and sizes, along with people and potentially children. The class instructors should introduce the puppies to different surfaces to walk on; different toys; new objects such as skateboards, wheelchairs, shopping carts, rolling suitcases, and bicycles; and noises the puppy is likely to hear in life.
Classes can last four to six weeks and focus on the basics of positive reinforcement training. Avoid classes that use aversive techniques and tools, as punitive handling and training methods can increase fear and anxiety and weaken the human-animal bond.
Many puppy socialization classes only meet once a week. The rest of the time, pet parents must do the work and take their puppies out to meet the world. Puppy parents short on time may wish to enroll in a second class to give their puppy additional opportunities to meet new people and other dogs within their short (but crucial!) socialization period.
6. Create a Socialization Schedule
Socialization should be performed at least two or three times a week until the puppy is at least 6 months old.
Some pet parents make the mistake of investing a lot of time in socialization through the first four months of their puppy’s life, but then stop participating in activities outside the house. However, without repeated and continuous exposure, some puppies may regress or become fearful when exposed to new situations as adults.
Puppies should continue to be exposed well into adolescence to situations that you want an adult dog to be able to tolerate. These situations can include going on car rides, riding in an elevator, walking past a group of people, or hiking on a trail.
Tips for Socializing a Puppy
- Bring the puppy on short walks during the day and night, through different neighborhoods.
- Expose the puppy to different walking surfaces, such as concrete, asphalt, grass, dirt, gravel, sand, and metal plates or grates.
- Walk your puppy in places where there are no stray, sick, or unvaccinated dogs. Sunlight kills parvovirus, so the risk of contracting it when walking a puppy on a clean, dry pavement is lower. Talk to your vet for guidance.
- Avoid walking the puppy in areas contaminated with dog feces, such as dog parks and beaches, until the puppy has received their final vaccine at 16 weeks old.
- Arrange playdates with healthy, vaccinated dogs, or be in areas with no history of parvovirus infection, such as your backyard.
- Bring your puppy to local parks, but don’t let them walk on the grass until they’ve received all their vaccinations. Let the puppy play on a clean blanket on the ground or sit next to you on a blanket on a park bench.
- Introduce your puppy to people of all ages, sizes, heights, and ethnicities.
- End the outing if the puppy is not enjoying the experience. Frightening experiences can negatively impact the puppy’s mental and behavioral development.
Featured Image: Brendan von Wahl/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
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