The road to a well-behaved adult dog starts with a crucial first step – puppy socialization.
In the first few weeks of their lives, your new furry family member is developing fast. This is an important learning period, which will shape their view of the world for years to come.
As a responsible pet parent, it’s your duty to ensure they gain all the skills they need during this critical stage of social development. If you socialize your puppy correctly, you’ll help them to grow into a happy and confident dog who can enjoy life to the fullest!
To socialize your puppy, you must introduce them to a wide range of people, animals and experiences in a calm and positive manner. With the right techniques, love and patience, they’ll be well prepared for life in the big, wide world. However, if you fail to spend time socializing your pup – they’re more likely to develop behavioral problems which could hamper their adult life.
Thankfully, although puppy socialization is incredibly important, it doesn’t have to be difficult. Read on to find out the best ways to socialize your pup and what techniques you should avoid.
At What Age Should You Begin Socializing Your Puppy?
You can begin to socialize your puppy at any age; but the earlier you start, the better.
Most new puppy owners will bring their little pooch home around the age of 8 weeks. This age marks the beginning of a crucial time in your puppy’s social development. Between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks, your puppy is absorbing all the information and stimulation around them like a little furry sponge – assembling a picture of the world, what it all means and how they should interact with it.
Once your puppy reaches 12 weeks old, this fearless curiosity often diminishes, to be replaced by a cautious approach to anything they haven’t experienced before. This doesn’t mean that socialization at this age is impossible – but it certainly makes things more difficult for both of you.
For this reason, the 8 to 12 weeks old stage in your puppy’s development is the ideal time to guide them in the right direction and set them up for a happy life as an adult dog. They will be naturally very curious at this age, which makes them open to new learning experiences and challenges. And the more exposure they have to different people, situations, animals and environments now, the more confident they will be in later life.
Socializing Before Immunizations: Top Tips
Exposing your new pooch to all the wonders of the world at a young age is vital to their development. However, it’s important to remember that your pup will not be fully vaccinated until they’re around 16 weeks old.
Your puppy will have gained some immunity from their mothers’ milk, but they will still be vulnerable to dangerous diseases until they have received all their shots.
While you may be tempted to keep your puppy safely behind closed doors until they’re fully vaccinated, this can seriously damage their development. The benefits of socialization are simply too important to delay until this late in their life. It’s an unfortunate fact that more dogs die from undesirable behavior-related euthanasia than from disease.
Therefore, socializing your pup before their vaccinations are complete is a bit of a balancing act. Think of it as a compromise. You can still take your puppy out and about into the big, wide world – you’ll just need to be smart about it.
Here are our top tips to keep your puppy safe before immunization:
- When taking your puppy out on trips, carry them or take them out in the car to experience new sights, sounds and smells.
- Make sure they only meet and interact with dogs that you know have been fully vaccinated.
- Don’t take your puppy to busy dog parks or let them sniff/eat animal feces.
- Carry your puppy in and out of the veterinary clinic.
- Make sure visitors wash their hands before petting your puppy, especially if they work outdoors or with other animals.
How to Correctly Socialize Your Puppy
Once you have your new puppy settled in at home, it’s time to start introducing them to new people. Make sure these experiences are positive, as this will ensure they’ll be confident and trusting when meeting someone new – rather than feeling threatened.
Visitors should handle your pup gently, play with them and give them lots of praise and treats when they approach. This way, your puppy will associate new faces and voices with good times and will be less likely to be fearful if they encounter someone unfamiliar.
You may think there’s not that many different people for your pup to meet. But if you stop to consider the world through their eyes, you’ll realize that a man wearing a hat could be seen as a completely different (and potentially scary) creature from someone not wearing one!
For this reason, you should expose your pup to as many people as you can at this crucial stage in their life: adults, children, babies, men with beards, people of different ethnicities, people who wear glasses, tall people, disabled people, the postman, elderly people, loud people. The list could go on and on.
At this young age, most puppies will be very happy to meet new people, bounding over to greet them, tail wagging. But that won’t be true for all pups. If your puppy is a little shy, ask people you meet to crouch down to their level and give them time to approach on their terms. When they do, give them a treat and lots of praise!
