Many owners often believe that socialization or socializing a dog is as simple as giving a puppy the opportunity to play with other puppies or dogs, and meeting numerous people. This is not a socialization program for your puppy. Owners of a juvenile or adult dog often have the misguided belief that letting their dog run free at a dog park, placing them in doggie daycare, or taking them on leash to a big chain pet store where the dog ends up straining at the end of the leash to either get to other dogs, or to avoid other dogs, is a way to socialize the dog. These unstructured experiences are not a socialization program; they may do more harm than good.
Socialization or socializing your dog is a carefully structured process to prevent the puppy from developing unreasonable fears during this sensitive period. Socialization helps to develop the puppy into a confident and well-mannered member of the community that behaves in a acceptable manner with people and animals.
Weeks 3-12 of a puppy’s life comprise the critical primary socialization period. This is the period of time when exposure to people, places and things can have long lasting effects on the puppy’s development and behavior, both positive and negative. This is important to understand because behavior problems often take root in the first four-months of the puppy’s life, but may not show up for months. (Food guarding, possessiveness, separation anxiety, fear of unfamiliar things, places, people, etc…) The second socialization period begins at about 4-5 months and will last until the dog is 18 months or older. It is during this time that social behaviors continue to develop and change.
We want our dogs to be well-rounded to differing things, people, and experiences so that they recognize normal and novel things they may be exposed to so they don’t view these things as aliens or strange things they should fear later in life.
Expose Without Overwhelming
The puppies should be exposed to household noises and things they may encounter in life such as, toasters, pots and pans, oven timers, steam irons, vacuums, washer and dryers, hair dryers, electric razors, power tools, fans, radio, televisions, and telephones, clocks, paper shredders, computers, printers, smoke detectors, ceiling fans, roller skates, skateboards, bicycles, baby strollers, wheel chairs, canes, crutches, umbrellas, trash cans, shopping carts, shopping bags, and children’s toys, cars, trucks, bicycles, scooters, traffic. etc...
Puppies should be exposed to differing surfaces such as concrete, wood, vinyl, tile, carpet, artificial turf, gravel, grass, sand, and dirt. The should also have the opportunity to explore and climb on safe unstable surfaces like a wobble board, balance disc, balance pads made from foam, or something as simple as a cushion.
It is important to remember that mildly stressful exposure is vastly different than a traumatic experience. What does the difference look like? For starters, a puppy exposed to a new thing or sound may react with curiosity, or mild stress. How do you know it is mild? The puppy recovers its curiosity in a reasonable amount of time; say less than a minute to cautiously explore the item again.
Starting at about 5 weeks of age puppies become cautious about NEW THINGS and EXPERIENCES. Good puppy raisers are careful to expose puppies to all types of sounds and things by 4-weeks of age so puppies have a large experience library before reacting the fear period. Since puppies will react to new or novel they make sure normal things that could be encountered in life are neither new or novel by the time the puppies reach 5-weeks of age. At about 6-weeks of age this becomes more pronounced and it is at its strongest around 8-weeks and this lasts until about 10-weeks. Precautions must be taken to not overwhelm the puppies with events that they now might consider traumatic during this time. Care must be taken not to increase the puppy’s reactivity or fear responses by overwhelming them. With positive early exposure to people and things you can prevent unreasonable fears from developing before, during, and after this phase.
Bonding with Humans
Puppies should be interacting and have quality experiences with gentle people starting at 3-weeks. Starting at 5-weeks of age the puppies should be separated from the littermates and mother for short periods of time each day and should spend that time with human’s playing with toys and having a pleasant experience. Play should not be aggressive, and no play fighting especially with potentially aggressive dogs or you may create problems for the future.
This is also a good time to start to lengthen the amount of time handling the puppy, opening its mouth, checking the ears, handling its feet, and grooming it all over for extended periods up to about 10-minutes. By the time puppy is 8-weeks it should accept someone opening its mouth and checking its teeth, and should permit handling and grooming for 10-15 minutes without struggling. A dog that accepts handling over its complete body will be less stressed at the vet or groomers. It is very important that the puppy learn to deal with frustration since it is a part of life, and another important reason is that frustration is one of the components that can lead to aggression.
