Puppy Socialization is both great fun and essential.
Puppies between the age of 3 weeks to 18 weeks are in their Socialization Stage. During this stage, it’s critical that you introduce your puppy to a variety of people, animals, sounds, things and places to ensure proper puppy socialization.
Just the anticipation of the first day bringing home your new puppy skyrockets that feel good hormone oxytocin! How could it not? An adorably cute puppy brings joy to your life and gives us permission to once again unleash our desire to play. We display silly little antics and funny faces, cuz with a puppy it’s okay.
Enjoy and treasure those puppy days, as they fly by so darn fast. And speaking of how quickly puppyhood is over, let’s review the essentials of puppy socialization.
Why is early puppy socialization so important?
From about 3 weeks to 18 weeks old your puppy is in the socialization period of life. Puppy comes specially prepared for taking in lots of new stuff with an extra bit of resilience and curiosity. The puppy socialization period is the most important period of your furbabies life, so don’t squander this time. Is your puppy already past 18 weeks old? You’ll still want to continue your efforts with socialization tasks. Despite the extra preparedness time has lapsed, your puppy will indeed be taking in all his new life has to offer.
Puppy socialization is all about preparation and prevention. We want to use this period of your puppies life to prepare her for the many life experiences she’ll encounter as a social family dog. We also want to do all we can to prevent serious behavior problems in the future that stem from fear.
The power of first and early experiences for your puppy
1st and early experiences have enormous weight on if your pup will see something as safe or scary. While in the socialization period, we’ll want to blitz your little munchkin with as many experiences as humanly possible. Yet always ready to swoop in and be her hero if she gets overwhelmed. And remember being your pups hero is maintaining a calm and reassuring presence yourself.
With our ability to set up those first and early experiences in a thoughtful way, we’ll ensure they’re indeed good experiences. One exposure to a particular new experience is not nearly enough. We want lots of padding, as in many times this situation has predicted lots of fun. When bad experiences inevitably do happen, your pup has had lots of previous good times and the likelihood of her concluding this is now dangerous in her mind is much less likely.
What are the puppy socialization essentials
People, people, people, of all ages, shapes/sizes, ethnicities, sex, stuff on them, like hats, glasses and backpacks. People carrying stuff like big boxes, canes, crutches and wheelchairs too. Your goal is a social dog, so we’ll put great effort into exposing your pup right away. Lots and lots of people and kids of varying ages. We fostered Molly, a rescue dog from Kentucky through our friends at Safe Hands Rescue. Molly came to us just weeks before delivering her 6 adorable babies. Our goal was to have those puppies meet, be fed by, held and played with by 100 adults and kids before they left our care at 8-9 weeks old and we met that goal. This is what really good breeders and shelters do. My point here, you can’t do too much as long as it’s approached thoughtfully.
When introducing puppy to new people you’re going to be prepared and keep a watchful eye. Have your most tasty snacks for this, something your puppy has already auditioned and went bonkers over. I use cooked chicken breast often. Easy to cut up or shred into tons of tiny tidbits, toss into a plastic baggy and that goes into your treat pouch. When your puppy is about to meet anyone new, I want you prepared and armed with favorite toys and those yummy snacks. Let puppy approach the stranger, not stranger approaches puppy. Have strangers stop at a short distance, get on the floor or ground with puppy and let puppy go where she wants. If she beelines straight over to greet the stranger, Awesome! If not, have the stranger toss some of those tasty snacks towards puppy. Don’t rush things, let your puppy go at her own pace. Especially with kids early on. Don’t let kids run in and up to puppy until you’re certain he already loves kids of all ages and has met many. Kids with all their noisiness and flapping about can be scary for lots of young puppies. Do whatever you can to orchestrate lots of super awesome experiences with lots of adults and kids. Once you can clearly see your pup is having a grand old time, you can sit back, relax a bit and enjoy the fun.
You’ll want your puppy to also meet and play with lots of other puppies! Give your puppy lots of play with other puppies before other adult dogs. Only have your puppy play with other adult dogs you know well and have a great history of excellent play with puppies. Why only other puppies and not adult dogs? Prevention! Puppies have baby teeth and weak jaws, which means you have nearly zero risk of a really bad experience that could potentially leave your pup fearful of other dogs. No sense in taking unnecessary risks if we don’t have to. I recommend no dog parks until we’ve taken a thoughtful approach in getting your pup lots of padding, which comes from lots of good experiences. Wait until at least 18 weeks and lots of experiences before taking any risks with meeting unknown dogs. Plus your pup will be fully vaccinated at this point too. Don’t forget other animals too, if there’s a chance you’ll want your pup around any species…socialize early.
