10 Tips for Socializing A Puppy

Socialization for your puppy


What is Socialization?
Why is Socialization Important For a Puppy?
What Approach should you Take to Socialize your puppy?
When Should Socializing a Puppy Take Place?
10 Tips for Socializing Your Puppy
#1 Plan to expose your puppy to a range of environments
#2 Ensure that puppies are exposed to a range of experiences in these environments
#3 Do this at different times i.e. daytime, evening and night
#4 Continue to bond with your puppy through positive reinforcement as a foundation for training
#5 Be aware of dog language. ‘Listen’ to your puppy and offer choice
#6 As with training take it in small puppy steps, not leaps
#7 Respond to any fear of unpredictable events (counter-conditioning)
#8 Respond to any fear of controlled events (counter-conditioning)
#9 Anticipate and translate for your dog the strange behavior of humans
#10 Gradually build towards becoming more sparing and strategic with treat rewards

What should I do next?
What if I have an older dog, possibly even a rescue?

What is Socialization?

When I young I thought that socializing a puppy meant whisking my new canine companion way and proudly showing her off to the world at friends’ houses, in the park and even parties and waiting expectantly for the people to start cooing at her and telling her how cute she was. Of course my puppy would love being the center of attention. Right?

No, very wrong! Of course if I had adopted this approach, my poor little fur ball would have been traumatized and it would have been awful puppy parenting.

Rather socialization is actually a carefully planned strategy to give your puppy the very best start in life. It means exposing this new addition to your family to as many experiences as possible, in a gradual fashion, and associating these experiences with safety and reward. This will result in a happy and confident puppy who will develop into a relatively calm dog.

These experiences are fundamentally composed of two factors: environments and events. A successful socialization strategy should be planned carefully around these two strands.

For a link to a general guide of how to support a puppy being calm and confident at different stages of development then please click here.

Creating an emotional foundation for all of your puppy’s development and learning. A happy child will not be able to learn or cope, and the same can be said of a dog. A happy, secure puppy will be a calmer companion and more able and willing to learn obedience.

Remember also that the time for taking your puppy home (around 8-12 weeks) coincides with what is known as the ‘fear period’. At this point your puppy’s little emotional stabilizers of closeness to mother and siblings have gone. It is a time when they are likely to be most sensitive, fearful and emotionally tender.

Why is Socialization Important For a Puppy?

Socializing a puppy is equivalent to applying a protective layer of varnish to outdoor wooden furniture – the thicker the layer, the more protected your puppy will be. If you have trained your puppy dog to recall, for example, but they are scared of big dogs or noisy people. Or even noisy people with big dogs, the appearance of this will mean your puppy or dog will not come back but either flee, or even worse, become fearful and aggressive.

If we want our dogs to behave in a certain way through training, we need to make sure they feel secure first through socialization.

Socializing a Puppy - Positive reinforcement
Always take an approach both in socialization and training based around positive association and reinforcement

What Approach should you Take to Socialize your Puppy?

The top 10 tips below will have two clear threads running through each one:

  1. Desensitization

    Ensuring your puppy becomes increasingly less worried about a place and something happening (notice that these two are always in combination as something happening in a particular place). Just because your puppy gets used to meeting unfamiliar people on a walk, does not mean they will gladly welcome them into the home.

    This means ensuring you balance your puppy’s body language the gradual tiny paw-steps forwards. For more information on speaking and understanding dog, please click here.

    If you see your puppy is relaxed with one visitor in the yard or garden, then perhaps allow that visitor into the entry hall. Then next time make sure you have two visitors. Before long you can get those visitors to bring along their well-socialized dog, and both you and your dog will have a vibrant social life.

    And if a social life was not enough for a new puppy parent, then what about days out? Or even holidays? Put your puppy in the car for five minutes, and then let them out again. Next time they can stay in the car for 10 minutes and so on. Then a little drive around the block. Soon this little dog be leaping eagerly into your vehicle even if the destination is the vets
  2. Positive Reinforcement and Association

    This means you and your puppy having your own private party every time you want your little fur ball to feel good about something. This means treats and praise when in a new environment or something new is happening.

    You may notice I have already mentioned the vets. It is a very good idea to take your puppy to the vets, before you really take your dogs to the vets. These first visits should be spent having a little party, offering your puppy treats outside the vets. Then stepping into the vets and rewarding your puppy with praise, and some treats. If you can swing it and there not too busy, even asking if staff would not mind saying hello to your puppy to get them used to being handled at the vets, swiftly followed by, you and your puppy have both guessed it, treats.

When Should Socialization Take Place?

Ideally puppy socialization should take place between 2 to 12 weeks during the puppies most intense period of mental, physical and emotional development.

The Transitional Phase when the puppy is around 2-3 week old will take place before the puppy is homed and should include some handling of the puppy to accustom them to human touch as well as a range of exterior sounds, such as the vacuum cleaner or music playing.

Very sadly, puppies who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds such as puppy farms will already need extra work. But dogs are adaptable and responsive so consistent socialization and training will offer them the support they will need to get back fully on their paws and gain emotional stability.