By 8-weeks a lot of the puppy’s personality has already started to form. Since puppies benefit greatly from the social interaction with the mother and litter mates and develop important social behaviors, they should stay with their litter mates and mother until they are 8-weeks. This means the breeder has a responsibility to begin the socialization process by exposing and familiarizing the puppies with a variety of positive experiences with people and things they are likely to encounter during their life. The breeder or the humans who are responsible for the puppies should have a planned and structured socialization program that begins from the very first week starting with gentle daily handing.
If the puppies are going to be pets or companion dogs, their first 8-weeks of life should be in the breeder’s home not in a cage in the backyard, barn, or warehouse, so that the puppies will become familiar with the smells, sights, and sounds of the type of environment in which they will be living. If the location where the puppies are being raised for the first weeks of their life is not providing a proper socialization plan, I recommend rescuing the puppy as early as 6-weeks to bring them to their new home, or get a puppy from another source. Every week can be critical at this early stage in life to develop a confident and well-behaved dog.
If the breeder did a good job the first 8-weeks of the puppy’s life the puppy should be practically housetrained, confident around people, things, and locations. A dog’s personality is mostly shaped in the first four-months of the puppy’s life, so once you bring your puppy home at 8-weeks, you have no time to waste before you start to socialize your puppy. You have between 4 and 8 weeks to continue developing your puppy’s personality/temperament. After the first 16-weeks it not realistic to think you will change the dog’s personality. Although personality/temperament is consistent and changes very little during the dog’s life if any, behavior can be modified to varying degrees.
This presents a challenge since this is a critical period of time when proper socialization should take place, and it is it is a critical period of time when the puppy may be susceptible to disease. The importance of early socialization has been widely known since the publication of Scott & Fuller’s research on the social behavior of dogs in the 1960’s. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in England was greatly influenced by Scott and Fuller’s work and understood the temperamental damage done to puppies that did not get early socialization. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association pioneered the idea of early vaccination and early socialization in the 1960’s with great success even in the face of a great amount of criticism from the veterinarian profession.
There are still veterinarians today advising owners basically to quarantine their puppy until it completes its full set of vaccinations. The problem with this advice is that of the millions of homes that adopt a puppy each year in the USA, almost half of those dogs will never live to see their second birthday because their owners are unhappy with how they turned out and surrender them to shelters… two out of three will be euthanized. In the book “Puppy’s First Steps” it states that “puppies that had dysfunctional backgrounds with inadequate socialization were 580 times more likely to end up with fear aggression toward strangers.”
More veterinarians today are now recommending early socialization for puppies as long as appropriate precautions are taken. Dr. R. K. Anderson, DVM, wrote “An Open Letter to My Colleagues in Veterinary Medicine” in 2006 encouraging early socialization after receiving at least the first set of vaccinations and as long as other precautions are followed. Dr. Anderson goes on to state “that the risk of a dog dying (euthanasia) because of behavior problems is more than 1,000 times the risk of dying of distemper or Parvo virus”. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has also come out to state “that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf
First the puppy should receive its first set of vaccinations against high risk infectious diseases before starting any socialization procedure. For guidance on vaccinations start here. Puppies are especially susceptible to parvovirus (Parvo) which is a life threatening disease that is potentially everywhere in the environment. Infected dogs can pass the parvovirus in their feces, vomit, and saliva. The virus can be found on grass, concrete, soil or anywhere the infected dog has defecated. It can be spread on clothing, shoes, or on any surface that has been contaminated, even hands. It is passed to another dog through the nasal or oral tissues.
Owners should take their puppy out but avoid any exposure to potential sites of infection. This means not letting your puppy sniff at any place another animal has urinated or defecated. Avoid even your own front yard or the area in front of your home where you cannot be sure of what animals have been there. If you need to take your puppy to the veterinary office, carry them in and do not permit them around potential sites of contamination outside or near the veterinarian’s office. Keep away from dog parks, dog shows, pet stores where people can bring their dogs, parks, and anywhere where dogs are walked regularly. In high risk areas, carry your dog so they will not have contact with potential sites of contamination.
What if you follow the socialization guidelines and end up with a sick puppy? What if you don’t and end up with a fearful dog or insecure dog? As with anything in life there are risks associated with every decision and choosing to take your puppy out into the community and/or participate in puppy socialization classes are no exception. Always consult with your veterinary professional to discuss ways to minimize risk of exposure to infectious diseases.