Just like people, your new pup must also get used to meeting and interacting with different dogs.
To begin with, introduce your puppy to dogs which you know well – such as a family members’ dog or a friend's dog. Any dog that you introduce your puppy to must be fully vaccinated, friendly and well-socialized themselves. The last thing you want is for your puppy to have a bad first experience!
If possible, introduce your puppy to new dogs in a safe, open space such as your backyard. The confines of a kitchen or living room may make both parties feel trapped – leading to a heightened risk of defensive behavior.
When spending time with other dogs, your puppy will learn how to behave appropriately by interacting with their new friends. Well-socialized adult dogs are usually tolerant of the excitability of puppies, but may give them a little telling-off if they start to play too rough.
Keep a close eye on how they’re getting on with each other, and allow your puppy to take it all in his stride. The occasional warning growl will teach your puppy where the boundaries lie, but if their new friend is letting them get away with too much, you should intervene and encourage them to give the other dog some space. This will prevent your puppy from viewing every new dog as a playmate to be bounced all-over!
Alternatively, if your puppy is a little shy, make sure their new friends aren’t too boisterous for their liking. This can be overwhelming for an anxious pup and lead to an increased fear of new dogs. Sit down on the floor and allow your puppy to come to you for reassurance if it all gets too much.
As the days go by, be sure to introduce your puppy to as many types of dog as you can. Large dogs, very hairy dogs, small dogs, lithe dogs, puppies and breeds with spotted coats or flat faces will give your pup a broad experience and increase their confidence.
After a successful introduction, give your puppy lots of praise and some treats. This will create a positive association and help to ensure that they’re calm and friendly when encountering a new breed in the future.
It’s important that your puppy gets used to being around any other animals that they may encounter during their life. This is especially true if you live in the country, where they may come into contact with livestock, horses or farm birds.
Some working breeds, such as Collies, Spaniels and Labradors may have an instinctive interest in livestock and birds, while others may be fearful. To avoid problems in the future, reward your pup for ignoring these animals and focussing on you instead.
Meeting new people and animals is very important to your pup’s development, but you'll also need to expose them to a variety of different environments. This will help them broaden their experience of the world and become accustomed to all the sights, sounds and smells that come with it.
Take your puppy out and about to all the places they’re likely to experience as an adult dog. You can carry them on a walk around the town, sit outside a cafe, pick up the kids from school, go to a friends house or take a trip in the car, bus or train.
No matter what, make sure your puppy is having a good time and isn’t overly worried by the experience. If they’re not happy, reassure them and try again another day. Forcing them to continue if they feel overwhelmed and frightened will only lead to a negative association – which will make it more difficult in the future.
As your pup becomes accustomed to the world, make sure they experience noisy (and potentially scary) situations that they may encounter in everyday life.
These can be things such as crowds of people, buses, motorbikes, trains, fire alarms, the vacuum cleaner, skateboarders, kids playing, joggers and cyclists. Also, let them see something large falling over with a bang.
At all times, keep a calm, untroubled demeanor and reassure your pup that it’s nothing to worry about. When they focus on you, give them a treat and lots of praise.
When socializing your puppy, you’ll need to consider how they may be handled throughout their life.
For example, visits to the vet may require close examination of their paws, and inside the ears or mouth. Groomers will need to trim sensitive areas. Although it’s best avoided, young children may pull on their tail or tug at their ears.
To prevent fear and defensive behavior in later life, make sure your puppy gets used to being handled in different ways across different areas of their body. Pet them all over and reward them with treats when they remain relaxed and accepting of this contact.
When your pup was with their mother and siblings, they will have been used to busy mealtimes and lots of hungry mouths. However, as they get older and begin to assert themselves, it’s up to you to make sure they don’t become overly-possessive of their food.
If left unchallenged, this behavior can lead to social issues later in life – so you must nip it in the bud as soon as possible. Your puppy must learn that people are the ones in control of food and feeding. They must also accept that you, your family, friends or other animals may be around them when they are eating, and that aggression will not be tolerated.
Thankfully, teaching your pup to be polite at mealtimes shouldn’t be too difficult. Instead of giving them all their food at once, start off by feeding them in stages. Offer your puppy a small amount of food and then crouch down, praise and pet them, before giving them some more.
