How to Socialize a Puppy & Why It's So Important
You've bought all the essential puppy supplies, set up vet appointments, and prepared yourself for months of potty training. But once you bring home a new puppy, there's still an important hurdle ahead: socialization.
Socializing your puppy is all about teaching them that the world is a safe place and that new experiences, people, and other animals don't have to be scary. It's accomplished by positively reinforcing new situations to puppies during their magical first three months of life.
Behavioral scientists John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller identified the critical puppy socialization period as being between three and 12 weeks of age. During this stage, it only takes a small amount of experience to affect a puppy's later behavior. And assuming you've brought home your puppy once he's at least 8 weeks old, you've only got a month left to take advantage of this critical time in your pup's development.
"Naturally puppies continue to learn throughout their lives," Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, says. "[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 in a positive way, he'll grow up smarter, healthier, and more confident. In other words, he'll take everyday situations like hearing a garbage truck and climbing steep stairs all in stride.
When Are Puppies Socialized?
Socialization is a lifelong process, but the bulk of it occurs during the first 12 weeks of your puppy's life. In fact, socialization can start as early as birth. Although newborn puppies cannot see or hear, their senses of smell and touch are fully functioning. Responsible breeders begin handling the puppies immediately to help them feel comfortable with human touch. At two weeks, pups' ears and eyes open. During this time, they should be exposed to everyday sounds, like the dishwasher and clanging pots. This stimulation both helps them get used to the sounds they'll hear at home and aids neurological development.
Between four to eight weeks, puppies grow stronger, more coordinated, 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, challenging obstacles, and toys that squeak, honk, and clang. The breeder also should allow the litter to experience both the indoors and outdoors, different sounds, smells, people, and even car rides before letting them go to their forever homes.
How to Socialize A Puppy
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.
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. Let your pup choose to interact or not and be sure to reward him with soft, chewable treats.
"It's important not to overwhelm your puppy with too many new experiences all at once," Ellen M. Lindell, president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, who received her Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris degree from the University of Pennsylvania, says. "He needs to feel comfortable, not trapped."
Above all, observe your dog's reactions to different situations. If your puppy is afraid of a new experience, remove him from the situation, praise him, and offer a treat so he associates it with a positive reward. Then try that experience again later.
Here are a few ways to get started with socializing your puppy:
Puppy Socialization Classes
Learning to get along with other dogs is a huge part of your pup's socialization. One of the safest ways to introduce puppies to other dogs is through puppy kindergarten classes. In these classes—which, importantly, are not for obedience training—puppies are exposed to a wide range of new experiences, including playing with different dogs, meeting new people, walking on different surfaces, and more. Doing this alongside a trained supervisor and using positive reinforcement (lots of treats) allows your pup to learn that the world isn't such a scary place.
Socializing at Home
While classes are a great way to expose your puppy to the world, socializing your pup at home is just as important. He'll be spending the majority of his life inside your home, so it's important he learns what sounds, smells, and obstacles he'll run into every day.
To socialize your puppy at home, introduce him to as many new sounds, sights, smells, and people as possible. This puppy socialization checklist is a short list of a wide range of different experiences your puppy should be positively exposed to in their first three months of life.
- Bubble wrap, plastic bags, and packaging
- Hanging flags
- Baby strollers
- Balls and Frisbees
- Water (sprinklers, hoses, rain)
- Vacuum cleaners
- Dishwashers and laundry appliances
- Lawn mowers
- People of all ages, genders, races, and sizes
- People wearing glasses, hats, coats, masks, etc.
- People using wheelchairs and other physical aids
Taking your puppy on short trips to stores and parks teaches them how to interact with a wide range of people and experiences they can't get at home. Try these fun puppy outings and take 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.
Can Puppies Be Socialized Before Getting Vaccinated?
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. But is it safe for pups to go into the world before their vaccinations are complete?
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.
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.
A previous version of this story included reporting by Elaine Waldorf Gewirtz.