Puppy Socialization: Dos and Don'ts from a Training Expert
Everyone knows about the importance of socialization, but what does this mean and how do we put it into action? Do those online socialization checklists work? Learn how to set your puppy up for future success with solid socialization.
Everyone knows about the importance of socialization, but what does this mean and how do we put it into action? Do those online socialization checklists work?
Puppy Socialization Basics
In some contexts, socialization refers to specific developmental markers that puppies experience. While there are general guidelines, some breeds tend to hit these markers earlier than others. The primary socialization period starts between 3-5 weeks of age and ends around 12-14 weeks. During this time period, puppies learn more quickly than adult dogs and discover what is a safe and normal part of their environment.
More generally, socialization is often defined as learning how to act appropriately in society - whether talking about puppies or people. This can sometimes be used to describe dogs of any age, though we are primarily talking about younger puppies here.
Is there a right way to socialize a puppy?
Some of the socialization experiences will be different depending on your puppy, your lifestyle in the next year, and thinking about where your life might take you in the next 5-10 years.
A puppy who will go to work with you at a middle school will probably need a different socialization plan than a puppy who will live on a working livestock farm. A puppy in a city environment may need different socialization than a puppy who lives in a suburban home. And a puppy who will be with kids - whether in your home, with visitors, or with family members - may need different socialization activities than a puppy who will have minimal interactions with kids throughout his life.
Another aspect to consider is the individual puppy. Each puppy is an individual. One puppy might glance at livestock and move on, while another might need to be 30’ away to feel comfortable. Some puppies are happy to go out into busy environments; others might find that too overwhelming and would benefit from smaller gatherings for now. We need to adjust for each puppy rather than strictly sticking to a standardized checklist.
No matter who your puppy is, the key is to give your puppy positive or neutral experiences with sights, sounds, smells, textures, and experiences. We aim not to overwhelm a puppy and to help them quickly recover if they are exposed to too much.
Not All Experiences are Good Experiences
Here’s a story I hear every week: “I took him to the farmers market and he let all of the kids pet him. We did this once or twice a week. I don’t understand why he’s growling at kids now when he was so well-socialized.” The family then shows me photos or videos where I see a stationary puppy looking away from the kids, sometimes licking his lips or yawning. The puppy is trying to walk away but unable to leave, with kids surrounding him. This was not the experience the families were hoping for!
While some puppies will be more wiggly and joyful than others, we can look at the body language of each puppy to identify signs of happiness, relaxation, or stress.
A few signs of happiness you might see in your puppy:
- Eager to approach a person or object,
- Wiggly body,
- Interest in you and others,
- Engaging in treats or toy play.
A few signs of stress could include:
- lip licking,
- moving away,
- frozen in place or stiff body language,
- barking without wiggling,
- hesitant to eat treats or play with toys.
If you see signs of stress, your puppy is not having as good a time as you’d like them to have and this may not be providing the positive socialization experience you were looking for.
Things To Avoid When Socializing Your Pup
What is right for one puppy might be overwhelming for another. Here are a few things that we should, in general, try to avoid with puppies.
Mistaking interaction for socialization
Your puppy does not have to interact with a person, dog, or animal to have a socialization experience. Rather than being up close with someone, your puppy may be better off at a distance and just hanging out with you. Long-term, this relaxed attitude is what we want. We don’t need adult dogs who try to run up to other people and dogs.
Holding puppies for petting
If your puppy is on the ground, he can move away if he’s overwhelmed. A puppy in our arms or a carrier cannot move away. This leads to some puppies snapping to get space rather than choosing the more peaceful option of moving away.
Too much Too Quickly
Rather than taking a young puppy to a dog park with disease risks and where unknown dogs could surround him, you can set up one-on-one meetings with vaccinated, healthy dogs who are good with puppies. This prevents your puppy from being surrounded, and they can always move away to get space if needed. If you meet a bunch of kids in the neighborhood, encourage one-on-one interactions rather than letting your puppy be surrounded by everyone all at once.
Thinking They’ll Get Over It
While there are some situations where more exposure can help, there is a greater risk that a puppy will actually become more sensitive if exposed to things at levels he cannot handle. Once this happens, it is very challenging to overcome, so it is crucial that we try to avoid this level of exposure. We want a neutral or happy response during socialization experiences.
Thinking They’ll Outgrow Fear or Excitement.
While some puppies may occasionally outgrow behaviors, it’s more common for them to grow into more fear or excitement if we do not address this early on. If your puppy is fearful or over-excited, we need to work with a professional to help your puppy be more comfortable.
Prepping For Positive Puppy Experiences
You can play with toys, treat training games, petting and interaction, or interact with the environment. Think about the activities your puppy enjoys and find ways to give them these experiences. Match your fun games with the attitude you want. For example, we probably don’t want to use fetch as a fun game at the soccer game if your eventual goal is for your puppy to relax at your feet.
Health Risk During Socialization
There are disease risks for puppies who still need to finish their vaccination series. Talk with your veterinarian about the risks in your area and how to weigh the risks and benefits. Most of the disease and parasite risks are from the urine or feces of infected dogs. A few ideas that may help you could be to carry your puppy in public areas to let your dog experience sights, sounds, and smells without spending time in the group. You could have your puppy crated in the car with the door open near a playground or kid’s soccer game. You might invite friends and family over or even healthy dogs who do not visit dog parks or daycares.
If you need help creating a socialization plan for your puppy, please reach out. We have trainers with a special interest in puppies and with experience raising puppies for themselves and others, fostering puppies, and specialty puppy training.