Starting Your Puppy’s Socialization Program
If you just brought your new puppy home, talk to your veterinarian about ways to minimize the risk of exposure to infectious diseases before embarking on a socialization program. If you have not done so, go back now and read the chapter on vaccinations.
The three goals of a socialization program are:
Preventing Unreasonable Fears
Developing a Well-Mannered and Social Dog
Preventing Unreasonable Fears
If the puppy started life in a good home, by 8-weeks of age the puppy should have an understanding of the world and knowledge and experience with those things they will encounter in life. You need to continue to safely expose your puppy to unfamiliar people, places, and things daily. Safely expose and let your puppy experience all kinds of different people in the community both individually and in groups. And include both dog owners and non-dog owners because to your puppy these two groups of people will represent differing types of people in the community just based on scent.
If the puppy had a limited life experience up to this point you will need start to safely introduce new people, things, and sounds to your puppy right away. The socialization process must be planned and structured so you control the process. Not everyone should be welcome to participate. This may mean that you don’t invite those loud or obnoxious relatives or friends over right away until the puppy has learned to trust, and is very social with all types of people. First impressions can make a lifelong impact, so don’t overwhelm, let the puppy build up its social tolerance first. Much like a vaccination, just a little to build up immunity first so they can handle what life brings them later.
These first 16-weeks are a short period of time when exposure to people, places and things can have long lasting effects on the puppy’s behavior. It is during this time that the dog’s reactivity or fear responses will increase or decrease depending on the environment and its life experiences or lack thereof. If your puppy or dog is showing any sign of fear or discomfort; e.g. cowering, stopped breathing momentarily, ears back, tail tucked under their body, hyper-vigilant, etc… you need to change what you are doing. First and foremost move away from whatever is causing your dog distress, and create more distance for the dog.
Take your puppy everywhere you can, when you can do so safely and let it continue to experience life. Take your puppy on car rides through differing neighborhoods, communities, and new places where he will experience a variety of sights, smells, and sounds. Before you walk your dog on any sidewalk, first check the area to see if others who may have walked their dog picked up after them. If not, find a community where people take responsibility for their dogs and pick up after them. I would anticipate in the more responsible communities the dogs would be current on their vaccinations. Even so keep your dog off the grass near the sidewalks where other dogs may have eliminated. You can walk near schoolyards while children are playing on the other side of the fence and unable to overwhelm the dog, so the dog could safely experience the sounds of children at play.
Avoid dog parks even after your dog has had all of his vaccinations. Taking your dog to the dog park for socialization can result in unintended consequences; if your dog is confident you can produce a dog that is overly aroused and out of control around other dogs. If you have a shy dog, they are more likely to be bullied, and you have possibly laid the foundation for fear aggression to develop.
Puppies that have been socialized properly and understand their world feel safe and are more confident with things, people, and places.
Puppy Socialization Classes
This is a class for puppies between 8-12 weeks of age. Often times a puppy socialization class is marketed as off-leash puppy play groups. The reasoning given for such classes is that “off-leash play and play-fighting helps socialize puppies with each other, teaches them to be gentle with their mouthing and biting”. A play group class should not be considered a puppy socialization class. Puppies will do what puppies do, wrestle, bite, jump on others, chase, etc… even if no other dogs in class take offense to that behavior it is teaching the puppies the wrong thing. This should not be a class where puppies are allowed to play rough with one another and bite. What about bite inhibition? The puppy had several weeks to learn this with their littermates before going to their new home.
Now that the puppy is in his or her new home we want to move from bite inhibition (soft bite) to teaching no bite at all. What your puppy needs to learn now is how to interact with, and around other dogs and people in an appropriate social manner. We don’t want the puppies practicing anything during play in class that would be inappropriate if they did it to an unfamiliar dog.
Dog trainer and behaviorist John Rogerson recommends you socialize your puppy with a friends “mature, sensible” adult dog a couple times each week under supervision with the caveat that your puppy not be permitted to do anything to the adult dog that will get him into trouble if he does it to other dogs when he is older. Non-aggressive play between two dogs that involve gentle games not involving physical strength can benefit your puppy. But you should never allow your puppy to pester an older dog to play. Some dogs may not have as much tolerance for nonsense or rude behavior from another dog regardless of its age.
