A blog post by Gia Savocchi, Dog Behavior Specialist
We all want our puppies to grow into a dog that can go anywhere with us. Puppy socialization, the process of getting your puppy used to life in the world, is one of the most important parts of raising a puppy. Exposing your puppy to the world safely is best done as early as possible, and what I like to focus on first when I am raising my own puppies. Getting your puppy comfortable around a variety of people, dogs, places, sounds, and objects is vital to achieving this goal of a well rounded pup. The best time to do this is during the critical socialization period, which ends at about four months old.
Where do we start?
I do recommend working with a qualified Behavior Consultant or Trainer when starting out. This is because a professional will be able to evaluate your puppy, and guide you through this process. Even I take my own puppy to an outside Puppy Kindergarten class! Every puppy is different, and the worst possible thing we can do is flood the puppy with new experiences that cause the puppy to become fearful (we call this sensitization, and it is the opposite of what we want!) Good puppy socialization is a process of gradual exposure, from a distance that the puppy feels safe. This distance varies from puppy to puppy. Appropriate distance can also change depending on if your puppy is going through a fear period. During socialization, it is important to have plenty of high-value rewards on hand so that you can give your puppy a reward each time that they experience something new. We want to teach our puppy that the world is a safe, fun, and positive place.
Can I work on puppy socialization at home?
You can absolutely work on socializing your puppy at home. There are many ways that this can be accomplished.
- Try playing sound desensitization CDs at a low volume during the day, to expose your puppy to a variety of novel noises.
- Take your puppy out on your lawn, and reward them each time they notice a car, person, bike, anything!
Have a puppy play-date. Invite a vaccinated, gentle dog over to meet your puppy.
- Invite friends over to meet your new puppy. Have friends toss treats at your puppy, or, if your puppy is not approaching them, you can reward your puppy as your friend calmly ignores them.
Be sure to use common household appliances around your puppy. This includes the vacuum, blow dryer, blender, drills, anything you can think of! It should rain chicken when these things are happen, so your puppy builds a positive association right away.
What else should I be doing?
I personally recommend taking your puppy to a new place for a positive puppy socialization experience at least 3 times a week during the 8-16 week old mark. Socialization becomes much harder after the puppy hits about 16 weeks of age, so we want to be sure to get in as many new experiences as possible while it is a bit easier. Remember to ALWAYS pack high value rewards when you take your puppy out. I cannot stress this enough. We need to be able to build positive associations. You could also bring your puppies meal with you when you go on a social trip. Your goal should be that your puppy gets all that you bring… we want to make sure that you are rewarding generously.
What are some of your favorite puppy socialization outings?
I’ve been taking my new puppy, Georgie, to all sorts of places. I really want her to be a friendly and well-rounded family pet!
- Short car trips
- Veterinarian’s Office (with plenty of treats)
- Hanging out in the front yard
- Trips to friends’ houses
- Trips to my parents house
- Plenty of pet store visits
- Puppy Kindergarten Class
- Outdoor Restaurants
- Outdoor Cafe
- Downtown areas
- Playground with kids (we waited outside)
- Walking Trails
What do I do once I’m there?
I recommend starting out slow. If your puppy wants to hang back, that is totally fine! You can work on scatter feeding (tossing some treats in the grass) or the little tricks or obedience skills your puppy has. Let your puppy observe the environment from a distance. Be sure to reward them with a small treat (high value) each and every time that they notice a distraction in the environment. For example, if my puppy looks at a crying baby, I would immediately pop a piece of chicken in her mouth to build that positive association right from the start. You want to make outings as fun as possible! If your puppy becomes frightened or unsure, move to a distance where they feel comfortable. If they can’t recover, it is best to leave rather than push the issue. You can call your behavior consultant or trainer for guidance.
Should I wait to socialize?
Absolutely not! I cannot stress this enough. If you wait until 4-6 months to bring your puppy into the outside world, you can cause or exacerbate severe issues and phobias. Many under-socialized puppies do not recover from lack of early experience, and grow up to be highly fearful dogs. It is very challenging to socialize a dog after that critical socialization window closes. Please see below for the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviors recommendations:
Puppy Socialization Tips
- Start right away. Do not wait until after your puppy has developed an issue. Prevention is easier than damage control.
- Be your puppies advocate. Be sure to coach people on the appropriate way to interact with your pup.
- Less can be more: Short but frequent trips are often better than tiring sessions.
- Even a car ride is something! Take your puppy any place you can, even if its just to pick up your kids at school.
- ALWAYS BRING TREATS: If you forget your treats turn right around (or do what I do and buy a chicken cutlet at a pizza place).
- Be careful of the dogs your puppy meets. They should only meet gentle, well-socialized and appropriate dogs.
- Don’t stop after 4 months. Keep socializing your dog throughout their life. The world is a big place!
- Taking your puppy on a walk with a confident adult dog can work wonders to boost YOUR puppies confidence.
- Keep up on your vaccination schedule… do not miss appointments. This is very important as it allows you to safely socialize and not miss valuable time.
- Bring a bully stick or marrow bone (unless your puppy resource guards). This will give your puppy something to settle with while you eat or chat!
About Me, The Writer, Gia: I’m a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (among other things), and a little obsessed with dogs. I’ve been working in the dog industry for 15 years now, and as a lifelong learner I’m continuously studying everything I can in order to better help my clients and their pets. I have four dogs, Poppy, Vera, Levon and Georgie and one parrot, Atlas. I also have a bunch of Indian Runner Ducks. If you’d like to learn more about me, click here.