Updated: May 12
“But I don’t understand”, the owner of the American Eskimo puppy said. “She’s well socialized to other dogs; we have two other dogs at home.”
This was in response to the puppy tucking her tail and hiding in a corner at playtime during a puppy class I was teaching. Unfortunately, despite what the owner thought, her puppy was not well socialized to other dogs. Puppy socialization are words that are thrown around a lot by canine professionals, and even by educated dog owners as being one of the most important things to know when raising a puppy. Unfortunately the average pet owner sometimes thinks of socialization differently than dog professionals.
What is puppy socialization?
Socialization means that an animal is repeatedly exposed to an environment or situation until they feel comfortable with it. When animal professionals talk about socialization for dogs or cats, they are really talking about a specific socialization period during the time the animal is a puppy or kitten.
Wild animals need to learn what is safe and what is unsafe in their environment. Nature has created a period in their development where they can learn what is normal. During this sensitive period they are much more curious about their world, are more likely adapt easily to change, and aren’t readily frightened by novel experiences.
However, it would be unsafe for adult animals to react with curiosity and a lack of fear to new things in their environment. The survival of wild animals depends on their being easily frightened by changes or appearances of the unfamiliar. And just because the dogs we keep as pets have been domesticated, it doesn’t mean that they have lost their sensitive socialization period.
Studies have shown that dogs have a window of socialization starting at about 3 weeks of age, and extending anywhere from 14 to 20 weeks. At what age the window ends depends on such factors as the breed and the individual dog. Cats have a much smaller window. It starts at about 2 or 3 weeks of age is just about closed around 7 weeks.
When should you start socializing your puppy?
A lot of new puppy owners wonder when to start puppy training, and the answer is that your puppy is never to young to start learning, and definitely not too young to start socialization in the form of exposure to things, people and other animals they'll see as part of their every day life. As a matter of fact, socialization will ideally have started even before the puppy comes home to their new family! When you get a new puppy, socialization should start after you've given your puppy a day or two to settle into your home.
How under-socialization will impact development depends on the individual animal. Some adult animals may have no problem adapting to their world even without good socialization. Others may genetically be cautious and shy in temperament, and develop major behavioral problems if not socialized extensively. The problem is that there is no way to predict which young puppy or kitten needs extensive socialization, and which will do just fine without. But making an effort to socialize your puppy or kitten during this critical period will be only beneficial by allowing them to adapt to our world.
Socialization is a very important part of how to raise and train your puppy, and is much more complicated than meeting a few humans, or meeting a few other dogs. It’s about learning that there is nothing to be concerned about when you meet new individuals, enter new environments, or have new experiences. Just because an owner has a few dogs living in their home, it does not help the puppy become socialized to strange dogs that it may meet. And just because a puppy grows up with children, it may not end up being well socialized to children it has never met before.
Additionally, socialization isn’t just about exposing a puppy or kitten to new things. It’s very important that a puppy not be forced to face a situation that frightens it, or it may create a life-long phobia. Care must be taken to help a puppy learn to be brave when faced with a situation that makes it cautious.
The best way to socialize a puppy
So instead of making a puppy accept petting from that friendly stranger that causes him to panic, a better choice would be to let the puppy set the pace. Have the person crouch down and avoid eye contact. Allow the puppy to approach the person, rather than forcing the puppy to approach. And even better would be to have that person toss treats so that he starts to associate strangers with good things. Don’t encourage the puppy to take a treat from a strangers hand if they’re hesitant. The puppy may momentarily overcome their fear to get the treat, but it may not help them overcome their fear permanently.
So many times I meet people who got their dog at an older age. “He’s afraid of men, so he must have been abused by one,” they tell me. It’s more likely that their dog saw very few men as a young puppy.
Meeting one man during the socialization period doesn’t socialize a dog or cat to men. The young puppy or kitten needs to meet many men (AND FEEL SAFE while meeting them) during the critical period before they’ll learn that men aren’t something to fear. Since animals don’t generalize well, they should meet men of all different heights, body types, races, ages, different types of clothing, with and without facial hair.
And because an animal is well socialized to men, it doesn’t mean it will transfer to other types of humans. A well-socialized animal should be positively exposed to just as many adult women of different types, and to children of all ages.
