The Importance of Puppy Socialization

Behavior & Training
two puppies playing in dog bed

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.

What is puppy 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.

Puppy Socialization Period – When to Socialize a Puppy

One of the most important contributions of the pioneering work of John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller is the description of sensitive periods in the social development of puppies. The "socialization" period is 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.

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.

Where to Socialize your Puppy

At and Around Home

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 make the time count.

  • Let him walk and play on different surfaces, such as gravel, grass, vinyl and tile floors, and so forth

  • Expose him to different sounds including the television, radio, the doorbell and vacuum

  • invite friends and neighborhood kids over for puppy kisses and supervised play.

  • Go for short walks in your neighborhood

  • Wear different accessories around him – like hats and sunglasses

Out and About

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

  • attend a small puppy socialization class of no more than three to four puppies

Is it safe to take my puppy in public if he hasn’t had all his shots?

A hotly debated topic 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 public places where the risk of encountering infected dogs is high, such as dog parks, pet-supply stores, and large puppy or obedience classes.

How to Socialize a Puppy – Positive Experiences are Key

The puppy socialization process must be positive and productive. This point can't be stressed enough. Negative experiences can permanently traumatize a puppy. 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 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. Taking the time to properly socialize your puppy will go a long way in developing a positive human-canine bond.