When dogs are under full control of their owners they can be together in large areas playing with people and engaged in directed activities. These dogs have more freedoms and are permitted access to public places like Central Park in New York City. Your objective should be to have a dog that is human focused and devoted that is willingly cooperative. You don’t need to be “alpha” and attempt to motivate this out of fear, but rather you achieve this by instilling desire by being a person whom a dog will cheerfully follow.
A puppy socialization class should start with teaching owners how to be fun and nice, and expressing it to their dogs’. The most important element is building an emotional working relationship with your puppy. A very important part of the class will be having each owner handle and groom their puppy for 15-minutes. The goal is to have the puppy except this without struggling. Owners should be taught how to play with their puppy, but this will not include tug games yet. Games of tug should not be taught until the puppy has learned to share. How do you teach a puppy to share? You teach them to retrieve which is the concept of sharing something with you. This is especially important for owners of guarding breeds like German Shepherds, Dobermans, and even the terrier breeds which were used to kill vermin and we never wanted them to share their kill with us. Since retrieving contains an element of chasing which most dogs love to do, we will not want to strengthen this behavior without putting some controls on this behavior. We want to make chasing permission based, and add brakes on the behavior by teaching the puppy to come back to us even when he is chasing something. This we want to teach by the time he is 16-weeks. The retrieve game will be the foundation for teaching a puppy to come back even when he is chasing something. Once your puppy will happily retrieve a toy, when friends come to your home you can initiate the play time and then let your friends continue the game while you leave the room for a few minutes. This will continue the positive socialization process and your puppy will grow up without fearing people who visit.
During the class the puppy should have plenty of opportunities (not forced or lured with treats) to meet people. If the other owners and people attending are pleasant and expressive with the puppies, the puppies will learn to better read human emotions and enjoy their company. The reason to avoid using food treats for these interactions is that we don’t want to turn people into treat dispensers. The use of food is not necessary to develop a social bond between a puppy and people. We don’t want our dogs to seek people out who are not inviting contact in hopes of getting a treat. We don’t want our dogs to become a nuisance. This is important because there are people in our communities that do not wish to interact with dogs. A puppy that learns to read emotions will come to realize which people are inviting and which are not.
The common theme to the class described above, is that we want the owners to be their dog’s best friend and the puppy to bond with their owners. We want our dogs to be social with other dogs, but we do not want to create a dog that struggles against the leash to get to every dog it sees. We want to teach self-control in the presence of other dogs and people. We don’t want the dog to only desire to be with the owner because they have treats. We want our dogs to desire their owners because they are fun and interesting, and the dog realizes that their owners are interested in them.
What our dogs should be learning during socialization is that all types of people are nice regardless of their age, or how they look or sound. The world is full of novel things and sounds. Toys are for playing, and toys and other appropriate things are for putting their teeth on, not other dogs, animals, or humans. We want to teach that there are plenty of resources to go around, and that there is no reason to be protective over food or water bowls, bones, toys, treats, attention, etc…
During the early part of your dog’s life, they should be spending more time with you than other dogs. Careful and limited socialization with other dogs will be beneficial, but we want our dog’s to learn to understand and relate to us, not just to other dogs. It is important that we have more influence of our dog’s behavior than other dogs. It is always best to prevent behavior we don’t want to see develop and have to change later.
So how do you accomplish this?
The most important element is building an emotional working relationship with your dog. Dog trainer and behaviorist John Rogerson, author of the book “The Dog Vinci Code” says that educating and controlling your puppy can be achieved within 6-days to 10-days. I highly recommend you get a copy of the book and read it now if you do not have it. John Rogerson is a brilliant and exceptional trainer and behaviorist.
We want our dogs’ experiences to be positive and well-rounded so they don’t view people or things as aliens or strange things they should fear later in life. The bottom line, socializing your dog should be about teaching your dog about the world with positive experiences and the training designed so your dog learns to interact in the world successfully.
The Dog Its Behavior, Nutrition, & Health Second Edition Linda P. Case
Puppy’s First Steps The Whole-Dog Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-=Behaved Puppy Edited by Nicholas Dodman, BVMS
The Dog’s Mind by Bruce Fogle, D.V.M., M.R.C.V.S.
Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller
ASPCA Socializing Your Puppy https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/socializing-your-puppy
The Dog Vinci Code by John Rogerson
The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey