By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
"Socialization." It's a term that new pet parents will repeatedly hear in their new puppy parenting journey. You're told it's crucial to your new fur baby's growth and development, but what does it actually mean? And how can you know you're providing the right type and amount of socialization?
Socialization refers to exposing a young puppy to a wide array of experiences, people, animals, and environments in a controlled and positive manner. This practice helps puppies develop the necessary skills to confidently and easily navigate the world around them.
A common misconception about socialization experiences is that they only involve physical interactions with other dogs, such as playing with and greeting other dogs on walks. In fact, socialization encompasses a broader spectrum of experiences contributing to a puppy's overall development and future behavior.
Early experiences during puppyhood accumulate to help shape the dog they will one day be. While socialization contributes to your puppy's social skills as an adult dog, these early experiences also shape how they respond to new things later in life. Early socialization can make the difference between a stressed or aggressive dog and an adaptive and confident dog when your pup experiences new situations. A dog's future social behavior and resiliency highly depend on their experiences during puppyhood.
Early Socialization: The Critical Period
Before you bring your new puppy home, in most cases, there is a period spent with Mom and littermates, which permanently affects your puppy's social development. Most puppies will go through a critical fear period and a critical social period before twelve weeks of age.
A critical fear period generally happens around weeks three and four of age. It is a time when puppies are more cautious and sensitive to things that could induce fear. What they experience during this time will have a lasting effect on how they respond to new things they are unsure of.
The critical social period is a window in which puppies are incredibly receptive to new experiences, and their brains are wired to make lasting impressions from the stimuli they encounter. This period typically happens through twelve weeks of age, except for the two-week critical fear period window. During the first three months, sociability outweighs the fear of new experiences. Hence, exposing puppies to various people, animals, sounds, smells, and environments helps them become resilient adult dogs.
Puppies that miss out on early social exposures during their critical socialization period can develop behavioral problems such as fear, anxiety, and aggression later in life. A lack of exposure can hinder a dog's ability to cope with new situations and interactions, leading to a lower quality of life for both the dog and the dog owner.
Controlling social exposures and presenting them positively to a puppy is the responsibility of a puppy parent to raise a socially well-rounded dog that can cope confidently with the novel world around them.
Controlled and Positive Exposures
Controlled exposure means gradually introducing a puppy to new experiences in a safe and controlled manner. It involves managing the environment and the intensity and duration of interactions to prevent overwhelming your puppy.
Positive exposure refers to the puppy enjoying the experience, for example, giving your puppy yummy treats while she observes kids playing on the playground. Pairing praise, treats and toys or giving in to their curiosity to smell new things can help shape a positive experience and build a trusting connection with your furry friend.
Controlled and positive exposures are at the core of proper socialization.
Avoiding Overwhelming or Traumatic Situations for Your Puppy
While lots of exposure to novel stimuli is essential, it's also crucial to avoid situations that might be traumatic or overwhelming for your puppy. Forcing a puppy into a frightening situation can have long-lasting adverse effects. For example, suppose your puppy experiences a train going by for the first time and is scared to the point of hiding, whining, trembling, or even urinating. In that case, you don't want to repeat that exposure or get closer to a train passing by. This type of behavior practice is called flooding and is both outdated and harmful.
Alternatively, you can safely expose your puppy by playing train sounds at low volume on your phone in the comfort of your home while enjoying a yummy treat. Then, you can work up to being at a tolerable distance from a real train as it passes and move closer session by session as your puppy gets more comfortable with the sounds and the vibrations.
Things to Consider Exposing Your Puppy To
Now that you know your puppy needs to be exposed to many different things to blossom into a well-rounded, socially appropriate adult dog, let's dive into some specifics to assemble your puppy socialization checklist.
Infants, toddlers, teenagers, older people - humans act and sound differently at all ages and have varying body language. A puppy has a lot to learn. It's not entirely uncommon to see dogs who are afraid of children or may even act aggressively towards children when approached if they were not exposed to little ones early on during growth and development. The more exposure they can get to a variety of people of all ages and ethnicities, the easier meeting new people, including little people, will be as older dogs.
The same goes for socialization with other dogs. Most dogs fall under the category of being dog selective, meaning they get along with some dogs just fine and others not so much. Dogs that don't get along with any dogs - or those that get along with all dogs - are a rare breed. With this in mind, the goal isn't to turn your pup into a social butterfly if that isn't written into their DNA. Instead, set them up for successful physical interactions and, more importantly, not to be stressed when having brief interactions with other dogs they don't necessarily want to interact with. Understanding your puppy's unique personality, including their likes and dislikes with other animals, is vital to retain a sense of self and trust that you have their back.