Additionally, proper socialization includes exposure to environment. During the sensitive socialization period puppies and kittens should be exposed to different surfaces – carpeting, tile, grass, and concrete. Puppies should encounter things like car and pedestrian traffic, car rides, noises and anything else they may encounter during their lives.
Using exposure to sounds for puppy socialization are just as important as things they can see. Noises such as lawn mowers, thunder and fireworks can be exposed by playing them at a low level through These exposures should be done in a positive way – praising the animal for being brave, and using treats or play as a reward for interacting with this strange new world.
Socialization experiences should always be done so that not only is the puppy not displaying fear, but paired with something that makes the puppy happy. Giving the puppy treats or engaging in play when the puppy is out for a walk and sees a kid on a bicycle or when a motorcycle goes by can help the puppy’s outlook about these experiences to be happy rather than fearful. And doing this for any new experience, even if the puppy isn’t displaying fear, can head off any future problems that may crop up. Sometimes things aren’t initially worrisome and then the experience is internalized and becomes a problem with repeated interaction.
Since dogs will almost always have to interact with other dogs – whether it’s seeing another dog on a walk in the neighborhood, in an obedience class or a trip to the dog park, a huge effort should be taken to socialize your puppy to other dogs.
Safe puppy socialization
The critical socialization period ends before a puppy or kitten is fully inoculated, and so therefore every effort must be taken to ensure that you aren’t exposing them to unnecessary risk. Socialization for a young puppy should not happen at a dog park where there may be disease for him to pick up.
Additionally dog parks are risky since you can’t control the behavior of the other dogs at the park. A bad experience at this developmental stage will have a huge negative impact on socialization and may end up creating fear where it didn’t exist.
However, an owner shouldn’t discount taking their pet out in public altogether to prevent disease, and in the process end up under-socializing. The long-term damage that can occur from lack of socialization includes aggression and shyness to strangers, children and other dogs, severe fear of new places and fear of new experiences. Socialization is a gift you can give your dog or cat to allow them to be happy living in our world.
Socialization isn’t always about direct interaction. Just being in an environment where your puppy can see other dogs and humans and learn that they are part of the normal world and not scary is of huge benefit to your dog’s development. When I first started as a dog trainer off leash play with other puppies was considered the best way to socialize to other dogs. There’s been a shift away from that way of thinking because socialization by playing with their peers does not provide socialization experience with adult dogs. Puppies engage with each other very differently than adult dogs engage with other adult dogs.
Many trainers now believe that socialization to other dogs can be achieved by letting your puppy interact with a few safe, dog friendly dogs, and in addition, making an effort to simply by be in the same environment with other dogs.
When in the same environment you would work on training your puppy to feel comfortable in the presence of other dogs, but not allow direct interaction. During this exposure great things happen for the puppy in the way of treats and play with their owner. Additionally, observing but not engaging will help teach your puppy that sometimes you don’t get to meet every dog or human you see just because you want to.
Are puppy socialization classes safe?
The answer to this is that it depends on the experience of the trainer who runs the puppy socialization classes, as well as the curriculum. My advice would be to observe a class before enrolling if possible. If there is playtime it should be set up so that all the puppies are enjoying themselves and no one is getting bullied.
Avoid classes where the instructor "lets them work it out". Letting puppies work it out themselves can end up teaching one puppy to be a bully, and another puppy that other dogs are scary, creating lifelong behavior issues.
Good classes try and match puppies with similar play styles, and interrupts any play that is getting puppies over stimulated, or where one puppy starts to become frightened. I really like class structures where puppies play for just a few minutes, get owner interaction, and then are allowed to play again. This helps puppies learn to take breaks from over-stimulating play, and learn to respond to their owners even if there's something else they'd rather be doing.
Look for classes that work on other types of socialization as well by incorporating exploration of new surfaces, sights and sounds. Remember that we want experiences to build confidence and avoid forcing puppies to interact when they aren't comfortable doing so. The instructor should be monitoring the puppies and coach owners on how to help their puppy overcome any anxiety shown to new interactions.
While there are no guarantees that socializing your puppy will ensure it doesn’t develop an issue, good socialization can help counter any genetic tendencies your dog may have towards being fearful of new things. If you're looking for tips for puppy training, then make sure you include proper socialization. It will help provide your pet with the coping skills they need to live relatively stress free in our world.