If you are a well-read new puppy owner you know the Socialization Period for puppies is between the ages of 3-14 weeks. This is the time in their lives when they are the most open and accepting to new experiences, people, places, and things.
During this critical stage, your puppy is more capable of learning to accept new situations, environments, other animals, and of bonding with people, than at later life stages. I wrote a separate article on how to speed up the bonding process with a new puppy Bonding with your Dog.
Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings about vaccines and the importance of early socialization, many people are encouraged to keep their puppy inside and are afraid to have them interact with the outside world until after they have been completely vaccinated. Because of this misconception, many dogs miss out on the valuable socialization experiences they need to grow up to be a Zen Dog! American Society of Vets position statement on Puppy Socialization.
Under-socialized puppies have a higher risk of developing serious and challenging behavior issues, such as excessive barking, fearful and aggressive behaviors, reactivity towards humans and other dogs—especially outside—and difficulty learning to feel safe and comfortable in the home when new people come by.
It is important to note: even though the socialization period ends at the 14th week, much progress can be made with older puppies and newly adopted dogs. When bringing a new puppy into the home we recommend starting right away, and continuing socialization efforts until the 1-year mark with new puppies, and as long as necessary with fearful, shy, or protective dogs.
The Importance of Socialization
The good news is that many veterinarians, dog trainers and owners know the importance of early socialization. Great veterinarians understand that the risk of a puppy getting sick from early socialization is low (and in most cases, easily treatable). However, having a dog who lacks socialization skills can be a huge problem that is hard to remedy.
Shy and fearful adult dogs suffer a lifetime of fear: every time the doorbell rings, a stranger gets too close, or a bus or truck startles them, they can become traumatized. As a dog trainer, I’ve met many dogs who are too scared to even eat a treat outside the house! Imagine being too afraid to eat your favorite food?
Fearful dogs are not always content to hide and cower. Fear is the root of most aggression in dogs. As a defense mechanism, fearful dogs can learn to lash out: biting hands when being touched, attacking people’s legs and feet, growling when approached, barking aggressively, lunging at strangers on walks or people entering the home and even biting the same person multiple times when they feel threatened!
Treating fearful behaviors with adult dogs is difficult and complex. Behavior modification is expensive and time consuming, and typically requires additional resources such as specialized day care, walkers, and sitters. Having a shy, fearful, or protective dog greatly hinders the number of places people can go with their dog, which reduces quality of life for both the owner and the dog. The worst part is that seriously traumatized dogs might not fully overcome their fears and phobias.
What is Socialization?
When people think about socialization, they often think about getting their puppy to interact and play with other dogs. The reality is that socialization for puppies should include getting them accustomed to feeling safe around people, especially kids, the elderly, visitors to the home, neighbors, and people on the street.
Socialization also includes getting a puppy to accept new places, situations, and environments. This is especially important when owners spend part of their time at the beach, or expect their dog to be OK on a boat or airplane. In many cases, special efforts need to be made to get puppies used to traveling in cars or public transportation like the train, bus or ferry.
Getting a puppy used to unusual sense experiences—textures, scents, sights, and sounds—also matters for socialization. People who raise their dogs in the quiet suburbs often have dogs who are scared or fearful of city noises, buses, trucks, traffic, and the bustle of everyday city noises. As trainers, we coach people to walk towards construction noises, landscapers, the trash truck, etc., and to use lots of treats to turn them into healthy teaching moments.
Additionally, socialization should include getting puppies used to being touched, held, and handled by everyone in the family, especially children and visitors, and other dog caregivers including groomers, veterinarians, and technicians. More on how to socialize a dog to accept touch can be found here Socialization to Touch.
In general, socialization is about low-level exposure to people, places, things, and situations, in a safe and comfortable way, combined with treats. Every puppy is different; some are more sensitive and easily overwhelmed. Just getting a puppy to eat a snack in front of a “scary” experience can teach them to accept these experiences and maybe even learn to enjoy them.
Socialization can be fun and easy!
Socializing your puppy to new people and environments is relatively easy. Owners should take lots of walks and give their puppy treats outside when they hear loud noises or experience new things. Inviting lots of people over to the home and encouraging them to touch, play with and interact with the puppy is a fun way to enlist others to help.
Just getting a puppy to take treats from people, visitors, and especially children will speed up the socialization process. The other benefit is that playing treat games reduces play biting and other unwanted interactions as puppies learn that human hands are not chew toys, but rather offer yummy rewards.
Even people without children can socialize their puppy to little people by going out of their way to meet and greet people with children on the street, by walking near playgrounds, parks and schools. Working with a trainer can help, as a good trainer knows how to create situations where your puppy can safely interact with children.
