Socializing your new puppy is one of the most impactful actions you can take to improve her life!
Well, socializing your pup properly early on can set her up for success later in life.
Many shelter dogs are relinquished (and even ultimately euthanized) for behavioral problems. Almost all behavioral problems can be traced back to inadequate socialization, training, or genetics.
You can’t change your pup’s genetics, and training can come later. Socialization – on the other hand – has a very short window where it will be most effective during puppyhood.
Socializing a young puppy is much easier than socializing an adult dog, so it pays to focus on socializing your pup as much as you can during the best, most effective time window.
When to Socialize a Puppy: Puppy Socialization Period
All dogs go through what’s called a “critical socialization period,” where the young puppies are more accepting of new things.
This critical puppy socialization period starts around 3 weeks of age and ends between 12-16 weeks of age, depending on your dog’s breed (and probably other factors that scientists haven’t parsed out yet).
Don’t think of the critical socialization period like a school period or lunch break: there’s no definite start or beginning, really.
Instead, think of it like childhood.
It’s a bit fuzzy exactly when things start and end, and it’s a bit different for each individual!
Still – there’s no denying that an 18-week old puppy will be easier to socialize than a 10-year-old dog, even if both dogs are technically past their socialization period.
If you have a pup who is already outside the critical puppy socialization window, don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. Socializing is always a better late than never situation, so it’s never too late to get started!
However, if your puppy is ten weeks old, take advantage of this valuable opportunity and get cracking with socialization as soon as possible!
As we mentioned above, there are three core factors that make up your dog’s behavior:
Try as you might, you can’t change your dog’s genetics. Training is immensely valuable, but there will always be time for that later.
Socialization is the only one of these factors that is on a timeline, and it will be much harder to “re-do” socialization when your dog is an adult and problems have already developed.
After the critical socialization period, all dogs are naturally somewhat “neophobic,” meaning they’re scared of new things.
Young puppies also go through “fear periods,” where they’re more sensitive to scary things. This is part of the reason that sometimes you’ll notice a puppy suddenly seems terrified of the garbage can, when yesterday it was no biggie.
So what can you do to help make your dog confident and comfortable going forward in life?
You can make sure that things later in life aren’t new — by exposing your puppy to a variety of things when she’s young, and making sure she enjoys those things.
How to Socialize a Puppy Before Vaccinations
You’ll likely want to start socializing your puppy before your dog gets vaccinated, considering that most puppies aren’t fully vaccinated until around 12 weeks.
The good news is that this whole guide has been put together with unvaccinated puppies in mind. Pre-vaccination is still a great time to socialize your pup, but you’ll need to be very careful about venturing anywhere where there might be pee or poop from unfamiliar dogs.
This means that dog parks and dog-oriented stores are no-gos for now. It’s probably also a good idea to avoid parks that are known to be frequented by dogs.
Ultimately, you’ll want to talk to your vet about what areas are or are not safe for your unvaccinated pup. The important takeaway here is that just because your puppy is not vaccinated yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get started on your socialization checklist.
In fact, you really have to begin socializing your pup before she is completely vaccinated, as most of the prime socialization period will happen before your puppy can receive all her shots.
How to Socialize Your Puppy Properly
Let me say this right away: socialization is not the same as exposure.
Simply exposing your pup to new stimuli will not ensure that your dog is comfortable around this stimuli in the future.
Bringing a puppy to the pre-K class and passing the puppy from student to student won’t guarantee the puppy is always great with kids.
In fact, this plan could backfire. It could teach the puppy that kids are loud, rude, fast-moving, and grabby.
There’s a balance to strike here.
There are two common ways to do socialization, and we want to be in the middle. Let’s discuss the two main socialization methods, and I’ll explain why I actually recommend a combination of the two.
Method 1: The “100 People in 100 Days” Mass Exposure Method
This method is exemplified by the common maxim of “exposing your puppy to 100 people in 100 days.”
This method doesn’t really focus much on the quality of those interactions – just the quantity. The prevailing wisdom is that if you expose your puppy to more people, places and things, your puppy will be OK with them.
The Problem Here: This won’t work, as I explained above, if your puppy has bad experiences. This method is particularly dangerous for shy puppies who will easily become overwhelmed and nervous. In fact, this method at its worst can make a shy puppy aggressive.
Method 2: The “Everything is Amazing” Great Experiences Method
Another commonly suggested approach is the (also well-meaning) advice to have everyone who meets your puppy feed your puppy. Feed your puppy when she sees dogs, let her play as much as she can, and generally make the world as awesome as possible. Like the exposure method, there’s a lot of wisdom here!
