The Importance of Puppy Socialization

Tracy Libby
Puppy SocializationSocialization is critical to your puppy growing up to be a well-adjusted dog

Did you know that how well your dog gets along with other dogs and people has a lot to do with how he is socialized as a puppy? Granted, behavior always comes from a combination of genetics and environment, so much will depend on his breeding. However, generally speaking, a combination of good genetics and proper socialization is critical when it comes to raising a puppy who grows into a well-adjusted adult dog and is friendly toward strangers and other animals.

So what is socialization? Trainers have all sorts of definitions, but in the simplest of terms, it's a learning process where your puppy is exposed—in a safe, positive, and non-threatening way—to all of the things he's likely to encounter as an adult dog—other animals, the clapping of hands, elevators, stairs, vacuums, kids on bicycles, women in floppy hats, and so forth. Doing so helps your puppy to develop the coping skills necessary to grow into a mentally sound and confident adult dog.

We know from the pioneering work of John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller that both genetic and environmental influences impact the development of canine behavior. One of their most important contributions is the description of sensitive periods in the social development of dogs, with the "socialization" period being the critical time between 3 and 12 weeks of age (some experts say 3 to 14-16 weeks). It's the time frame in a puppy's life when "a small amount of experience will produce a great effect on later behavior." If a puppy is well-socialized during this period, he will grow up thinking the world is a wonderful, safe, and good place—and that's what you want. Dogs who lack positive experiences during this time frame are more likely to develop fearful reactions to people, noises, and unfamiliar locations. They tend to grow into adult dogs who are more cautious, shy, fearful, and frequently nervous. As adult dogs, they usually find it more difficult to cope with new or stressful situations.

According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, behavioral problems—many of which correlate with lack of socialization—are a common reason many dogs are abandoned or surrendered to animal shelters. While it's possible, to a limited extent, to rehab unsocialized dogs, most of them never grow into the happy-go-lucky dogs they could have been.

Depending on where and from whom you acquired your puppy, he may or may not have received adequate socialization. Most responsible breeders begin the socialization process between 3 and 5 weeks of age and continue until the puppies go to their new homes around 8 weeks of age. Once your puppy comes to live with you, it's your job to keep up the good work. It's a small window of opportunity, so you'll need to use your time wisely.

The socialization process must be positive and productive. This point can't be stressed enough. Taking your puppy to the park and allowing him to be bombarded by other animals, strange sights, weird noises, and hoards of screaming, rambunctious kids grabbing at him, stepping on him, or squealing at him is not a positive experience. Likewise, taking him to a puppy class and allowing him to be mauled, bullied, or sent yelping by bigger, bossier, and more dominant puppies is not a positive experience either. Granted some puppies may not be affected, but the majority of them will suffer in the long run. These types of experiences can permanently traumatize a puppy.

That said, you should take your puppy for plenty of kisses and cookies everywhere that is safe and where dogs are permitted, such as:

  • outdoor cafes and shopping centers
  • banks
  • coffee shops
  • horse barns
  • veterinarian's offices

Weather permitting, take him for rides in the car and walks in the park. Expose him to different sounds including the television, radio, and vacuum. Let him walk and play on different surfaces, such as gravel, grass, sandy beaches, vinyl and tile floors, and so forth. Attend a small puppy class—not more than three or four puppies—or invite friends and neighborhood kids over for puppy kisses and supervised play. Remember, positive experiences are key.

Socialization and Vaccination

While vaccinations are important to your puppy, so too is socialization. A hotly debated topic, one concern is the perceived risk of illness since most puppies haven't received their full complement of vaccinations until after 16 weeks—beyond the window of opportunity. Your puppy still needs socialization, but until he's fully vaccinated, avoid those public places where the risk of encountering infected dogs is high, such as dog parks, pet-supply stores, and large puppy or obedience classes. Taking the time to properly socialize your puppy will go a long way in developing a positive human-canine bond.

Looking for more like this? Try: