The Do’s and Don’ts of Puppy Socialization

The 8-to-12-week-old stage is crucial for a dog’s social development.

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As a dog trainer, I can’t say enough about how important it is to socialize your new puppy. Not only will proper socialization give you a well-adjusted adult dog, but it can prevent many problems from developing in the first place, especially those involving fear and anxiety. While it’s not foolproof (it’s hypothesized that the mother’s stress levels may affect her unborn puppies), you can have a major and positive effect on your dog’s life, so it should definitely be a priority with your new puppy!

DO give your puppy safe opportunities to meet other people and dogs

While there are still some vets who recommend not taking your puppy to public places or even letting him walk in public until all of his shots are complete, you really don’t want to wait. A puppy’s last shots are generally given at around 15 to 16 weeks of age, while the first main fear stage for a dog is 8 to 12 weeks. It’s really important to work on socialization at this earlier age.

That being said, I know that parvovirus is a very real and very scary threat, so put together play dates with your friend’s dogs/puppies or go to a puppy socialization class where all of the dogs have had their shots.

DON’T wait too long

The 8-to-12-week-old stage is crucial for social development, so you don’t want to miss out on it. I’m not recommending a dog park or other unregulated situation, but I’m suggesting that you not limit your dog to inside the house and your yard during this time. Even the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends that puppies receive socialization before their vaccines are complete.

DO go slowly

Put your puppy in situations that you can control, such as how close you walk to other people/dogs/things. Set up situations (when possible) for her to meet new people, so that you know the humans will act appropriately.

It can also be helpful to do multiple, shorter periods of socialization instead of bigger chunks of time. For example, two 15-minute walks might be less overwhelming than one 30-minute stroll through the park.

DON’T force your dog to do anything she is uncomfortable doing

Ask people to treat her like an adult dog — let her sniff and decide if she wants to say hi, instead of just grabbing her or getting in her face.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Puppy by Shutterstock.

DO keep it positive

Socialization should be a happy time, and it’s a chance to show your puppy that the world isn’t big and scary, but is safe and fun. Reward your puppy with treats, praise, and toys (either from you or from strangers), and if she starts to get overwhelmed or look nervous (tail tucked, ears back, lip licking, eyes looking around), call it a day and go home.

DON’T punish your puppy for being nervous

It’s okay for your puppy to be nervous — that’s part of why we work on socialization! Keep it positive, and if your puppy does get fearful, don’t push him through it; instead, back off and try again later. Repeated exposure in a gentle way will create confidence; repeated exposure in a scary or forceful way will create more fear.

DO give your puppy a variety of experiences

Even dog trainers have a tough time thinking of everything that might be helpful for new puppies to do and who they should meet! Dr. Sophia Yin put together a wonderful checklist that also allows you to track how comfortable (or uncomfortable) your puppy may feel around different experiences, but a quick summary is:

  • People and children of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities
  • A variety of other animals
  • A variety of surfaces to walk on
  • Different sounds inside (vacuum) and outside (cars, trucks, etc.)
  • Handling (touching his ears, feet, etc.)
  • Things with wheels, etc.

DON’T forget to socialize him with children!

Whether or not you have children, there is a good chance that your dog is going to meet them at some point in his life. Children also happen to be the most likely candidate for getting in a dog’s face or doing something that your dog won’t like, so giving your dog at least some experience around children will help in the long run.

DO keep it up!

It’s not over once your dog hits 12 weeks of age. I see many dogs who start to have fear/anxiety issues crop up around 2 to 3 years, which is when many of us complete the training classes and don’t worry as much about socialization. While some dogs do have preferences as they get older (whereas puppies are little more into everything and everyone), continued socialization is very important.

DON’T stop after those first 12 weeks, or after your training classes!

Continue to have play dates, go out around people, and give your dog positive experiences.

Top photo: Puppy by Shutterstock.

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Abbie Mood, Dip. CBST

Abbie lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a dog trainer and freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues. Find out more about her at abbiemood.com and lifediscoveryproject.com. Follow her on Twitter @abbiemood and Instagram @abbiemood.

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