This article will deal with strategies during The Socialization Phase to ensure your puppy feels safe in the strange and wonderful new world that they enter as you bring them home. By the time she arrives, your puppy would already have been socialized with the mother and her siblings (aged between 3-5 weeks). Also a good breeder will ensure that they have been exposed to a range of sounds as well as being more frequently handled to prepare the puppy for life with their new human pack (5-8 weeks).

But then it is up to us to remember that our new puppy is not just a lovable bundle of fur, but a new member of our family that needs emotional support and guidance. From 8 weeks or older it is now our job to socialize our puppy to ensure that she grows into a calm and confident dog. The time we invest at this point will pay dividends for many years.

But this is not to say that an older dog, possibly a rescue, cannot be socialized. Dogs are remarkably resilient and adaptable animals and it is this that has made them so successful in co-habiting with humans for at least the last 40, 000 years. It will take more time and patience, and perhaps expert help from a dog trainer or behaviorist, but it is certainly possible to build emotional resilience in an older dog. Please click here for tips on how to socialize an older dog.

Socializing a puppy - range of places and
Ensure your puppy is exposed a range of places and circumstances linked to your lifestyle and routines

10 Tips for Socializing Your Puppy:

#1 Plan to expose your puppy to a range of environments (make a list)

Make a list of places where you want your puppy to feel comfortable. Like charity, this should begin at home, particularly in establishing a safe ‘den’ or crate for your dog full of lovely things like blankets and clothes that smell of you, and of course, the odd treat. Having this kind of ‘home’ within a home will give your puppy somewhere ‘safe’ to retreat to if they are worried about anything. You can then work on counter-conditioning (see below).

Aside from this try to make an exhaustive list of all the places you might take your puppy to over the next few months. This may include an outing to the local shop, should you wish to combine a walk with a dash out for a carton of milk or even a bottle of wine. It should also include local walks, and more functional places such as the vets and the groomers.

You will also want your puppy not to be overwhelmed by crowds, so gradually try to build in some busier places so that despite being small, your puppy will soon be able to walk tall and confidently by your side.

#2 Ensure that puppies are exposed to a range of experiences in these environments (add experiences to your list)

Try to think about a range of experiences that you may wish your puppy to become resilient towards as the emotional foundations for their training.

This will include other ‘animate’ objects, most obviously in the form of dogs and humans. It could also include encounters with cats and sightings of smaller animals such as squirrels. Within this, as broad and diverse a range as possible is always best. It should include, for example, adults and children, large and small dogs both on and off the leash.

You will also want to expose your puppy to ‘inanimate’ stimuli such as doors opening and closing, the honking of horns from traffic, and all the sights, sounds and smells offered in both urban settings and the park.

#3 Do this at different times i.e. daytime, evening and night (add times to your list)

If you are a well-organized list-maker you could even add a column for times next to places. For example, you may need your puppy eventually to cope with busy environments in order to ensure they can be taken out with the family. This may mean building up from quiet periods of the day towards busier times.

Also you will need to make sure your puppy feels as confident and safe walking with you outdoors at night, as in the day.

#4 Continue to bond with your puppy through positive reinforcement as a foundation for training

Along with training, consistent and supportive socialization can only strengthen your bond with your dog. Not only will they see you as a bastion of comfort and safety they will also view you as a strong canine leader who guides them to good outcomes in a range of circumstances, places and during the array of challenges that a puppy faces in navigating the world of humans.

In this, the only constant or rock of certainty for the puppy will be you. Ensure that you continue to build a bond through positive reinforcement and positive association.

As you then go on to puppy training, this will ensure most of the battle has already been fought and your dog will consistently focus on you for approval and praise.

Socializing a Puppy - listening to dog language
Learning to listen to your puppy’s body language is vital in supporting your puppy and monitoring progress

#5 Be aware of dog language. ‘Listen’ to your puppy and offer choice

This will take time, patience and sometimes help from a dog trainer or behaviorist, but try to ‘listen’ to what your dog is telling you with their body posture and language.

This will enable you to guide your dog at an appropriate pace without, hopefully, having to take any backwards steps. It will also offer you clear indication of progress. If your puppy’s tail is down when they meet the neighborhood Great Dane (a real gentle giant in the canine kingdom), then you will withdraw your puppy to a distance.

After a few relaxed meetings with the big guy on the block, with treats available and loose leads to reduce tension, your puppy may start to raise her tail into a more relaxed low or level position in a kind of nervous ‘how do you do’ stance. Then, as they become old friends, you may see your bouncy little friend whirl her tail in a circular motion like a little flag to show how happy she is to see one of their canine pals.

Be aware that although all dogs, obviously, speak this physical dog language, different breeds could be said to have different dialects. One example is a spitz dog, like the Siberian Husky or Pomeranian, will always have their tails curling up in a state of alertness which could be misinterpreted as a sign of tension or alertness. This means you may have to factor in your puppy’s breed when observing your dog’s posture, and it is always a good idea to consult a breed guide to give more information on this.