The Problem Here: However, this can lead to puppies that never learn to process the world calmly. They fly into an excited frenzy when they see another person, frantic to pull you over for belly rubs and chicken bits. That’s not very fun with an adult Labrador (or even an adult Shih Tzu).
Why Neither Of These Standard Dog Socialization Methods is Perfect
Both of the methods listed above are well-meaning, but slightly off-kilter, approaches to socialization. They’re both almost certainly better than not socializing at all. But neither approach is quite right for most puppies.
Both methods focus primarily on meeting other humans and dogs while potentially neglecting exposing your puppy to other important stimuli such as:
- Strange surfaces
- Long car rides
- Vet visits
- People in wheelchairs
- Other less-common experiences
Socialization is not just about meeting people and dogs. It’s about everything your puppy will run into as an adult!
What Are Your Goals For Your Adult Dog?
Instead of throwing your pup into the arms as many strangers with Bacon Bits as possible, think of how you want your puppy to react to the world as an adult.
Most of us would like our dogs to:
- Calmly pass by children, other dogs, and people on walks.
- Confidently walk across grates on the street and ignore plastic bags that blow in the wind.
- Be quiet comfortable around people on bikes, crutches, wheelchairs, and of different races.
A Better Technique For Socializing Puppies: A Combination of Methods
The prevailing wisdom in progressive dog training circles these days strikes a balance between the above two methods. I try to pack in most of my puppy’s expected adult life into their beginnings.
It looks a bit like this:
1. Living Our Best Life: Doing All The Things The Owner Loves!
This means we go for hikes and I reward my puppy for paying attention to me, while calmly ignoring wildlife, people, and dogs. I’m a big hiker, so having a dog who can hike happily is really important.
- Go to the vet and sit on the scale
- Meet people on crutches and watch plastic bags go by
- Fall asleep listening to fireworks on speakers.
- See a wide variety of other animals and walk on wobble boards
I try to think of all the things I want my puppy to be OK with as an adult, and we go do it.
If she’s calm while doing all these things, then there’s no need for extra treats. Treats are only used in certain situations, which I’ll detail below.
2. Treats for Good Behavior: Look At Me, Get a Treat!
Every time my puppy looks at something and then checks back in with me, she gets a treat. I’m not just shoving treats in her face constantly, and I actually ask people to ignore her for the most part.
I reward her for engaging with scary things and for paying attention to me. If people ask me politely, I might let them approach her to pet her. But I don’t let her drag me over to say hi.
If your puppy is more on the aloof/nervous side, you may want to let her go say “hi” to strangers more often (if she wants) to encourage that behavior. But those of you with happy-go-lucky, people-crazy Lab puppies should try to curb that over-excited greeting behavior now.
3. Dealing with Scary Stuff On Our Own Terms
If my puppy is just a little nervous about something, I let her work it out.
If she wants to move away, that’s fine. We back up a bit.
If she can look back at the scary thing, she gets treats. Then I make a note to come back to the ‘scary thing’ more at a later time. If she’s really scared, we leave. I do my best to make her feel OK, and we get out of there.
This approach doesn’t force a puppy to be close to something that scares her. Instead, it teaches her how to handle being scared with you by her side.
She learns you’ll let her move away and support her with petting or treats if she needs. Ultimately, this support can give her confidence and help make her braver!
Of course, this means much of a good socialization plan takes place outside of puppy kindergarten. It also means that each person’s checklist will be a bit different.
If you’d like your urban dog to learn to calmly navigate crowds and be OK with all sorts of city things, focus on that — and your puppy’s checklist will look very different from a potential hunting dog’s.
In general, you should reward your puppy for focusing on you, calmly noticing the world, and choosing to interact with grace rather than hyperactivity or fear.
If you see a behavior that you don’t like (or a stimuli that you don’t think your pup is ready for), use treats or pick the puppy up to get out of the situation. Then you can try again later with an easier version of that problem scenario.
Making a Custom Socialization Checklist for Your Puppy
Think about the life you want your puppy to live as an adult.
In the ideal version, realistic version, and somewhat unlikely version of your puppy’s life, what is she most likely to need to deal with on a semi-regular basis? In other words, what are the things that:
- Your puppy will definitely need to deal with, on a daily basis?
- Your puppy probably will need to deal with eventually or occasionally?
- The things your puppy might have to deal with?
Focus on those!
We’ve built a comprehensive socialization checklist below, but you should focus specifically on the areas that are most likely to be a big part of your dog’s life.
You can add or adjust to your puppy socialization checklist as new issues come up. If you begin to notice that your puppy has particular problems with specific stimuli (for example, moving objects or men with beards), start focusing more on that.
