Puppy socialization is the most important period in your puppy’s life. It’s time sensitive and imperative that puppies receive quality positive experiences to various things in their environment. In this article I take a deep dive into what socialization is, how to do it, and what to focus on.
The socialization period is a developmental period in puppies between the ages of 3-16 weeks. It’s an extremely important window of time where puppies are exploring, building judgments about their world and learning what is safe and unsafe. Experiences during this time will shape how adult dogs navigate their world and how they will interact and react to stimuli in their environment.
Proper socialization training during this developmental period will prepare puppies to thrive and feel safe in our human world as they progress into adolescence and adulthood. It can also minimize the potential of fear and aggression to develop, which are two behavioral issues that are very difficult to change once acquired.
It’s a very short window of time, so it’s imperative that owners start socialization immediately. Manners or obedience training can wait.
We socialize our puppies by exposing them to new people, animals, sounds, environments, surfaces, objects like grooming tools, and practice body handling. But it’s not just about the exposure. We want to make sure every exposure and experience is good and positive, never bad or scary.
How do we do that? We start by pairing two things together.
“When we talk about “pairing” we mean combining new things and experiences with things the puppy already loves.” (puppy socialization)
Things the puppy already loves can be food, play, praise or a combination of them all.
“When this is done correctly, the good feelings the puppy gets from the things he already loves can transfer to the new ones.” (Puppy Socialization)
Pairing a new thing/experience with something they love will form a positive association between the two, and with enough pairings that thing/experience will automatically elicit good feelings.
Say you’re working on pairing your grooming tools with cooked chicken. Every time you bring out your grooming tools you then throw a chicken party and tell your puppy how good and brave she is.
Put together a design
After a few times of doing this you might see your puppy perk up or get excited when you bring out the grooming tools. That’s exactly what you want to see! Those yummy happy feelings your puppy gets when she eats chicken has now transferred to your grooming tools.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) states that puppies can safely start socializing and interacting with their world 7 days after their first set of vaccinations and deworming. That means many puppies can start exploring their world and experiencing stimuli as soon as they are brought home.
Of course, keep your puppy away from dog parks, dogs with an unknown vaccination status or an unknown temperament towards puppies and areas where there may be a high volume of unknown dog feces.
If you are worried about diseases there are many things you can do to safely socialize your puppy. You can put your puppy in a wagon and sit outside of a children’s park. Find a cart and wheel them around Home Depot. Or, put a clean blanket down in your neighborhood park and watch the world go by.
The worst thing you could do during this time is to quarantine your puppy inside your home.
You always want to make sure your puppy is feeling safe and happy. Learning about dog body language is a must. Check out Lili Chin’s “Doggie Language” book for some adorable and easy-to-understand illustrations.
If your puppy is showing any signs of stress or fear (tail tucked, wide eyes, backing away, hiding, yawning, lip licking, cowering, etc.) you can:
Don’t force your puppy to face things they find scary because it can create a negative association with that thing or experience.
Once you have a good understanding of dog body language you’ll want to get a bag of your puppy’s favorite snacks. Think high value foods like cooked chicken, cheese, smelly wet food, freeze-dried liver or hot dogs.
Grab a socialization checklist and pick something off of it like, children. Go to the park, set down a blanket 30 yards away (far enough where your puppy feels safe but can see the children) and let your puppy observe. You’re not letting children pet your puppy yet. Just observe.
Every time your puppy notices a child, give her a handful of snacks.
Every time your puppy hears a child’s voice, give her a handful of snacks.
Anytime a child runs by or makes a crazy movement, give her a handful of snacks.
Basically, anytime your puppy notices a child or hears a childlike sound make it rain snacks.
If your puppy is showing signs of stress then move farther away from the park until they feel safer. After a few minutes maybe try getting a tad closer. Continue doing this until your puppy looks excited or looks at you expectedly when a child runs by, screams or comes close.
Then, pat yourself on the back because you just made huge progress towards socialization and making your future dog feel safe around children.
You can take those tips and apply them to any other stimuli on your socialization checklist. Just make sure your puppy:
You want to expose your puppy to as many things on the socialization checklist as possible. The more positive experiences your puppy has the better prepared they will be for the real world in their adult life.
Here are some of the categories that you will want to focus on as well as a few examples in each:
Prioritize the quality of each experience over the quantity – meaning each experience is a good and positive one. And that your puppy is exposed to things multiple times and in different environments.
For example: Exposing your puppy to the sounds and movements of traffic
There are tons of ways you can expose your puppy to traffic, and varying the intensity, environment and location are all things you can do to further that exposure and ensure your puppy will be prepared for traffic sounds anywhere!
Apply this strategy to all of the categories. You can even hit multiple categories in one outing. Just make sure your puppy feels safe, comfortable and happy.
AVSAB has identified that the number 1 reason for relinquishment of dogs are behavioral problems. Proper socialization during puppies’ most critical developmental period can have a huge impact on reducing behavioral problems such as fear and aggression.
Of course, there are other factors such as genetics, bad experiences, maternal gestation and maternal rearing that all can contribute to adult dogs acquiring fear. However, we can control and make an impact on our dog’s future by doing everything we can to properly take advantage of our puppy’s socialization period. I strongly encourage every puppy owner to make socialization a priority.
Working with a qualified trainer can help you to safely and effectively socialize during this short window of time. You can check out my Puppy Socialization Program that runs in Denver, Colorado.
If you’re adopting a dog or brought home a puppy check out my Puppy Prep Zoom.
It’s a virtual session where you can ask me, a professional dog trainer, any questions. We’ll chat about how to puppy-proof your home, socialization, and potty training.
My Puppy Socialization Program focuses on safe socialization.
The socialization period is time sensitive and super important to focus on, so if your puppy is between 8-16 weeks please contact me or another qualified positive reinforcement trainer to get started.
My last program is the Wildflower Puppy Program, which focuses on obedience training and manners. We’ll establish a solid foundation of good behavior that you can build on, or work through any behavioral issues.
I’m Lauren, a positive reinforcement dog trainer in Denver, Colorado.
I earned my Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC) from The Academy for Dog Trainers in 2022.
I use positive reinforcement and force-free training.
All of my training is based on the science behind animal learning and behavior.
“Puppy Socialization – What it is and how to do it” by Marge Rogers, CBCC-KA, CCUI and Eileen Anderson, MM, MS