Once your pup is used to you being around during meal times, you can start to give him all of his food at once. Stay nearby while they’re eating and pet them gently, continuing to give praise.
You can even place another favorite treat into their bowl while doing this – to further reinforce the positive association. Your pup should have perfect table manners in no time!
No matter how well you care for your puppy, the chances are that they’ll have to visit the vet for illness or injury during their life.
Being handled by a stranger when you’re not feeling well is a totally different situation from a quick vaccine shot and regular check-up – and may lead to defensive behavior if your pup already has a negative association of the vet clinic.
The best way to avoid this is to expose your pup to positive experiences at the vet before they need to have any treatment. This way, they’re less likely to feel threatened if you need to take them for a potentially uncomfortable examination later.
When you have had your new pooch for a couple of days, take them into your vet clinic to meet the staff and have a quick check over. A good tip is to call the vet clinic in advance and ask them when is a good time to bring your puppy in for their first experience. They’ll be able to advise you when the clinic is at its quietest, so that more staff can spend some time with your puppy.
They shouldn’t have any injections or treatment at this stage, just be petted, handled and receive lots of positive attention. Bring some treats with you, too – so the vet can give your pup their favorite! Your puppy will be excited to visit the vet next time you arrive and is more likely to have a positive association with the vet for the rest of their life.
Just remember that you should carry your puppy in and out of the clinic and not put them on the floor until they have had their vaccinations.
Consider Puppy School
Although your pup won’t be able to join a puppy school until they have been fully vaccinated, you can help prepare them for this experience by taking them along to watch a class. This is a great opportunity to check out how the class is run, so that you can decide if it’s the right school for you.
A good puppy class should be fun for all involved, with plenty of praise and rewards, while also keeping excitable pooches under control. The last thing you want is to join a class where the pups are left to create havoc. This will either reinforce boisterous behavior or make an already anxious puppy more withdrawn.
If you don’t have access to a safe adult dog that your puppy can interact with, look for a puppy class which uses a calm, older dog as a kind of ‘canine role model’ for fluffy new students. This experience will be invaluable for your pup as they learn how to socialize with other dogs.
While attending a puppy class isn’t strictly necessary for puppy socialization, they can really help you prepare your pooch for adult life. Aside from the basics such as walking on a leash, sitting and staying, as your puppy grows, they will enter a ‘teenage’ phase which can present some challenges for training.
Adolescent dogs often go through a difficult behavioral stage where they begin to ‘test’ your authority – refusing to come when called and generally acting up! Attending a well-run puppy class can provide you with the tools to help you overcome this phase as quickly as possible.
Socializing Your Puppy – What NOT to do
It’s important that you avoid the following situations when socializing your puppy:
Going To The Dog Park
The dog park can be canine heaven. A place of endless fetch, meeting new pals and lots of interesting sniffs. But for your young little pup, they can be overwhelming or even dangerous.
Exposing your pup to too many new dogs at once can make them feel vulnerable. Dog parks are a busy space outside of your control, so there’s a high risk that you’ll encounter under-socialized, overly excitable or aggressive dogs that could frighten your pup. Once they’ve had a bad experience, it’ll be much more difficult for them to regain their confidence.
Furthermore, there’s no way of knowing whether the dogs you meet have been fully vaccinated – which can put your pup in danger of infection. Wait until your puppy is older, has had all their vaccinations and some basic training before taking your first trip to the dog park.
Exposing Them to Too Many People at Once
Puppy socialization is a step-by-step process. You may be excited to take your pup out with you wherever you go, but try not to overdo it. Large, noisy crowds of new people can be intimidating for your puppy. It’s simply too much stimulation for them to cope with at once.
A much better method is to introduce them to small groups of people at a time. Invite some friends over or take them with you to a relaxed family BBQ. This will allow your puppy to slowly gain their confidence and become more comfortable with groups of strange people.
Lacking an Exit Plan
Puppies are sensitive souls. So when socializing your puppy, it’s important that you have an exit plan. Even if your pup has experienced something before, they may display signs of stress the next time they encounter it. This isn’t anything to worry about, it just means they need a little more space to process it.