Also, all dogs are individuals and behave slightly differently in response to different stimuli. By carefully observing your dog and looking out for physical signs of anxiety, you will become the world’s expert on your own dog and be able to guide and support them through ‘listening’ and understanding how they feel.

#6 As with training take it in small puppy steps, not leaps

As with children, young dogs must be allowed to make progress at their own pace, in small puppy steps.

This means in socialization, as with training, ensure your approach is gradual based around desensitizing your puppy to potential causes of alarm.

For example, if you are planning to take your puppy on family outings they will need to get used to crowds of people and potentially dogs as well. This should start with you taking your puppies to less busy places or going out at less busy times of the day in order to get used to there being ‘some’ people around. Also try to begin by waiting at a distance away from the crowds to get your puppy used to the clamor from a safe distance.

If far from the madding crowd, you read your puppy’s body language and it says ‘calm’ then get closer and over time build up to busier situations.

Socializing a Puppy - counter-condition anything causing fear or anxiety
Ensure your approach is gradual and ensure you counter-condition against anything creating fear or anxiety

#7 Respond to any fear of unpredictable events (counter-conditioning)

If you find your little puppy reacts with signs of fear to an event or experience, it then becomes important to be alert to this and help your puppy bounce back through our positive association strategies.

First of all you must prepare your puppy for the unpredictable stimuli that can cause fear. This means if your puppy reacts fearfully to a car hooting as you walk him beside the road, when that happens again make sure you swiftly provide comforting attention and treats.

Again, be aware of body language, and note how long it takes your puppy to recover from the event and become relaxed again. Take note the next time the event happens of how long the recovery time is if this happens again so that you can monitor progress.

#8 Respond to any fear of controlled events (counter-conditioning)

Sometimes puppies will be afraid of something that you think is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ and which you need to incorporate into routines. One example might be being picked up or held. If during the early socialization phase, for example, the breeder has not handled the puppy enough as they spend their time with only the mother and siblings, then your puppy might be anxious about being picked up.

The way to address this is by using verbal and physical cues to prepare your puppy. This could be by placing both your hands upturned to your puppy to show them what you are about to do, or by a repeated verbal cue such as ‘pick up’ if you are a serious person or ‘hugs’ if you are a little bit silly (I am a fully grown man and a dog trainer – so would never, never use the latter).

#9 Anticipate and translate for your dog the strange behavior of humans

Let’s face it, many of us don’t always understand the behavior of other humans. So for one moment let’s see this from the view-point of our little canine companion.

If you attempted to loom over a wolf, staring at them eye-to-eye, possibly with your teeth bared in threat (okay- we call it smiling), and then brazenly dart your hand out to make contact with their head, things could go very badly.

In the world of the canis familiaris or the domestic dog this does not necessarily translate as ‘somebody coming to give you a friendly pat on the head’. But we have to make sure our beloved pet dogs understand this rather odd behavior of the humans around them as social, rather than threatening.

So ensure you become the first to ‘pat’ your puppy on the head and once again follow this with treats and praise. After a while, hey presto, just as you have learned to speak and understand dog language, you have taught your dog some ‘human’, and avoided any chance of your puppy reacting fearfully or aggressively (usually the same thing in the dog world).

#10 Gradually build towards becoming more sparing and strategic with treat rewards

As your puppy builds resilience the intervals between treats and praise can start to become longer as they will already know this is a ‘good’ or non-threatening place and situation and will begin to confidently explore it for themselves.

Of course, like most things, treats are good in moderation but not excess. Remember also that some breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever, can be prone to putting on weight.

So treats can continue to be used sparingly as your dog develops, but should not be an immediate response to everything that your dog continues to do right. Once positive association is established then the treats can be used far more sparingly as your dog will revel in your praise and attention, and this will often be reward enough.

Another strategy for ensuring positive association without reliance on treats is to introduce clicker training. At first associate the click with a treat, then start to dispense with the treats. A click will be all your dog needs to know that they done good!

Socializing a Puppy - Confident and on the ball
A well-socialized puppy will be confident and on the ball

What should I do next?

But just as you must continue to apply the varnish to outside furniture every year, so socialization is a constant process as your dog grows older to help them cope with any new experience.

The world offers a rich and every-varying tapestry for both us and our dogs. But there is no better friend to navigate it with than your beloved pooch. So as you do so continue to help them understand and develop even as they grow into maturity.

Once a puppy’s temperament has settled into being calm and balanced then you will be both be able to fully reap the full benefits of dog training.

What if I have an older dog, possibly even a rescue?

An older dog will have to work harder as will you, but remember that these wonderful canines are remarkably adaptable and resilient animals with an admirable capacity to adapt and learn.

The same techniques can be employed for an older dog, as with a puppy. But if you find yourself unable to counter condition any fearful or reactive behaviors then consult a dog trainer or behaviorist who will be able to offer more nuanced strategies to support your dog.

If you have a rescue dog, and it is always best to opt to adopt if you can, congratulations and thank you for giving your dog a chance that is fully deserved.

For tips relating to socializing an older dog please click here.

Useful Links:

For the comprehensive AKC guide to reading dog language then please click here.

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