- Socialization is important — Learning to be around new things, including different people and animals, allows dogs to thrive in public places. It can also reduce behavioral problems and anxiety.
- All dogs can benefit from socialization — Ideally, a new puppy is socialized from 7 to 8 weeks of age. However, older dogs can also benefit from socialization.
- The socialization process can be challenging — You want socialization to be a positive experience. A veterinarian can refer you to adult dog or puppy training classes if you’re having issues.
Early socialization is critical to a puppy’s development as it can reduce the risk of behavioral issues, including fear, avoidance, and aggression. The best time to start socializing a puppy is within the first three months of life and can start as young as seven to eight weeks of age (even before a young dog is fully vaccinated against infectious diseases). In fact, if you go the route of using a breeder, they should start the process before you bring your new family member home.
While dogs should avoid public places like dog parks before they are fully vaccinated, you can still introduce your new puppy to new experiences and stimuli. Pet parents should take advantage of this sensitive period to introduce new environments and animals.
Have an older dog? The good news is that (with time and care) you can help make socialization a positive experience, reducing fearful behaviors and allowing them to feel comfortable in larger groups and public settings.
Understanding puppy socialization
Social interactions may not seem like a big deal to adult humans. (Conceivably, you went on playdates before you could even remember them.) However, the outside world can feel overwhelming to a young puppy or older dog who hasn’t been well socialized.
What does puppy socialization mean?
Puppy socialization is getting your young pet used to different experiences and situations. The aim is to help develop a confident dog with good manners who is open to different situations and a wide variety of people and animals. It can have a significant impact on their temperament as they grow up.
Common behavioral issues in unsocialized dogs
Sadly, behavioral issues are a common reason people give for returning adopted dogs to shelters. Taking the time to properly socialize your pup can reduce challenges down the road, including the following —
Fear and uncertainty
Facing the outside world can be scary for a dog who hasn’t been introduced to it at an early age. They may be fearful of or insecure around new experiences and people, including children, other dogs, car rides, or new locations. This can even translate at home in instances we would usually deem no big deal, like vacuum cleaners or strangers coming over.
Dogs who haven’t been walked regularly on a leash can become leash-reactive when approaching a new dog or person. Most of this stems from a combination of frustration and over-excitement — and a dog who lacks the proper social skills. Owners will understandably want to pull their dog away from the situation, but that just worsens the problem by not showing the dog how to interact correctly. Going for a short walk or two daily is a great way to reduce the risk of leash aggression.
Dogs who get over-excited are known to jump up on new people when introduced. Some pets simply can’t contain their excitement or nervousness and show it by jumping or running around (hello, puppy zoomies). Teaching them that letting someone into the house is no big deal early on will help prevent your pup from knocking someone over one day.
Often, a few sources trigger barking: anxiety, boredom, or communication. If your dog is alone for long periods, they may be anxious and bark because you’re gone. If your dog is bored or you aren’t paying them as much attention as before, this could also cause them to vocalize more. Sometimes, dogs bark as a response when they hear other pups or different sounds in the area (lawnmowers, airplanes, or delivery trucks).
One of the most extreme behavioral issues is aggression. If your dog is out socializing and you notice them growling, stalking, or with their hackles raised, remove them from the situation immediately. These are all warning signs that your dog is uncomfortable and on edge.
Biting, growling, lunging, and fighting are extremely dangerous to all parties. Aggressive behavior typically stems from fear or anxiety and owners should seek professional help (either your vet or an experienced behaviorist) right away.
👉 Positive experiences in puppy training are an important step in developing a confident adult dog who can adapt to new objects, environments, and other creatures.
How to socialize your puppy, step-by-step
Puppy socialization is an ongoing process. You’ll want to introduce your puppy to numerous environments and situations as early as you can. The process can be overwhelming for a puppy and you; this socialization guide can help.
