Puppy Socialization: What It Is, Why It’s Essential, and How To Do It
What is socialization and why is it important?
From 8 to 12 weeks of age, puppies go through a fear imprinting stage. During this time, it is crucial to carefully introduce a pup to a variety of stimuli every day, and to ensure that the experiences are positive. This is also a good time to start training the pup in basic behaviors.
These socialization efforts make the difference in the dog’s outlook on life. Instead of reacting fearfully to new experiences, the dog is comfortable when encountering new things, animals and people. This helps the dog and everyone else, since the most common cause of unprovoked dog aggression is lack of proper socialization.
What is socialization? Introducing and familiarizing a canine to new experiences – including people, places, objects, other animals – in ways that help the dog learn how to respond to and interact with these experiences appropriately and without fear.
The list of things to socialize a pup, or dog, to include umbrellas, canes, wheelchairs, bikes, keys, men with beards, people in hats, young children, passing trucks, odd sounds and sudden, loud noises and other animals.
The puppy brain is most inclined to accept new experiences between 4 and 12 weeks of age. Missing the window after 14 weeks of age can socially handicap the pup. Of course, the dog can still learn, but it is harder, mostly due to the need for to help the pup unlearn unproductive and inappropriate responses. Prevention is far better than rehabilitation, so if you can work within a puppy’s critical learning window, you and the pup have an immense advantage.
Introduce the pup to new people, places, objects and situations ONLY when you can control the experience.
It’s your job to protect the dog from situations that frighten him. Something as simple as letting someone get too close too soon can cause a setback in socialization, causing the dog to hide behind you or adopt a fear-aggressive posture and growl at the offending person. If this does happen, correct the human, not the dog. Tell the person to back away, which will show the dog you can protect the pack and that he does not have to.
When working on socializing your pup or dog, do not impose on other people. First ask for their help. Most people will oblige.
Taking a pup on walks on leash offers effective opportunities for socialization. However, avoid dog parks and other areas where there’s higher risk of exposure to disease. Do not let your dog sniff feces or to play with any dogs who might be unhealthy or aggressive.
Introduce a puppy into a large group only after having socialized him to smaller groups.
Use treats, praise, touch, even play to reward, and thus reinforce, your dog for displaying positive responses.
Reward the behaviors that you want repeated and ignore or give a signal to the behaviors you do not like. The signal could be “uh uh” or “too bad”. If the signal does not discourage the undesired behavior, try a time out – a brief separation period from the fun interactive environment.
Be aware of the signals you send. Make it obvious to your dog that you enjoy encountering other people, animals and things. Even puppies observe and sense their handlers’ reactions.
You must think of what you are teaching your dog in every situation. Your dog is aware of your actions and reactions, your attention or lack of attention, even if you don’t realize it.
Understand when and why your dog shows fear, but do not reinforce it. Cooing, coddling and cuddling a pup or dog when she is showing fear will not help the animal lose that fear. Help your canine realize that you have control of the situation and that the dog does not have to be afraid, or take matters into his own paws (or jaws). You are the alpha, and you want your dog to trust that you will protect him.
It is not fair to put any dog in a situation in which he might feel threatened or prompted to use his teeth. This is why you must educate not only your dog but the people in your home. For example, it is essential to teach family members never to bother dogs when eating, playing with a favorite toy, or resting.
Be careful about the people you choose to help care for your dog. Be it your spouse, roommate, children or petsitter, you need to explain that you are trying to socialize your pup, and that it is necessary for them to reinforce good behaviors in the same way you do in order for the pup to learn. If you are not sure an individual will abide by this, limit that person’s contact with your dog during the socialization and training stages. Otherwise, the person can undermine and undo the progress you make with your dog.
One reason that puppies should not be separated from their mother and littermates before 8 weeks of age is that they learn core behaviors from mother dog and siblings. These include proper social play and bite inhibition.
Socialization does not end at puppyhood. While the foundation for good behavior is laid during the first few months, good owners encourage and reinforce social skills and responsiveness to commands throughout the dog’s life.
