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If you have a new puppy, you'll want to get your puppy off to the best start, with early puppy socialization to be comfortable in his or her own skin and in the world.
Puppy socialization is the process of exposing your puppy to new people, places and things in a safe and positive way. The goal is to help your puppy learn how to behave around other people, animals and situations he/she may encounter.
When it comes to puppy socialization, start early. Puppies should begin socialization between the ages of 12-16 weeks for best results. Start off slow with positive experiences that will leave your puppy feeling safe and secure.
Why puppy socialization is one of the first, best things to do
Of all the things you want and need to do with a puppy, as a dog trainer, I encourage you to make sure proper socialization is at the top of your list and start socializing your puppy from the beginning.
The puppy socialization sweet spot
Puppy socialization isn’t actually “training” per se, but at the beginning of your puppy’s life it is much more essential than anything else in early training.
What makes puppy socialization important and worth putting at the top of your and your puppy's agenda?
You have a lifetime to teach your dog new behaviors, but only 12-16 weeks to teach your dog that the world is a pretty cool place.
Puppy socialization is one of the topics we discuss here on Dogly that are foundational and applicable to newly adopted older dogs, too - just with a few caveats.
What's the difference between socializing a puppy and an adult dog?
This is where adopted adult dogs are going to differ quite a bit - their socialization period has passed and we often have very little idea what exactly went on during those incredibly formative months.
I do sometimes have people with adolescent or adult dogs reach out to me and want to socialize their dogs further and what I tell them is we can always work to improve how a dog feels about certain stimuli (like strangers, bearded men, children, other dogs, bikes, scooters…) although their golden socialization window has closed.
We may very well be able to teach an adult dog to tolerate the presence of things that he or she may not be so into, but for a dog who has very little socialization with, say, other dogs, the likelihood that we’ll turn that dog into Social Butterfly Party Guy or Girl is pretty slim.
What to do - and not do - in puppy socialization
If you do have a puppy who is still in the socialization period sweet spot, you want to do everything in your power to give your puppy as many positive experiences with new things as possible.
That doesn't mean you should whisk your dog off to the dog park or even take a puppy class. In fact, dog parks and puppy classes with other dogs you don't know aren't a great idea to socialize a puppy (they are great for general training purposes!). For socialization, you have too many unpredictables and you want to control the socialization scenario to make sure everything about getting used to this new thing for your dog is positive - nothing scary, no surprises.
(Of course, you also want to keep in mind that your young puppy might not be fully vaccinated yet and shouldn't be in public spaces. For now, you can bring many of the things to socialize your puppy to you - or let your dog see/hear them from the safety of your arms or an infant carrier in public.)
Your puppy socialization checklist: 7 things you'll want to introduce positively to your new puppy
You can tailor your list to socialize a puppy to your lifestyle and expectations to some degree, of course, but here are the basics to get started with your dog and your early socialization process to have a well socialized puppy:
1) Other dogs (well-adjusted, puppy-friendly dogs)
Choose dogs you know are puppy-friendly and who won't overpower your puppy with enthusiasm or over-friendliness. Puppy playdates with other puppies might seem like a good idea, but an adult dog who is calm and well-trained is usually your best choice for positive interactions rather than another puppy who is likely to be less predictable.
2) Other people (of different genders, ethnicities, ages, appearances, etc)
Let your dog see and then decide (or not) to approach the various types of people or other family members. Keep it low-key, let your puppy do the approaching. Find a comfortable spot with no other stressors, and always have plenty of high-value treats in hand. (High value means something your puppy loves and quality nutrition for your pup.)
3) Handling procedures (touching body parts, being poked and prodded for routine care)
You'll be forever thankful you got your pup used to being handled and touched every time you need to have your dog let you brush his/her teeth, get nails trimmed, be examined by your vet, and a million other things. Get comfortable with your puppy, then massage paws, ears, etc. gently.
4) Things that move (cars, bikes, skateboards, etc)
Let your puppy get used to the movement and sound of things like skateboards in an otherwise quiet, safe spot like a driveway away from a busy street. Treat generously as always. And during your socialization session if your puppy shows any fearful reaction or stress, put distance between you and the thing and treat generously.
Always keep your puppy under threshold with all of these examples as you get your puppy used to these things. At any signs of stress, put distance between you and the moving thing, and treat while your puppy can see the thing at a comfortable distance.
5) Things in your house - especially that make noise (vacuum cleaner, door bell, etc)
For all the things that makes noise and can cause stress in your home, follow the same process. Help your puppy get used to them in small increments, always making sure your dog stays under threshold, and treating and keeping your puppy feeling safe.
The same goes for thunder or fireworks, although you can't always predict when they're going to happen. Make sure you or someone is home with your puppy helping your puppy feel comfortable. Reduce the sound as much as possible (use buffers, tv, music, etc) while still allowing your puppy to hear it, but lightly as much as possible and use plenty of engaging treats.
6) Ground/floor surfaces (grass, pavement, slippery floors, things that wobble, bridges, etc)
It may sound odd, but many puppies and dogs can be thrown off by unusual surfaces that might spook them while walking. It could be slippery linoleum type or marble floors or see-through stairs or any kind of bridge or an elevator floor. Be ready to pick up your puppy or toss down a towel or something else to walk on if needed. And as usual, treat!
7) Other animals (cats, livestock if need be)
Getting used to cats and any other animals you're likely to be around (horses, for example) is SO much easier with puppies who can see them as no big deal if they meet properly from the beginning. Again, choose an easy, predictable cat - no attack cats - and keep the treats coming.
Always keep it positive and in your puppy's comfort zone
The key here is POSITIVE experiences. Do not mistake exposure for socialization. This is a situation where quality is much more important than quantity. Carefully observing your puppy’s body language for any signs of stress or discomfort is key - if you see anything that indicates your puppy is concerned or fearful, you need more space from the weird or scary thing in question.
If we are not careful and allow our puppy to inadvertently have negative experiences during this impressionable time, we risk achieving the opposite of our goal and creating a more fearful dog in the future.
Why you need treats when you start socializing your puppy
This is basic Pavlovian conditioning. By pairing the potentially scary thing with something good (food) and creating positive associations, we can influence your puppy’s emotional response to that thing. This is also the case with adult dogs! So, if you have a new older dog who you’re trying to acclimate to new environments or new things, you can begin to condition your pup to enjoy those experiences by pairing them (at a low intensity) with food.
Check out this guide to learn about dogs’ thresholds, what they are, how to recognize and keep your dog under his/her threshold in various situations. And you can watch the video accompanying this guide below as I take you through all these steps to a successful socialization process for your dog.
Discover the importance of early puppy socialization and learn how to safely introduce your puppy to new experiences, people, and animals.
Next up in the Puppy Channel on Dogly
Now that you know the why and how of socializing your puppy to the many exciting things in your home and the outside world, enjoy experiencing your new life together! And if you're ready to get started with more ways to set up your puppy for success, continue on to the next guide here.
Or, continue with all of the step-by-step guides in the Puppy Channel here on Dogly.
If you ever need more personalized training help, get started with your dog's plan here.