Learn the why, when and how to socialize the newest member of your family—the one with the roly-poly body, four tiny paws, and a kissable face.

A puppy's first 12 weeks shape his future. Socialization is all about teaching your puppy that the world is a safe place where people and dogs are friendly and new experiences don't have to be scary. And it's accomplished by handling puppies the right way during their magical first three months of life.

Behavioral scientists John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller identified the critical social development stage as being between three and 12 weeks of age for good reason. During this time period, it only takes a small amount of experience to affect a puppy's later behavior.

"Naturally puppies continue to learn throughout their lives," says Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. "[But a] puppy who is not socialized early is neurologically fearful and more likely to act cautious, nervous, and shy around unfamiliar people, animals, and situations."

When a puppy is introduced to new sights and sounds shoin a positive way, he'll grow up smarter, healthier, and more confident. In other words, he'll take situations like hearing a garbage truck and climbing steep stairs all in stride.

Socialization Starts at Birth

Although newborn puppies cannot see or hear, their senses of smell and touch are fully functioning. Conscientious breeders begin handling the puppies immediately, while the pups' mother supplies the meals and cuddles. She even cleans up after them.

At two weeks, pups' ears and eyes open. They're ready to hear a range of everyday sounds, like the dishwasher and clanging pots. This stimulation helps with neurological development.

By four weeks, puppies grow stronger and seek out more adventures. They begin playing with their littermates and investigating environmental enrichment provided by the breeder. A stimulating puppy pen can look like a toddler playground filled with differently textured hanging objects, and toys that squeak, honk, and clang. The breeder also should provide challenging obstacles like tunnels, wobble boards, boxes, and slides to climb in, on, over, and through to teach puppies how to cope with unusual circumstances in a safe way.

During weeks five through seven, puppies become more coordinated and physically active. If you acquire your puppy from a conscientious breeder, the puppy learns from his mother and littermates and will stay with the breeder until he's at least eight weeks old. If you adopt a puppy younger than eight weeks, continue giving him the coping skills he needs to handle almost anything that comes his way as an adult dog.

The Role You Play in Socialization

Once you bring your puppy home, he needs to continue learning about the world until he's at least 12 weeks old. Even better, approach socialization as a lifelong process. An early foundation is important, but there can be significant regression if your puppy's lessons are not continued through the juvenile and adolescent life stages.

Ready to get started? Set out a few everyday objects to help him get to know his new environment Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • a broom leaning against the wall
  • a hanging flag
  • one or two big balls in the middle of a room
  • a small tent
  • an open umbrella
  • a baby stroller or bouncer
  • a sheet of bubble wrap
  • a hair dryer
  • a vacuum cleaner

In warm weather, expose your puppy to water play by turning on the sprinklers. Let him investigate water trickling from a hose, people in a swimming pool, rain, and fountains.

Breeders also recommend that you help your puppy meet a wide variety of new people in those all-important first three months. Make sure you include males and females of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. If a puppy fears men, for example, it's often because he hasn't been given the chance to be around adult males.

Just keep in mind, you want your puppy's association with everything he might encounter in his world to be positive so he feels safe. Add soft, chewable treats (pea-size or smaller) to all social experiences. Let your puppy choose to interact or not and be your puppy's advocate.

"It's important not to overwhelm your puppy with too many new experiences all at once," says Ellen M. Lindell, president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, who received her Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris degree from the University of Pennsylvania. "He needs to feel comfortable, not trapped."

Protect Puppy’s Health While Socializing

Getting your puppy out and about gives him a good start in life, as does providing the right veterinary care. This includes puppy vaccinations during his first year. The question of how soon new owners can begin their puppies' adventures outdoors always arises. Consider these points of view.

Because of the puppy's risk of contracting an infectious disease such as canine parvovirus, some veterinarians advise owners to hold off taking their puppies out in public before 16 weeks of age and only after they've completed a full course of vaccinations.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) believes puppies should receive socialization before they are fully vaccinated. "Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the No. 1 cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age," AVSAB writes. The organization recommends that puppies receive one set of vaccines as well as a first deworming one week before attending their first puppy class.

Keep your puppy safe when it's time for him to learn about life outside your home. Because of his immature immune system, he shouldn't visit places such as dog parks. The more dogs there are in one place, the greater chance there is of yours being exposed to infectious diseases such as kennel cough. Try these fun puppy outings instead and take small, special treats along with you during these outings to give your pup positive associations with each and every one of them. (BTW: If you want to visit a business with your pup, ask in advance if dogs are welcome.)

  • Walk through a large home improvement store.
  • Eat lunch at an outdoor café.
  • Meander through a garden center.
  • Stroll past doors that open and close automatically.
  • Walk along a busy, noisy city street.
  • Sniff animal odors at a farm.
  • Sink into the sand on a beach.
  • Climb over fallen branches in the woods.
  • Experience the bustle of a bus or train station.
  • Visit an office building.

Talk to your vet about when it's OK to take your puppy out into the world. Even if your pup is not fully vaccinated, you can socialize him safely using these strategies:

  • Welcome company. Invite people you know to meet your new pup in the safety of his own home.
  • Visit a friend. Take your puppy to a friend's house, where he can experience a new environment safely.
  • Meet other dogs. Avoid dog parks for now. Instead, ask a couple of friends to bring their healthy, friendly dogs to meet your puppy in a clean, outdoor location.
  • Let him ride. Until your puppy is old enough to walk outside on his own, use a stroller, wagon, or backpack to take him on outings. This gives him a chance to experience things from a safe place.
  • Keep him clean. Avoid letting a puppy walk where other dogs leave urine or feces.
  • Use an exercise pen. Lay out a tarp and set up a puppy pen at the park. This gives your pup a new view from a safe position.

While it helps to remain patient, you don't need to spend hours socializing your dog. Get in the habit of taking your puppy everywhere you go that allows dogs. Multiple short trips work better than one or two long outings.

Above all, observe your dog's reactions to different situations. If your puppy is afraid of household noises, such as the dishwasher, remove him from the kitchen. Turn it on again. Praise him and offer a treat so he begins to associate hearing an odd noise with a reward. It's also best not to encourage a group of children to crowd him. Limit the exposure to one well-behaved child until your pup is confident enough to greet more kids.

Continue socializing your dog throughout his life. Like us, dogs need to keep expanding their minds and environments to remain healthy and interested in the world around them.