So you have a new puppy. You’ve bought him (or her) toys, a crate, a dog bed, food, treats, set up your first vet appointments and thought up a cute name. You may have even thought about calling a trainer. But you may have already missed the most important step in your puppy’s development: socialization.
Most people have heard of socialization, but it is widely misunderstood. Many new puppy owners think they are supposed to wait until their puppy’s shots are complete and then start taking them everywhere, exposing them to as many dogs and people as possible.
While there is a kernel of truth in this idea, it is flawed. There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to socialize your puppy. In this post, I’ll list some dos and don’ts to help you get your puppy off on the right foot, and link some awesome resources.
DO start immediately. The prime socialization period for most puppies is from about 4 weeks to 12 weeks old. This may vary slightly from breed to breed, but not by more than a few weeks. Many people don’t even get their puppy until they are 8 weeks or even 10-12 weeks old, which gives you basically no time to start socializing. This is an incredibly critical period in your puppy’s development – the longer you wait, the less the socialization you do will have an impact on your puppy.
DO vaccinate your puppy and consider where you are taking them. Many vets warn against taking your puppy out too early because of the risk of contagious diseases like parvo and distemper – these are very scary diseases and you should vaccinate against them as early as your vet recommends to give your puppy more chances to get out and socialize. After the first couple of sets of shots, your puppy has a very high level of protection, so even if you have not done your final shots your puppy is more protected. However, your vet is not being cautious for nothing – DON’T take your puppy places like dog parks, where many dogs pass through at a high rate and you are at a much higher risk. Those places can wait until your puppy has all of their vaccinations (and has had some socialization in less overwhelming areas). Instead, take your puppy places with dogs you know are friendly and vaccinated, or where other dogs don’t go.
DON’T ignore non-dog-and-people socialization. Most people assume exposing their dog to lots of dogs and people is what socialization is; actually, it’s getting your dog used to the world in general, and everything being normal and not scary. They need to be socialized to things like cars driving by, opening umbrellas, different floor surfaces… anything they might encounter in everyday life, you want them to get used to NOW. Think of your puppy like a little sponge – everything they encounter, they absorb for future reference.
DO make sure your dog remains comfortable and not scared. It is normal for a puppy to not understand something new, but you don’t want to flood them with new experiences or force them to be around “scary” things. You want all of their experiences during this time to be positive. Pair everything that they see with happy associations – an upbeat voice, play, food, toys, etc.
DON’T underestimate the importance of this process, or think that because your puppy seems okay now, they don’t need to socialize immediately. The behavior problems that come from a lack of socialization during this vital period generally don’t show up until adolescence. So your puppy may seem completely well-adjusted now, but when they hit 7 or 8 months you may start to see signs of anxiety, reactivity or even aggression (all serious issues that can stem from a lack of good socialization).
DO enlist the help of a trainer if you are unsure of any part of this process.
There are a couple of great free resources for socialization free on the internet. Dr. Sophia Yin has a fantastic socialization checklist that has a long list of socialization ideas and a chart to keep track of progress.
Dr. Ian Dunbar also offers free books for before and after you get your puppy on his website, Dog Star Daily.
Another great resource for information is Operation Socialization.
If you have adopted an older dog who is lacking in socialization, it’s a good idea to follow a similar protocol to what we would do with a new puppy. However, a dog who misses the puppy socialization period generally will never be as well-socialized as a dog who went through the process during that vital age window. This does not mean you should lose hope – you can still make a lot of progress with an older dog if you proceed in the right way. Again, this might be a good place to enlist the help of a professional to get you and your dog headed in the right direction. Just remember – go at your dog’s pace, and keep it positive!
Sarah is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge and Skills Assessed. She lives in the Texas Hill Country near Austin with her two dogs, Percy, a cattle dog mix, and Clara, a lab/German Shepherd.