Steps to Socializing Your Pup or Dog
Interaction is key to socialization:
As pack animals and social beings, dogs need interaction with their owners, other people and other animals. The more you isolate the dog, and the less you interact with the dog, the more likely she will develop negative behaviors.
Companionship is vital to a dog’s emotional well-being. Integrate the pup into your family from the start. Place your pup’s crate or play pen in a room in which your family spends considerable time each day.
Raise a dog in an environment that doesn’t allow him to be teased, tormented or attacked by other dogs. Tying a dog up or fencing in a location where other dogs can agitate him leads to dog aggression. People who want their dogs to live outside should not get dogs.
Part of interacting with a dog of any age involves consistently rewarding all desirable behaviors – thus increasing the likelihood the dog will repeat those behaviors – and to take steps to prevent the development of undesirable behavior.
The latter is usually accomplished by redirecting the dog’s energy into a positive behavior for which you can reward her, and when she does something “bad”, to ignore the undesired behavior. This is based on the principle that dogs typically engage in behaviors to get attention and/or obtain something they desire such as a treat, toy, special privilege or higher status.
And this is why pushing off a jumping dog usually will not stop the jumping behavior; even though pushing the dog away seems like a negative reaction, to the dog seeking attention, any interaction she achieves seems better than none. Therefore, it is far better to get your dog to “sit” before she tries to jump. That way, you can reward her with the attention she wants, while reinforcing only good behavior. It is important to think about why your dog is engaging in a particular behavior.
Socializing with other dogs
Exposing a puppy or new dog to other friendly dogs is the best way to teach essential social skills. (This is why canine behavior experts warn not to bring a second dog into your family until the resident dog has been taught good behavior and social skills.) Writes Pat Miller in “Plays Well With Others,” (Whole Dog Journal, March 2000), playtime with other puppies and non-aggressive adult dogs enables a dog to learn how to talk and read “dog-ese” through appropriate interactions with and responses to other dogs’ body language. If this doesn’t happen during the pup’s critical learning period, well before the age of six months, you may end up with a canine nerd whose inept use of physical and postural language gets him into trouble. Either he sends inappropriate messages or fails to respond appropriately to another dog’s message.
Playtime in a controlled situation is a great way to socialize your pup to other people and dogs. Find friends who have healthy puppies and gentle adult dogs, and invite them over to play.
If one dog starts bullying another, intervene. The old saw about “dogs will work it out themselves” does not apply here. Your impressionable pup can develop defensive aggression if frightened by the dominant or intense nature of another pup or dog. Firmly but calmly interrupt undesired behavior the moment it occurs using brief time-outs. Do not yell at, smack or otherwise punish the roughhousing dog; just separate him from the interaction. Also watch for good behavior. To encourage good behavior, you want to take all opportunities to praise and reward with small treats when the dog is playing well with others.
Vigorous play is OK as long as both dogs are having fun. Be ready to intervene if the one appears scared or things start to get out of hand.
Be aware that when a male pup starts sexually maturing, he exudes testosterone, which can lead to dominance issues and disrupt relationships with other canines. This is one of the many good reasons for neutering dogs at a young age, before sexual maturity. If a male dog is intact (not neutered), that increases the potential for conflicts and fights.
Out in public
Taking a dog out in public to meet other people and dogs is an essential part of socialization.
When dogs meet on-leash, keep the leash loose as much as possible. Restraining the leash tightly telegraphs your tension to the dog. A dog will be more relaxed if he thinks his owner is not anxious and that he has some room to maneuver.
Dogs in neighboring yards might be territorial. Carefully introduce pets on neutral ground. Keep your pup on a leash and never approach another dog until you have asked the owner if it is OK.
If you see a dog off-leash, watch for body language. For example, a wagging tail and relaxed posture are more welcoming signs than raised hackles, erect tails and staring. If you sense any tension, change your walking route or pick up your young pup and prevent the animals from having eye contact.
It does a disservice to all to let a dog off-leash in public, since dogs can rarely figure out on their own how human society expects them to behave. As for the attitude, “my dog just wants to say hi!” – in many cases, the objects of the dog’s interest don’t want to say hi back … and in some cases, the dog himself actually wants to do more than say hi, possibly leading to an aggressive encounter. Even the assumption that an off-leash dog approaching another canine just wants to play is often wrong. The approaching dog may be more interesting in establishing him- or herself as alpha or declaring “this is my territory.” Some dogs may work it out without owner intervention, but most often, they need human intervention and control.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not normal for adult dogs to instantly come together, bond with one another and play. It’s not even normal for humans; watch children and you’ll notice that kids are typically selective about who they wish to fraternize and play with. Forcing a dog into a social situation for which the owner has not thoroughly prepared him for can be a plan for disaster.
Puppy kindergarten and dog obedience classes
Enroll in puppy kindergarten and training class. This provides a great opportunity for puppies to socialize with other dogs … for puppies to get introduced to obedience concepts in a playful environment with distractions … and for owners to learn how to communicate with their pups. In the past, some experts recommended that puppies be kept from social interaction until they received all of their shots. However, more recent evidence indicates that it is better for pups to be given social activities and taken out in the human world at younger ages (for example, between 8 and 10 weeks of age).
Observe a class or two before signing up, since you want to make sure that the trainer carefully supervises and controls the environment and does not allow more dominant dogs to bully others.
Obedience training and agility training are excellent ways to help a dog feel more comfortable and confident in public and with other dogs and people. Just as it works with people, learning new skills improves the dog’s outlook on life as well as self-confidence. For many dogs, as with people, problems result when brains and energy are underutilized.
Instruct children to greet and pet the pup gently, and without picking the puppy up.
Explain to and remind children that puppies are not toys and that they need to be treated with care.
Teach children never to bother a pup or dog when eating, chewing on a toy, resting or with when a mother dog is near her puppies.
Do not expect a pup or dog to accept rough handling, tail and ear pulling, poking, prodding, teasing, taunting, yelling, screaming, chasing or jerky movements that can seem threatening. Many if not most dog bites in the home are provoked – and they can be prevented if the owners act with greater responsibility.
ALWAYS supervise children and dogs of any age to avoid adding to the statistics of children, puppies and dogs injured by one another.
Preparing to meet new people
Invite people you trust into your home starting soon after you being your new dog home so that she learns that visitors are welcome.
You can circumvent a lot of common problems by making the effort to introduce your pup or new dog to postal carriers, delivery workers and utility employees early one. First, of course, ask the person’s permission to introduce the dog. A smart move that will hasten the dog’s acceptance: give the worker some treats for using in rewarding your dog for good behavior. Frequent visits with positive outcomes will likely reduce the pup’s excitability.
Being a leader to your dog
Dogs depend on their owners to be leaders, to teach them proper behavior, and to manage situations – not just when the dogs are puppies, but throughout their lives. In addition, dogs depend on pack order for a sense of security. The owner should be the Alpha – meaning leader, not bully.
Keep in mind that if a dog can’t count on his owner for leadership, he is not likely to listen when the owner does try to command his attention.
Routine and consistency result in happier, calmer and better socially integrated dogs. Be consistent; “no” should always mean no. And be fair; you can’t expect your dog to understand you unless you take the time to train and educate him. Dog folks help their dogs and themselves by polishing their canine parenting skills.
When a dog is confident in his owner, and when a dog is well-socialized, he can stay calm in potentially threatening situations in public and in the home.
Encourage good habits
Take and make opportunities to praise your dog.
Condition your pup to accept gentle touching and petting. When your pup is in a calm state, practice examining him from head to toe, gently and patiently. This exercise will pay off later when you need to check your dog for ticks, clip his nails, or when the pup goes to the vet or groomer. It is also a good idea to use touch techniques (such as T-Touch) to relax your dog and help alleviate some behavioral problems.
