Puppy Socialization 101: Stopping Fear Before It Starts
Nothing is more exciting than welcoming a new member to the family! But remember, a new puppy will take time to adjust to a new environment, so it’s important to set them up for success long-term. Socializing your puppy gives them the very best start at becoming a happy and confident adult dog.
What is puppy socialization?
Simply put, socialization is letting your puppy explore new places, meet new people and other dogs and try new things at a comfortable rate. It’s an important step to helping them grow into a well-balanced adult dog. But why?
We spoke with well-known author and dog trainer, Victoria Schade, CPDT-KA, to find out.
“Exposing your puppy to new adventures in a gentle, positive way can help your pup understand that unfamiliar doesn’t necessarily mean scary,” she says. “Well-socialized pups have the tools to navigate whatever life throws at them; they’re confident and well-adjusted.”
How do you socialize a puppy or dog?
Socialization basically means you are bringing your puppy through the process of learning how to interact in different environments with different people, dogs and other animals. It can also impact how quickly your dog calms down again after something startles them. Victoria says it helps “puppies develop good ‘bounce back’ from the unexpected, so even if they’re caught off guard by something like a loud noise, they’re able to recover quickly.”
Doing this in the right way, at the right time is important.
Research in the 1960s discovered that puppies should start to be socialized before even five weeks old. At five weeks old, puppies in the study started acting fearfully when they were exposed to unfamiliar people.
The first 14 weeks of age is another important socialization period, because puppies are still learning the ins and outs of the world. “Most puppies under 14 weeks don’t have baggage. Everyone they meet is a potential friend and every unfamiliar object could be a new toy,” says Victoria. “An adult dog has had enough exposure to the world to form opinions. So, if they’ve decided that bearded men are scary or yard ornaments are the enemy, the pet parent will have to work harder to change that perception.”
The first three months are critical to your puppy’s development. During that time, consider following a checklist like this one to help your pup become as accustomed as possible to being handled and confident when encountering new things.
As you follow your own checklist, the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests you reward your puppy for engaging in new situations or with strangers appropriately. This could be praise or treats or even some extra playtime. Don’t force your puppy to interact. Letting them go at their own pace while rewarding the behavior you want puts them on a path of living a confident and anxiety-free life.
Can I overwhelm my puppy or dog with new things?
“Recognizing your puppy’s limits is one of the most important aspects of dog-safe socialization,” notes Victoria. Overwhelming a puppy or dog can have a negative effect. Without remaining sensitive to your puppy’s needs, you could inadvertently have a puppy turn into an adult dog that exhibits a lot of fearful behavior or distrusts being touched.
“The goal of socialization is to gradually build confidence without forcing pups into situations that make them uncomfortable,” adds Victoria. “Pet parents have to learn to read their puppy’s body language to understand when the pup is getting close to saturation so they can remove them before the situation deteriorates.”
Remember that keeping your pup’s experiences positive, especially when playing and interacting with other dogs, is important. If you start to see signals of stress, like yawning, lip-licking and looking away, Victoria suggests you end the socialization session.
7 steps to puppy socialization
A new puppy often arrives to their home and new family somewhere between seven and nine weeks of age. If you’re adopting a puppy 12 weeks or older from an animal shelter, you may need to work a bit more consciously to help your pup catch up with socialization.
Here are some first steps to take
Get started with crate training early. The first step of crate training is socializing your pup to the crate and showing them that all good things happen there. This creates a safe space for them to retreat to when they are overwhelmed, and also a safe place you can have them go when you’re not watching.
Show your puppy that household items are safe. A house is filled with so many new things for puppies to be afraid of OR to fearlessly explore. Loud noises or items that sometimes move and sometimes don’t can be a fear-inducing experience. Help your pup understand that these items are nothing to be afraid of slowly and gradually.
“Instead of placing your pup next to the vacuum and turning it on, introduce it at a distance with it turned off,” suggests Victoria. “Give the pup treats, then roll the vacuum and feed more treats, and gradually reduce the pup’s distance from the vacuum while it is turned off, until the dog starts to associate it with goodies. Then go back to the original distance and turn it on, still pairing it with treats, and gradually reduce the distance over several sessions.” Don’t forget to end the session if you start seeing signs of stress.
Bring your puppy on car rides. Carsickness and car anxiety are too real. (We explore this topic more in Do Dogs Get Carsick?) Getting your pup used to being in the car (and maybe even enjoying it!) can save a lot of stress down the line.
Enroll in puppy kindergarten. Many dog training groups and professionals offer kindergarten classes just for puppies. This is a great way to help your pup gain courage and develop manners. They will be introduced to other dogs in a safe class and learn how to interact appropriately no matter the size of the “stranger” dog.
Go new places! Creating a way for your puppy to have fun exploring and having positive, novel experiences is so important. “Socialization and exposure are active processes that are most crucial from three to sixteen weeks of age but should continue well beyond this age range. However, it’s important to realize that socialization is not simply about exposure—it’s about making it fun and positive from the start,” writes Fear Free Pets. They’ve made a fun socialization BINGO game to play.
Explore the outdoors together. Walks are a great way to socialize your pup. “Try taking the road less traveled instead of using the same route every day,” suggests Victoria. “Allow your dog to sniff and enjoy the new sights and sounds at their own pace.”
Contact your veterinarian about making future visits fear-free. Take your pup to the vet for a new puppy exam and talk to your vet about ways of making the visit as pleasant and comfortable for your pup as possible. Learn more about why your dog may not like going to the veterinarian.
Thoughtful socialization can help your puppy become an anxiety-free adult dog. If you start early, take things slow, and create a positive environment, your puppy will learn socialization strategies that lead to confident and fearless lives.
Puppy and Kitten Socialization Bingo from Fear Free