Signs of stress can be subtle and easily overlooked. If your pup starts to yawn a lot, whine, pant, or shake, they’re not happy and need a break. No matter where you take your pup, if they appear uncomfortable, you should be prepared to remove them from the source of stress as soon as possible.
Forcing Your Puppy
Even if your pup appears full of confidence, there will undoubtedly come a time where they get frightened. Sure, the source of fear may seem ridiculous to you (what’s so scary about an umbrella or someone wearing a hat?) but you should never force your pup to overcome it.
Pushing a scary object towards your puppy, or handing them over to someone they’re frightened of, will skyrocket their stress and make matters worse. This bad experience will be burned into their memory and make them even more fearful next time. Scaring your puppy like this could also affect how much they trust you.
If your puppy is fearful of something or someone, allow them to deal with it in their own time. Set the object down on the floor and let them approach when they’re ready. If they’re scared of a person, ask them to crouch down and offer your pup a tasty treat. Taking it slow and offering gentle encouragement is the best way to help your puppy overcome his fears.
Getting Impatient or Angry
It’s no secret that puppies are hard work. From chewing furniture and nibbling your fingers, to barking and household messes – a new puppy requires lots of training before becoming a well-behaved adult dog.
It’s important to remember that puppies learn at different rates. For example, one puppy may learn that jumping up at people isn’t allowed much quicker than another puppy – even if they received identical training.
You should accept that socializing your puppy will take time, and not become impatient or angry with your puppy. Shouting at, or punishing your puppy is counterproductive. It doesn’t teach them how to behave. Instead, punishment often leads to confusion and fear. Your puppy will be upset and puzzled as to what part of their behavior was wrong.
Let’s take the example of excitedly jumping up at a stranger and barking. If you shout at them (or worse) smack them, what do you think they’ll learn from this?
Your puppy may be thinking: “Was I wrong to bark?”, “Was I wrong to jump?”, “Was I wrong to greet people?”
As you can see, your pooch won’t be sure exactly what made you mad. In a worst-case scenario, they may decide that approaching people is the wrong thing to do!
Instead, teach your puppy using ‘positive reinforcement’. This means lots of praise and treats when they do the RIGHT thing. If they’re misbehaving, divert their behavior by distracting them and then praise them when they settle down.
What if my Puppy is Older Than 16 Weeks?
Of course, you may not get your new puppy straight from their Mom at 8 weeks old. So, how do you socialize an older puppy?
While the period between 8-16 weeks old is the ideal time to socialize your pup, the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” isn’t strictly true. However, older pups are likely to take a bit more work. This is because their brain has fully developed; therefore, it will take them a little longer to learn new behaviors.
Enroll your older puppy into a puppy class, follow the steps above and take things slow. Sure, you’ll need to be even more patient with an older puppy. But with the right methods, persistence and lots of praise – you can be sure your pup will grow into a happy, confident dog!
Correctly socializing your puppy is crucial to their development and will set them on the path to a fulfilling life as an adult dog. Between 8 and 12 weeks old, your puppy is at the peak of their learning capabilities – forming an understanding of the world and their place in it.
Once you bring your puppy home, they’ll look to you for guidance as they come nose to nose with new experiences. As a puppy owner, it’s your responsibility to raise them to be a confident and well-behaved dog which will stay out of trouble.
By implementing the above techniques, taking things slow, and putting yourself in their paws, you can teach your puppy to be a model citizen and look forward to making many happy memories together!
Boyd, C; Jarvis, S; McGreevy, PD; Heath, S; Church, Db; Brodbelt, Dc; O’Neill, Dg. “Mortality resulting from undesirable behaviours in dogs aged under three years attending primary-care veterinary practices in England”, https://www.ingentaconnect.com, 01 August 2018
Reisen, Jan. “How To Be Patient With Your New Puppy”, https://www.akc.org/, 28th July 2016
Kelly Rowett is an animal lover and experienced full-time writer who’s passionate about creating high-quality content. When she’s not typing away at her laptop, you’ll find her hiking the coast path or playing endless seaside fetch with a pair of energetic Spaniels.