When it comes to other animals to expose your puppy to, it might be fun to expose them to a real rhinoceros or zebra. Still, those can be tricky to come across, not to mention it's unlikely they will need to know how to behave as an adult around a rhino or a zebra. However, I highly recommend playing animal sounds for your puppy while pairing it with play or simple skill work since it's an easy way to provide novel exposure to strange things. After all, practicing at this age aims to set them up to tackle the potentially unexpected. One day that might include a trip to the zoo during approved doggie days, and they may handle that rhino or zebra sound like it's the dog next door - nothing to worry about!
While you may not get to expose your puppy in person to exotic zoo animals or even farm animals if you live in an urban area, you can take advantage of pet stores that still sell small animals such as budgerigars, rabbits, guinea pigs, and reptiles. These little critters can get a puppy excited quickly, so give them space and distance to approach calmly and quietly, as this will help promote advancing towards exciting things quietly and calmly. Also, be sure not to stress the small critters if they are frightened by your puppy. Plenty of seasoned pet shop animals are used to being around dogs coming in and out, so spare the store newbies and give space to small animals that may seem afraid.
Now that you know you can expose your puppy to zoo and farm animals by playing sounds, don't stop there! Play the sound of airplanes, fire trucks, boats, doorbells, babies crying, children laughing, vacuum cleaners, people speaking different languages, power tools... the list goes on! When playing, sounds start at a low volume and slowly increase as you pair the sounds with play or simple skills paired with positive reinforcement.
The nose knows. Dogs and puppies take up an extraordinary amount of information through their sniffers, and it's a super enriching experience to let your puppy learn nose-forward. In addition to sounds of novel stimuli you may not be able to provide in person, you can also expose your puppy to various smells such as rabbit, quail, deer, duck, and other animals by purchasing animal scents, placing them in multiple spots inside or outside, and having fun running to discover these scents together where you've planted them.
Additionally, allowing your puppy plenty of time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, during walks is a great way to expose them to new things and communicate to your puppy that you're excited about doing fun stuff with them, too.
Being visual creatures ourselves, social exposure and learning through visual observation is a given. Taking your puppy to various places like parking lots, outside (but not in) dog parks, and sporting events to watch the many things around them is a great way to provide social exposure through sight.
Unfortunately, we can't supplement sights using a TV screen as we would supplement sounds via recordings as closely. Dogs have flicker sensitivity, which means they process the images being refreshed on a screen faster than we do. This sensitivity leads to them seeing flickering on the screen where we would see fluid movement. Some dogs will watch TV and even respond to it. There is some thought that dogs can often make out images of things, such as other dogs, especially when paired with barking. Still, it can't replace real-life visual exposure in person.
When thinking about what sights can contribute to social exposure and building confidence, an array of objects will do. Shopping carts, wheelchairs, strollers, umbrellas, sombreros, feather boas, skateboards, and scooters can benefit your pup to observe while enjoying play or treats to form positive associations.
Handling and Grooming
A part of social exposure that is often overlooked is handling and grooming. While it is obvious that pet parents need to be able to brush their dog's coat, brush their teeth, and trim their nails throughout their lives, other people will need to handle them as well. Veterinarians, dog walkers, groomers, pet sitters, or even visiting family may need to manage your dog, and you'll want your pup to be comfortable with that handling.
Taking your puppy to the vet hospital for "fun visits" once a month through adulthood, where nothing happens but fun things (think lots of sniffing and exploring, some yummy treats from the staff, etc.), is a great way to keep vet visits fun and not stressful, even during medical procedures.
Practice touching your puppy's paws, mouth, ears, and other parts while playing or offering treats frequently to get them used to and perhaps even seeking handling. Take potentially scary things slowly and at your puppy's pace, such as nail trimming by introducing the clippers several times with treats while touching your puppy's paws but not clipping yet. Then try clipping one and having a treat party afterward before moving on to others during your next training session.
Once your puppy is well versed in being handled, practice with other people, including vet staff, groomer, or visiting friends, so your puppy is relaxed and socially appropriate and handled well into adulthood.
Helpful Exercises and Games to Encourage Socialization
Socialization is not just about what you expose your puppy to and how you expose them to new things; it's also about the connection you are forming with your puppy while you explore these new things together.
While introducing your puppy to novel stimuli, you can also practice confidence-boosting exercises to help them explore new things with their trusted human partner, play, and even teach them how to disengage from things that might be too overwhelming or overstimulating. These practices help build trust in you as their guardian so they feel safe and can easily navigate this exciting world.