Teach your dog his name. And that his name means “pay attention and look at me.”
Begin teaching your pup to come by calling him to you enthusiastically and rewarding the come with a petting stroke, a “good dog,” and a tasty treat.
Never use your dog’s name in an angry tone, to call him for a reprimand, or for anything he finds unpleasant. You want the pup to associate his name as well as coming to you with good things.
Get your pup used to a leash early on by using it every time you take him outside for potty breaks and walks.
You can keep your puppy from developing the habit of jumping up on people. Do not let anyone pet the puppy when he is standing on hind legs. Put the puppy back on the ground before he gets attention and petting every single time.
Avoid chasing your pup. Instead, encourage the pup to follow you.
When the pup mouths you, make a “yip” sound to let the pup know “stop it, that hurts!” Stop playtime when the pup nips, since play will reinforce the unwanted behavior. Dogs who aren’t stopped from teething on and nipping people will likely continue that behavior.
When playing with your puppy, use chew toys to redirect his sharp teeth from your hands, clothing and furniture. Encourage gentle play instead of roughhousing, play-fighting and teasing that all can lead to problems. Remember, little puppies grow into strong, active dogs.
Proactively condition your dog NOT to protect his food and toys. Remove his food dish at least once during feeding. Put an extra treat in the bowl before setting it down gives your pup a positive association with someone removing his bowl. With toys, gently take the toy away and say, “out” or “drop it.” Reward the pup with a “good dog” and a treat, then give the toy back.
For effective housetraining, avoid leaving pups under 4 months old alone more than a couple of hours at a time. You want to be there when the pup shows any signs of having to go potty, so that you can take him out and have the opportunity to praise him for going in an acceptable spot. Crate training can be very useful.
Some people are fortunate to be able to take their young pup and his crate, water bowl and toys to work and to friends’ homes so that they can keep on a good housetraining schedule and speed up the process. If you can’t take your pup to work, come home for lunch or hire a dogwalker during the housetraining period, which if done correctly will last just 2 or 3 weeks. As an additional benefit, outtings to work, to friends’ homes and regular walks provide opportunities for socialization.
If you use a crate for your dog, never use the crate as a place for correction or punishment. The crate should have only positive associations.
Training your dog
One of the most important steps you should take as a pet owner is to properly and humanely train your dog. Training benefits your dog’s disposition, improve the dog’s socialization skills and enhances your relationship. For details, see other Dog Tips and get some of the excellent books recommended on the books tipsheet link shown at the end of this guide.
Multiple pups and pets
If you currently have other pets, let them get used to the smell and sound of the new pup from across a door or through a create. Closely supervise the initial interactions and don’t leave the new pup alone with other pets at least until you are sure they are safe together.
Help reassure resident pets that the new arrival is not a threat to their position in the family by maintaining the same feeding, playing and walking routines. Make sure the resident pets are getting as much attention as before. Be sensitive to elderly pets who may feel harassed by the younger newcomer’s rambunctious playing. Use the crate to give the puppy a rest and the other pets a break.
See other Dog Tipsheets at http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/dog_tips.html for details about introducing new pets to resident pets.
Adopting 2 pups at the same time:
Some folks adopt two puppies together to avoid the problem of a lonely dog. But this means more work for the owner. Another consideration: the pups may bond to each other rather than you, making training and socialization more challenging. Many experts suggest to wait until your first dog is an adult and reliably trained. The older dog can then help in teaching the new family members.
If you want a well-adjusted dog, actively seek new experiences and arrange for pleasant encounters throughout your pet’s puppy hood. This is how dogs learn to respond to situations in life without fear. Socialization is the most important process in a puppy’s life, ranking right up with proper feeding, shelter and medical care. Socialized canines are typically happy, friendly, predictable and able to handle stress. Under-socialized pups often become fearful, shy, inconfident, anxious, unhappy, unstable and sometimes even fear-aggressive. Such dogs are hard to live with, and the person responsible is the owner. Make time to socialize your pup or adult dog.