Now, sit down and make a list. What can you expose your puppy to that will help him in his lifetime with you. List locations, will your pup go to work with you, homes of friends and family, various outdoor environments, what are the noises he will hear. Don’t forget vet office, groomers and favorite dog supply stores. Get out to all these places for nothing but fun and snacks. When early experiences are free from the yucky stuff and filled with lots of stuff your puppy thinks are awesome, a good early impression is made. When the yucky stuff does take place, give your pup those snacks during and after. Think of it like we do with kids, get a yucky shot, getting a lollipop can help. The key is the good thing happens during and immediately after the yucky. Pup will learn over time the yucky stuff predicts something awesome.
What textures or surfaces will your puppy encounter in her lifetime, add these to your list? Carpet, tile, shiny slippery floors, wood chips, rocks. Resist picking pup up and placing her on unfamiliar surfaces. Let her explore and choose to investigate the new surface at her pace. Your role is presenting opportunities for discovery, stay away from beliefs like throw em in the pool and hope they swim. We only have one shot at a good 1st impression! If puppy is not checking out the new surface or environment on her own, toss some of those tasty snacks at the edge of the surface and gradually further onto the surface. Let your puppy choose. If she doesn’t choose to go on the surface today, take note and offer opportunities for further exploration and building up the courage again another day. Don’t risk a panic reaction by pushing before puppy’s ready. If puppy panics, that experience will be chalked up as dangerous, not safe. Remember, it’s much easier to prevent bad experiences early, than to modify fear later.
When you’re playing with or snuggling your puppy, have your tasty snacks nearby. Touch and handle all those potentially sensitive areas on your pup. Touch or hold paw = yummies. Checking ears = yummies, you get the idea! The touch or paw holding comes first, then delivery of tasty snacks.
Myths about Puppy Socialization
- Myth #1 Don’t expose your puppy before fully vaccinated
There are two sides to this coin. Until your puppy is fully vaccinated she is more susceptible to illness that could lead to serious health issues. But, if we overlook the importance of socialization early during that extra prepared period of life, that can lead to fear, aggression or all out phobias.
Lynne Bengtson, director of Safe Hands Rescue presents a logical approach for juggling these sensitive issues. Stay away from outdoor locations where unknown vaccination status dogs have frequented such as dog parks. Make sure indoor locations you visit have protocols in place for sanitization and checking vaccination status of dogs welcomed. When you visit locations where you don’t know how they handle sanitization or vaccination checking, keep puppy off the floor. Hold your puppy, have him in a carrier, in a stroller or wagon. Keep those paws, that could be licked later, off the floor or ground. Veterinary clinics, dog daycares and puppy training centers typically have very strict guidelines for sanitization, but not all, so do ask. With strict sanitization processes in place, you can let your puppy run around.
Check out American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior about the importance of puppy socialization versus completed vaccines. Decide for yourself what is right for you and your puppy. It’s okay to be cautious, but please don’t wait for lots of exposure…just be thoughtful in how you approach it.
- Myth #2 Don’t let shy puppy hide
This is a tough love approach and anyone with strong fears knows that though well meaning, tough love can result in big fears. Some dogs are naturally shy or like to investigate things before plunging in. That’s okay. Respect where your puppy is at in this moment. You don’t know what may cause significant trauma for your puppy until it’s been experienced. Which is why you want to provide exposure opportunities, be watchful and let him explore at his pace. Then be his hero and bail him out if you see him get too overwhelmed or scared. If your puppy feels she needs to hide for a bit, let her go at her own pace. Let others take the tough love approach if they must, just not with YOUR puppy, as you know better.
- Myth #3 Get an adult dog to put that overconfident puppy in its place
Noooooooo, no, no, no, no, nooooo! You think your puppy is overconfident? GOOD, let’s keep him that way for now! The alternative has much bigger consequences. Think about this: you’re going to intentionally set up a puppy to have a terrible 1st or early experience, because he might be a little naughty? That’s insane! I have seen it time and time again. A puppy seems bold and is having a grand old time with loads of naughtiness causing concern. The very next moment something scares the badoodles out that very same puppy leaving a nasty emotional scar. I want you to understand this. Everyone has areas in which they feel very bold and other areas where they feel super scared. It varies for everyone. Right now, you have no idea what those things are for your puppy.
If puppy is coming on too strong for another puppy, person or kid, redirect her or take her away for a time out. Give her a chance to settle down a bit and give her another shot. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Don’t use intimidation or fear to change behavior, the unknown fallout that could occur is not good. You want your puppy to have a social life, fear is the #1 thing that will rob you both of that. Your puppy will get told off by adult dogs later without us setting it up. Let’s make sure she’s well padded with good experiences first.
- Myth #4 Too much play with dogs leads to a dog that blows you off
Every parent knows your kids do not listen as well when at play with a bunch of other kids. No one would ever consider not letting kids play is the answer to this problem. Play has loads of benefits for learning many social life skills. We’ll work on responsive skills & obedience training around big distractions like other dogs, but don’t deprive your puppy from important learning opportunities along the way.
Socialization vs. Obedience
We must prioritize socialization, lots of good experience with lots of novel people, animals things and environments. We don’t teach babies how to keep themselves safe or behave appropriately, we set up environments to manage their safety and redirect them constantly to teach them the do’s and don’ts. Don’t get me wrong, you can teach your puppy skills along the way too. We’ll want to keep our expectations in line with what puppy is currently capable. Early on we avoid rehearsal of the wrong stuff through management – keep puppy someplace she can’t get into trouble when you are unable to watch her. Redirect her to help her learn the right things until she has the skills for managing herself.
I want you to be selective in where you go for puppy classes or puppy socials. Drive as far as necessary for the best in your area, it’s only for a short time. Puppy classes and socials can be a total blast and great stuff for both you and your dog when they are run and set up right.
Here are two links with local classes, the 1st takes you to a graduate list from my Alma Mater, The Academy for Dog Trainers. The other is to the American Pet Dog Trainers list, which are people that tend to stay up to date on the most modern methods available. If you’re instructed to do anything that makes you uncomfortable or goes against what you’ve learned here, do what YOU feel is best for your pup. Always be your dogs hero!
One more thing before we’re done, if you feel you are falling short on getting in enough socialization in this narrow window of time, hire someone! It’s much too important for the many years to come to delay this.
Now, make your lists, prepare your toys and snacks and get your puppy out there to learn about this big world. Don’t be in a rush, go at your puppies pace. Once your puppy shows this situation is fun and super cool, you can relax and enjoy the fun too.
Here’s your Puppy Socialization Checklist:
1. Always pair things your puppy considers positive with new experiences:
- People – Include children, men, women, people of different ethnicity and people wearing and carrying stuff.
- Animals: Dogs and Puppies. Introduce and provide play opportunities after you have ensured potential playmates are friendly and display good play skills.
- Puppy classes and puppy socials are controlled environments. They offer appropriate play opportunities in a sanitary environment.
- Dog Parks can be overwhelming to a young puppy. Wait until your puppy is fully vaccinated and well socialized before frequenting your local dog park.
- Whenever your puppy sees another animal, pair with good things according to your puppy. Super yummy food or play work best.
- Visit parks and places where you can sit and watch the various people and animals. Remain at a comfortable distance for your puppy. Don’t forget to pair yums, toys and play with new experiences.
2. Socializing your new puppy to new places, sights, sounds and smells.
- Introduce puppy to a variety of surfaces
- Tile floors
- Surfaces that move slightly when stepped on
- Visit your Veterinary Office and Groomer.
- Visit these locations just for treats and fun.
- Introduce new sounds and things that make noise. Things that go rattle, shake or thump.
- Observe your puppy closely upon every new encounter ensuring your puppy is not afraid.
Unsure of how to know if your puppy is scared? We’ve got you covered! Your puppy cannot tell you through words that she is afraid, but she is trying with all her might to tell you through her body language. Learning to understand dog body language is not difficult at all. Watch our Dog Body Language video next, and you’ll see!
The #1 reason dogs growl, snarl, snap or bite is driven by fear.
Fear is the easiest thing to install in your puppy, but the hardest to get rid of. If your puppy is displaying fear of new things or situations, this is totally normal. First encounters or experiences are unknown as to whether this is safe or not. Fear first until something new is proven safe is a good thing. Fear is a necessary component of survival.
If you see your puppy with ears back, tail tucked or avoiding a particular situation, slow down. Let your puppy view what scared him from a distance, generously giving treats each time your puppy perceives what scares him. You ‘ll watch for how your puppy trends. Is he getting better, more comfortable or does he seem like he is getting more fearful yet? If you are getting a trend for worse, don’t wait a moment longer, seek professional help. When we tackle fear early, we have the best chance to help your fur-baby overcome it. Don’t forget, socializing your new puppy is the first priority for getting off on the right paw!
Until next time, Have Fun & Enjoy Your Dog!
Jody Karow – CTC
Dog Life Coach & Founder of Go Anywhere Dog™
Do you have a new puppy or adopted dog? Would you like to learn more to help your social dog enjoy a social lifestyle? Get your DogSense & enjoy your dog! It’s more than your usual dog training class. It’s a learn-at-home & at-your-pace dog behavior & online dog training eCourse. All Specifically designed with you and your social family dog in mind.
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