The greatest challenge is safely socializing your puppy with other dogs. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about having your unvaccinated puppy meet other dogs, and to make sure a puppy does not get traumatized during play with another dog. The most difficult aspect of socialization is getting your dog to interact well with other dogs of all shapes, sizes and ages.
Puppy Classes are Essential for Socialization
The best way to socialize a puppy to other dogs is by joining a puppy class that encourages a lot of supervised play and healthy dog/dog interactions. Owners should ask questions before joining the class about how many other dogs will be in the class and how much time is dedicated to letting the puppies play and interact.
Many big box store puppy classes have too few dogs or are held in spaces where the puppies must remain on leash or do not spend enough time playing with other dogs. At Zen Dog Training we have found the ideal group class size to be 6-7 puppies. With any more, there isn’t enough time for the trainer to work with each puppy or properly supervise, and too many dogs can be overwhelming to shy dogs.
If there are not enough puppies in the class, there might not be enough well-matched puppies to play with. Timid puppies need gentle, sensitive players in order to learn to come out of their shell. If the class is too small, these dogs may not get the right kinds of interactions that will help them learn to be confident players.
Trust your gut about the trainers and the methods they use. Avoid trainers that recommend punishment-based techniques or use methods that make you worried!
The first step is talking with your veterinarian about when exactly to join puppy classes. Most recommend waiting until after the second round of puppy shots (about 11-12 weeks) before joining a puppy class.
The good news is that there are plenty of things owners can do, outside joining a puppy class, to ensure their puppy is well-socialized with other dogs.
How to Safely Socialize your Puppy to other Dogs
The key to successful socialization is having owners who are proactive about creating situations in which healthy socialization can occur.
Socialization is more than just setting up play dates. Make sure these early experiences are safe and positive. Do not take an unvaccinated puppy to the dog park! Instead, find similarly-aged puppies for play dates. Ideally, look for well-socialized dogs of all ages to practice short meet and greets with, and set-up visits and play dates with other well-socialized dogs in a safe, clean environment.
Creative ways to socialize a young puppy:
- Use social media to find friends, family, and friends of friends who have puppies or well-socialized dogs to can set-up play dates with. Remember to avoid older dogs who play rough or too intensely. There are plenty of adult dogs who are gentle players and great role models for teaching healthy play.
- Take puppies outside often and let them meet and greet other well-socialized dogs. Let them sniff noses, sniff butts and after 20-30 seconds move on. When meeting other dogs on the street, we recommend saying something like, “He’s a puppy; is your dog good with puppies?” If necessary, owners should be ready to pick up their puppy and walk away.
- When meeting another dog, or puppy who plays well with your puppy, don’t be afraid to ask for number/contact info to set-up future play dates. It feels awkward at first, but remember how essential healthy play is for your puppy.
- Avoid busy dog parks but do take puppies on hikes, the park, etc. Places where puppies can safely meet dogs and have positive play experiences. Dropping the leash and letting it drag while a puppy meets another dog can encourage healthy dog/dog interactions with the safety of being able to quickly grab the leash if things get out of control.
- Find puppy socialization meet-ups and events. Some local pet stores offer free weekly play sessions where puppies can interact in a supervised environment.
- Limit socialization experiences to short periods. Ten to twenty minutes of socialization several times a week is better than a long period where a puppy might get scared or overwhelmed.
- Take puppies to dog-friendly places. Pet stores, local breweries, restaurants and café’s with outdoor seating, parks, and even outdoor shopping centers can be great for socializing in general, and a nice way to meet other dogs in a controlled setting.
- Look for dog-friendly events. Many cities and towns have dog-friendly events, plus, weekly farmers markets, and other outdoor events can be great ways to socialize.
- Hire a dog walker or enlist friends to help encourage more socialization experiences. Puppies need lots of walks and exercise, busy owners should get help to ensure socialization is happening on a regular basis and help their dog get the exercise and stimulation they need.
- Visit doggie day cares, groomers, and pet stores when your dog is a puppy. People in the dog business love meeting young puppies and can be great resources for finding other dogs and places to socialize. Groomers often encourage having young puppies come in for short visit before they get groomed to make positive associations with the groomer as early as possible.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – Benjamin Franklin
Being as proactive as possible about finding safe ways to socialize a puppy can be the difference between a having a shy, fearful, or protective dog for life, or having a well-balanced Zen Dog who loves meeting new people of all ages, and sizes, going places, and playing with other dogs!
Have fun training!