A 6-Point Checklist for Socializing Your Puppy

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

puppy socialization

Story at-a-glance -

  • Well-socialized puppies mature into confident, balanced adult dogs; in a nutshell, socialization means exposing your puppy to as many new people, animals, environments and other stimuli as possible
  • Puppies who aren't properly socialized during their first 3 months are at dramatically increased risk for behavior problems like aggression, fear and avoidance — these are dogs who, fill animal shelters and rescue facilities across the U.S.
  • Socialization should start very early in puppyhood and continue throughout your dog’s life

Puppies, like children, can’t grow into healthy, well-balanced adults without our help and guidance. I say this often: “Good puppies aren’t born, they’re made.”

You’d never dream of restricting your child to your house or yard all his life, or suddenly decide to begin parenting him long after he’s developed objectionable behaviors or habits. Yet that is the situation many puppies grow up in, and then their humans can’t understand how their cute little pups turned into misbehaved, destructive or aggressive animals.

The explanation is simple: dogs are social animals and require regular interaction with the humans and pets in their immediate family, as well as with other people and animals, beginning very early in life, and continuing throughout their life. Puppies go through several development stages on the road to maturity:

  • Between 4 and 8+ weeks, they learn how to interact with other dogs
  • Between 5 and 10+ weeks, they develop the skills necessary to interact with humans
  • Between 5 and 16 weeks, they are most open to investigating new environments and stimuli; puppies not given a full range of socialization opportunities by about 10 weeks can develop fear of the unfamiliar

It’s your responsibility as your pup’s guardian to take maximum advantage of each sensitive stage by providing age-appropriate social and learning opportunities. Puppies who aren't properly socialized during their first 3 months are at dramatically increased risk for behavior problems like aggression, fear and avoidance.

Dogs with problems stemming from lack of early socialization fill animal shelters and rescue facilities in every city and state across the U.S.

What’s Involved in Socializing a Puppy?

Socialization means exposing your little one to as many new people, animals, environments and other stimuli as possible without overwhelming her. Over-stimulation of a young puppy can result in behaviors that are the opposite of what you’re hoping for — such as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance — so knowing how much is enough is important. A well-socialized puppy:

  • Is handled from birth and learns to accept touching of all body parts
  • Receives positive exposure to as many people, other animals, places and situations as possible
  • Is encouraged to explore and investigate her environment
  • Is allowed to experience a variety of toys and games, surfaces and other stimuli
  • Is regularly brought along on car rides to new environments with her humans

Socialization should engage all of your puppy’s senses though exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of daily life. This exposure will help her develop a comfort level with new and different situations, with the result that she’ll learn to handle new experiences and challenges with acceptable, appropriate behavior.

Dogs who haven’t been adequately socialized often develop entrenched fear responses and generalized anxiety, resulting in behavior problems that can make them very difficult to live with. In fact, almost half of all dogs relinquished to shelters have at least one behavior problem — aggression and destructiveness are among the most common.

These behaviors are often rooted in the fear and anxiety that develops as a result of improper or incomplete socialization.

Top Tips for Socializing Your Puppy

1. Enroll your puppy in a professionally run, positive puppy class. These classes involve minimal exposure to health risks and can deliver tremendous benefits for both you and your pup, including increasing his responsiveness to commands, teaching him bite inhibition, and learning tips for successful housetraining and how to prevent hyperactivity.

2. Invite friends and family over to meet and interact with your puppy as often as possible (several times a week is ideal). Try to include people of varying ages and ethnicities, especially children if you don’t have any, and both genders. Also invite gentle, healthy dogs, puppies and cats to your home to meet and interact with your pup, and regularly take your puppy for visits to other friendly pet-owning households.

3. Make sure your puppy is exposed to unfamiliar or out-of-place objects around your house and outdoor environment, so he’ll be less likely to startle or be fearful of changes.

It’s also important to get him accustomed to hearing a variety of sounds, for example, the vacuum cleaner, the blender, the lawn mower, outside traffic, a blow dryer, a plastic or paper trash bag being snapped open, the TV, radio, video games, etc. The goal is never to frighten your pup, but to expose him to new sounds. Life is noisy; he needs to learn that everyday sounds are no big deal.

4. Get your puppy accustomed to being bathed and brushed, having his nails clipped, his teeth brushed, and his ears and other body parts handled and examined. This will help him develop a healthy tolerance for human handling, which will make future baths, nail trims, oral care, and visits to the veterinarian and groomer easier on everyone involved.

5. Keep things positive. You should start socializing your pup from his first day home with you, but don’t overwhelm him. Set the stage and then let him set the pace. Don’t hurry or force his progress, and keep socialization sessions frequent but brief, and always upbeat. Modify the type of socialization based on the response and personality of your puppy.

6. When your puppy shows hesitance or fear, resist the urge to reward fearful behavior with a lot of attention and affection. Stay close to reassure him he’s safe but take care not to inadvertently reinforce fearful behavior.

Always remember that socializing your puppy should be an enjoyable, satisfying experience for both of you — one that will pay dividends for the rest of your life together. There is no greater joy than a well-adjusted, balanced canine companion.

Socialization Should Continue Throughout Your Pup’s Life

Once your immediate puppy socialization tasks are complete and your dog is on her way to becoming a well-balanced adult, it’s important to continue to offer her opportunities for new experiences, socialization, and training for the rest of her life.

Even dogs well-socialized as puppies, if not given regular opportunities to interact with other dogs as adults, can lose their ability to mix comfortably with others of their species. And while some pets are naturally skilled at dog-to-dog dealings, many others need regular practice through activities that provide the chance to socialize with unfamiliar people and pets.

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