- Get them used to your home — Puppy-proof your home so it’s a safe place for your new pet to explore from the moment their paws hit your floors. Let them hang out in a smaller area first before expanding to the whole house. Crate training is also helpful as a crate is a great spot for a pet to retreat to as a safe space.
- Slowly make introductions to other pets — If you already have pets at home, it’s important to let them meet in the right way. Keep them separated at first and let them get familiar with each other’s scents before letting them greet each other, and do so one pet at a time.
- Spend time cuddling — Pet your dog and allow other family members to do the same, teaching young children how to use gentle hands. This shows your new puppy that someone reaching for them isn’t a threat and is an essential step.
- Invite other people over — In addition to getting your pet used to your home and family, it’s a good idea to introduce them to other people. Have a few close friends or family members over so your puppy gets familiar with having people come and go. This step can cut down on the barking at or fear of strangers.
- Schedule puppy vaccinations — Puppies should have at least one round of vaccines and first deworming at least seven days before attending a puppy socialization class.
- Keep outings short — At first, the world can be overwhelming to a young puppy. Brief walks or short trips in the car can prevent a dog from becoming fearful or overstimulated.
- Monitor behavior and body language — Excessive panting, shaking, or licking more than usual indicates your dog is stressed. You may need to pull back and remove the puppy from the situation. Then, try again another time.
- Have puppy playdates — Schedule playtime with another puppy to get your pet used to being around other dogs. Your dog can also interact with other young pets at well-run puppy socialization classes.
Socializing an adult dog vs. a puppy
Not everyone gets a dog as a puppy (e.g. you adopted an older dog from a shelter or took in a pet someone else couldn’t keep). The dog may not have received much socialization as a young pup, so you may feel like you’re playing catch-up. The good news is that your older dog can likely become more confident in situations with careful socialization.
You’ll probably need to go slower with an adult dog. Start with small groups of one to two people, schedule playdates with easy-going, well-socialized dogs to introduce an older dog to other animals, reinforce positive, calm interactions with a treat or praise, etc.
Not all adult dogs will take to socialization, and some may simply prefer to be around familiar humans. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional trainer for guidance.
How to handle specific social situations
It’s important to introduce your puppy to various sights, smells, and sounds. However, different situations require more nuanced approaches.
You’ll want to supervise any interactions between dogs and children of any age at first. Reward your pup for good behavior and positive interactions. As time passes and the dog shows they’re comfortable, older children can usually be left alone with the dog. Pet parents should always supervise interactions between young children and dogs. Little ones don’t always know how to treat animals and may pull at their ears or fur, triggering negative reactions from even the friendliest, properly socialized dogs. Owners should also teach their kiddos about respecting animals and how to have gentle interactions.
With older dogs
Older dogs may not be as playful as puppies. If you’re introducing a puppy to a senior dog who lives in your home, schedule a meet and greet between the pets before bringing a new one home. This step will give you an idea of how the two dogs will mesh. It also introduces the two on neutral ground. (I.e. Your older dog may develop resource guarding over their food and toys when the new pup comes in, and meeting on “neutral territory” can help prevent that).
Still, you’ll need to do some more work once the dog comes home with you. Keep the new puppy in a separate room to start and gradually do supervised interactions. Once both display calm behavior, you can begin leaving them together for short intervals and eventually longer.
If you are socializing a puppy with an older dog outside of the home, ensure the dog is up to date on vaccinations if your puppy isn’t yet fully immunized. It’s best to socialize one-on-one first with an older dog who’s used to younger ones and has a calm, patient demeanor, then you can branch out to other dogs.
Despite the cliches about “fighting like cats and dogs,” the two can get along. The process of introducing a dog and a cat is similar, but how well the process goes will depend on their personalities.
If you have a kitty at home, keep the pup in a separate room to start and do a “sniff swap.” Give each pet an item that smells like the other so they can get familiar with the other’s scent.
All introductions should be supervised. It’s best to keep a dog on a leash and a cat in the carrier for their first meet so they can see but not touch each other. When behavior seems appropriate, they can initiate contact.
Allow your pets to approach one another on their terms, and praise calm interactions.
Once your dog is fully vaccinated, you can start venturing out in public. Hopefully, your work in smaller-group settings has laid the foundation. Some basic commands, such as sit and stay, are also useful in crowded places.
Going out in public can be overstimulating, so it’s best to stick to short walks on city streets or popular parks to let them experience the hustle and bustle. Monitor your puppies’ body language and call it quits if they seem overwhelmed. If possible, end on a high note when your puppy is still calm and happy.
Puppy socialization classes
Puppy socialization classes are a good way to get your new family member used to other dogs and people whether or not they’re fully immunized. It’s important to make sure an experienced trainer is spearheading the puppy class to set the proper foundation. AKC training clubs, a breeder, the shelter/rescue where you adopted your pet, or your veterinarian can help you find classes in your area.
Dr. Dwight Alleyne
With puppy socialization classes, you want to make sure they teach skills that help with impulse control and reinforce correct interaction with other dogs. A red flag would be classes that just focus on obedience training instead of socialization.
Puppy socialization tips and tricks
Puppy socialization is one of the most important things you can do to help your puppy grow into a confident, happy dog. These tips can help you get started —
- Don’t wait to get help. If you start noticing any behavior problems that you’re unsure of, it’s best not to wait for it to get out of hand before reaching out for help. There are professional dog trainers and behaviorists who can help you, especially ones who specialize in separation anxiety or aggression.
- Supervise dog-to-dog interactions. When introducing your pup to new dogs, always supervise the interaction and watch for any aggressive behavior. Reward your pup if the exchange goes well.
- Avoid the dog park to start. A dog park can be overwhelming to an unsocialized puppy. It’s also not a safe place for a young dog without full vaccinations.
- Have one-on-one playdates. Start with having one-on-one interactions with other healthy dogs. It’s less stressful and safer for a pet without all their puppy vaccinations.
- Don’t encourage on-leash greetings. Meeting other dogs on leashes can be dangerous for you and your pup. Dogs tend to act differently on leashes than they would off-leash — they might pull, jump on the other dog, bark, or act aggressively.
- Introduce them to lots of new people and places. While you don’t want to overwhelm your dog by doing too much too fast, your pup needs to have exposure to new people and a variety of situations over time.
- Praise them for positive interactions. It’s helpful to always carry treats with you while working on socializing with your pup. Any time they react well toward a stranger, a new dog, or any sort of new interaction, give them a treat and lots of praise as positive reinforcement.
- Prepare your dog for alone time. Part of developing a well-adjusted dog is teaching your puppy that sometimes they’ll need to be alone. It’s best to do it slowly, such as leaving them alone for 5-10 minutes as you take a short trip and work your way up. Leaving them alone for hours at a time right away can feel jarring and lead to separation anxiety down the road.
👉 It’s important to remain patient with your pup. Socialization is a long process that doesn’t happen overnight.
Puppy socialization is an important step in developing a well-mannered adult dog. Improper socialization can lead to behavioral issues, and it doesn’t stop just because your pup reaches adulthood. Continue to expose your dog to different situations and animals as they mature — it’s good maintenance and fun for your dog.
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Frequently asked questions
At what age should you start socializing your puppy?
Ideally, puppy socialization starts around 7 or 8 weeks of age before you bring a puppy home. The most important period for socialization is in the first three months of life, and doing so can reduce behavioral issues.
How late is too late to socialize a puppy?
It’s never too late to try to socialize a puppy or older dog, though it can get more challenging as a pet gets older. A professional dog trainer can help.
What is the best way to socialize a puppy?
Start by introducing your new puppy to family members and your home. Then, have them interact off-leash with other puppies through classes or playdates. Your puppy should have received vaccinations before going out in public, and they should have received at least one round of vaccines and deworming at least seven days before attending any classes.