Try to ensure that you’re hitting each item on the checklist in a few different environments and at different times of day.
Many dogs are more nervous in dim light, so encountering stimuli at that time of day can be an advanced addition!
Keep in mind that if your puppy isn’t eating (especially if she’s normally a chow hound), the situation is probably far too exciting, scary, or stressful.
How to Score Your Puppy Socialization Checklist
Score each item, each time your puppy encounters it, from 1-3:
1: Needs serious work. Puppy ran away, hid, growled, or struggled. May not eat food.
2: Re-visit with more distance. Puppy jumped, barked, pulled strongly towards, froze, or showed calming signals. May be able to refocus with treats.
3: Going well. Puppy calmly engaged with the object or person, even doing well without food.
For all items that your puppy scores low on, continue to revisit. Revisit low-scoring stimuli encounters at a lower intensity level. You can lessen the intensity by:
- Starting from a further distance
- Work with a slower-moving stimuli
- Getting a smaller version of the stimuli
For, for example, if your pup does not respond well to a man with a beard, try again at a further distance.
Puppy Socialization Checklist: Base Template
This is a great puppy socialization checklist base to start with – make sure to add your own checklist items depending on your lifestyle, hobbies, or goals for your dog.
Rules: Reward your puppy for calmly noticing. Allow some people to pet if your puppy is calm.
- Elderly people
- Children (12-16)
- Children (8-11)
- Children (5-7)
- Toddlers (2-4)
- Babies (Under 2)
- Men with beards
- People with hats
- People with masks
- People with backpacks
- People carrying boxes
- People with trekking poles, canes, or walking sticks
- People lying down
- People jogging
- People playing a pick-up sports game
- People of different races
- People that shuffle or limp
- People on crutches
- People in wheelchairs
Rules: Reward your puppy for looking at the strange dog, then looking back at you. Allow off-leash play with known, tolerant dogs only. Avoid on-leash greetings.
- Big dogs
- Little dogs
- Adult dogs who play well
- Adult dogs who will reprimand/correct a puppy gently – use a dog that you know well who has experience with puppies to keep things safe.
- Very fluffy dogs
- Dogs with no tails
- Dogs with cropped ears
Reward Your Puppy for Looking Back at You After Noticing Them. Allow Sniffing ONLY if Safe
- Smaller livestock (goats, sheep)
- Flying birds
- Walking birds (ducks, chickens)
Rules: Reward your puppy for looking at them, then looking back at you.
- Big city buses
- Things blowing in the wind
- Garbage cans on wheels
- People shaking out rugs
- Reflective objects like traffic cones
Rules: Reward your puppy for noticing sounds. Play sounds during mealtime and naptime.
- Babies crying
- Planes taking off
- Door knocking
- Car backfiring
- Garage door
- Loud music
- Babies crying
- Kids playing
Rules: Practice handling your puppy and reward after each step.
- Picking your puppy up
- Holding her back by the collar or harness
- Gently lifting ears to examine
- Lifting tail to examine
- Lifting paws
- Gently pinching nails
- Lifting skin on neck, gently poking (as if vaccinating)
- Opening mouth
- Palpating belly
- Palpating hips
- Hugging puppy
- Extending each leg
- Wiping off body with towel
- Holding in lap
Rules: Encourage your puppy to play on them, reward if nervous. Avoid using a treat to lure the puppy onto a surface.
- Slick tile or other hard floors
- Reflective floors
- Slick metal like a vet exam table
- Ice, snow, frost
- Bendy plastic (like a mat for under an office chair or a kiddie pool)
- Teeter-totters or other wobbly agility equipment
- Bosu ball or other rolly, squishy surface
- Grates (you can use your crate or exercise pen)
- Clanging metal like manhole covers
Rules: Focus on locations where your puppy will likely go. Be ready to leave if your puppy seems nervous.
- The vet’s office
- Long car rides
- Stop-and-go traffic
- In a crate on public transit
- Hiking trails
- Busy city streets
- Inside dog-friendly buildings like Home Depot or Lowe’s
- Mall parking lot
- Quiet suburban streets
- Outdoor, dog-friendly patios (be careful of overbearing other dogs and people)
- City parks
- Friends’ houses
- Puppy class
- Dog sport competitions
Keep in mind that socialization is supposed to be relaxing — a positive experience without being thrilling. Try to keep calm and enjoy the process.
If you notice your puppy is constantly fearful of, aggressive towards, or over-the-top enthusiastic about things despite continued work, consider working with a professional trainer.
What did you find most interesting about socializing your puppy? Did we miss a stimuli that you think is important? Share your puppy socialization experiences in the comments!