Puppy Socialization: Why, When, and How to Do it Right
Socializing your puppy is the key to ensuring you’ll have a happy, confident, and well-adjusted dog. Below, learn the best time to socialize your puppy, how to do it right, and why it’s important.
When to Socialize Your Puppy
During your puppy’s first three months of life, he will experience a socialization period that will permanently shape his future personality and how he will react to his environment as an adult dog. Gently exposing him to a wide variety of people, places, and situations now makes a huge, permanent difference in his temperament.
When you buy a puppy from a responsible breeder, the socialization process should start before you even bring your puppy home. Gentle handling by the breeder in the first several weeks of your puppy’s life is helpful in the development of a friendly, confident dog. As early as 3 weeks of age, puppies may begin to approach a person who is passively observing them, so having a knowledgeable breeder who encourages a positive experience with people – adults and children — will help shape the puppy’s adult behavior. As their puppies develop, good breeders allow them to experience safe inside and outside environments, car rides, crates, sounds, smells, and gentle handling.
Why Socialize Your Puppy
The idea behind socialization is that you want to help your puppy become acclimated to all types of sights, sounds, and smells in a positive manner. Proper socialization can prevent a dog from being fearful of children, for example, or of riding in a car, and it will help him develop into a well-mannered, happy companion.
Having a dog who is well adjusted and confident can even go as far as to save his life one day. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, improper socialization can lead to behavior problems later in life. The organization’s position statement on socialization reads: “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” Start taking your dog out to public places once your veterinarian says it is safe, and he’ll learn to behave in a variety of situations and to enjoy interacting with different people.
How to Socialize Your Puppy
As mentioned earlier, your breeder will start the socialization process as early as the puppy’s first few days of life, by gently handling him and allowing him to explore his surroundings. But when the puppy comes home with you, the crucial socialization period continues, so your job is to keep the process going. Here are the basic steps to follow:
Introduce the puppy to new sights, sounds, and smells: To a puppy, the whole world is new, strange, and unusual, so think of everything he encounters as an opportunity to make a new, positive association. Try to come up with as many different types of people, places, noises, and textures as you can and expose your puppy to them. That means, for instance, have him walk on carpet, hardwood, tile, and linoleum floors; have him meet a person in a wheelchair or using a cane, children, a person with a beard, wearing sunglasses, using an umbrella, or wearing a hood. Think of it as a scavenger hunt. Here’s a comprehensive checklist for puppy socialization that can be used as a guide.
Make it positive: Most importantly, when introducing all of these new experiences to your puppy, make sure he’s getting an appropriate amount of treats and praise, so that he associates what he’s being exposed to and the feeling of seeing something new as a fun experience. Don’t forget to break the treats into small pieces that will be easy for your puppy to digest. Also, don’t be stressed yourself — dogs can read our emotions, so if you’re nervous when introducing your puppy to an older dog, for example, your puppy will be nervous, too, and may become fearful of other dogs in the future.
Involve the family: By having different people take part in the socialization process, you’re continuously moving the puppy out of his comfort zone, letting him know that he might experience something new no matter who he’s with. Make it a fun game for the kids by having them write down a list of everything new the puppy experienced that day while with them, such as “someone in a baseball cap” or “a police siren.”
Take baby steps: Try to avoid doing too much too fast. For instance, if you want your puppy to get accustomed to being handled by multiple people he doesn’t know, start with a few family members and slowly integrate one stranger, then two, and so on. Starting this process by taking your puppy to a huge party or a very busy public place can be overwhelming and result in a fearful response to groups of strangers in the future.
Take it public: Once your puppy is used to the small amount of stimuli, move outside of his comfort zone to expand the amount of new experiences he’ll have. Take him to the pet store (after he’s started his vaccination series), over to a friend’s house for a puppy playdate, on different streets in the neighborhood, and so one. At seven-to-ten days after he’s received his full series of puppy vaccinations, it’s safe to take him to the dog park (but be sure to follow dog-park safety protocol.)
Go to puppy classes: Once your puppy has started his vaccinations, he can also attend puppy classes. These classes not only help your puppy begin to understand basic commands, but the most important advantage is that they expose him to other dogs and people. Skilled trainers will mediate the meetings so that all dogs and people are safe and happy during the process. You can find puppy classes through local AKC training clubs and dog training facilities.
Earn a S.T.A.R. Puppy title: Show off your puppy’s hard work by letting him earn his very first AKC title — the S.T.A.R. Puppy, which stands for socialization, training, activity, and a responsible owner. After completing a six-week training class, your puppy can take a simple test given by an AKC-approved evaluator. The puppy will be tested on allowing someone to pet him, tolerating a collar or harness, allowing you to hold him, and more (see a full list of S.T.A.R. Puppy test items here). Also, you must pledge to be a responsible pet owner for the duration of the dog’s life. This program is open to purebred and mixed-breed dogs up to one year old.
Note: To earn a S.T.A.R. Puppy certification, contact an AKC-approved dog trainer. Find an AKC-approved trainer in your area here.
What About Older Dogs?
All of this information on how important socialization is for puppies brings up the question “what about older dogs?” If you’ve acquired a dog who is no longer a puppy, you can still help him associate new or fearful situations with a positive experience, even though you’ve missed the crucial puppy socialization period. Slowly reintroducing the dog to new sights, smells, and sounds, with careful supervision and an emphasis on positivity in the form of praise and treats can help him overcome his fears or hesitation. (Severe cases of fearfulness should be treated with the help of a veterinarian and/or animal behaviorist.)
The AKC Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test is an excellent goal for owners of dogs who received little training in their past (or even for S.T.A.R. puppies who are ready to take their skills to the next level). This 10-step test demonstrates that a dog can show good manners and basic obedience skills. You can then go on to lead your dog through the advanced CGC test, called AKC Community Canine (CGCA), and/or the AKC Urban CGC (CGCU).