Confidence-boosting games involve overcoming obstacles and solving puzzles to build a puppy's confidence and problem-solving skills. The goal is to set your puppy up with a mildly challenging but achievable obstacle, such as climbing up playground equipment or jumping into a baby pool of water for the first time. Encourage your puppy to complete the task and celebrate heavily with them when they win to keep the momentum going to try new things.
Try offering various puzzle games to your puppy and giving them a hint here or there to help them start figuring things out while you're on social exposure outings. Having fun with you while using their amazing brains is a great way to build confidence in new areas around new sights, sounds, and smells.
The Engage-Disengage Game
Start teaching your puppy early on that looking at something and then looking at you equals something fun or yummy. Should your puppy grow to be uncomfortable by certain sights or sounds, building in that early check-in system can help them get through what they may see as an awkward encounter so much easier.
When your puppy learns their name, you can start teaching this by exposing them to a sight or sound, using their name, and rewarding them with a treat for responding and giving you eye contact. Then, as distractions increase, continue practicing this and rewarding that disengage, then let them go back to observing. In the meantime, have your treat pouch ready to give your pup a piece of kibble or training treat to reward eye contact with you when you don't ask for it; instead, your puppy offers it voluntarily.
This can help build in an automatic check-in or disengage from distracting things. As you practice, and your puppy learns the game to look at you after observing something in the environment like another dog or person, you can stop using their name and simply reinforce with a treat when they look at the thing (engage) and then back at you (disengage).
Playing With Your Dog
The power of play transcends all sentient beings! It's difficult to be stressed when you are playing and difficult to play when you are stressed. The more you can engage your puppy in play while offering social exposure, the more fun new things can be as they mature.
Bring their favorite tug toy to the ballgame or a fun squeaky toy to shake and squeak while having coffee at the park. Puppies just want to have fun; the idea is to tap into that fun to build confidence while exposing them to new things.
Safety and Health Considerations
You may have heard the advice not to bring your puppy anywhere in public or let your puppy interact with other animals until they are fully vaccinated. Though new recommendations exist, breeders, rescue groups, and even some veterinarians sometimes recommend this to avoid the possibility of your puppy acquiring an infectious disease such as distemper or parvovirus.
While these diseases are contagious and always a concern with young puppies not yet fully vaccinated, not providing proper socialization for young puppies before the last round of puppy vaccines can have permanent behavioral consequences. There are safe ways to provide adequate socialization for your new puppy even before completing puppy vaccinations, and safe exposure is critical to their social development.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior "believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated."
How to Approach Puppy Socialization When Vaccinations Aren't Complete
Start with some peace of mind before socialization is officially in your hands. Puppies begin receiving protection by ingesting colostrum in their mother's milk through passive immune transfer. If the mother dog is current on her vaccinations and has a high immunity level against diseases she's been vaccinated against, her puppies will also have a more robust immune defense against those diseases. Maternal antibodies (protective immune system proteins that attack invaders), basic hygiene practices, deworming, and a first round of vaccines are often adequate protection in a healthy, normal puppy to allow for safe socialization practices.
Only fully vaccinated dogs should interact with your puppy physically on puppy playdates and dog-to-dog interactions. Avoid the unnecessary risks with dogs with an unknown vaccine history or puppies who have not yet completed their vaccination series.
Don't skip out on group puppy training classes. Good dog trainers and dog training companies require at least the first round of vaccinations on board to attend puppy classes. Often, there is the opportunity for playtime, and there are other puppies of various sizes and breeds to be exposed to. Think of group training classes as puppy socialization classes with the bonus of being a great way to help your puppy learn to connect with you under distraction.
Ensure that your puppy is at least seven days out from their first vaccination and has had a deworming with their veterinarian before physically interacting with other dogs or puppies whose vaccine status you know is current. Vaccinations can be temperamental, so having them given by a licensed veterinarian ensures they've been handled correctly and will provide adequate protection.
Remember that socialization does not have to equal physical interaction. There are many fun ways to provide socialization through exposure involving smell, sound, and sight. Take your pup for car rides to new locations to see, hear, and smell from the safety of the car. Make a day trip to the ocean or mountains if you live in the country or city and to the country or city if you live near the sea or the mountains.
Avoid High-Risk Environments or Interactions Until Your Puppy is Protected
While your puppy has some protection on board, you still want to practice caution with the environments you visit to avoid unnecessarily exposing your puppy to potential diseases and parasites.
Avoid letting your puppy walk or play in places where other dogs frequent, such as dog parks, dog bars, and even walking through a pet store. When visiting high-traffic areas such as these, carry your puppy or place them in a shopping cart to keep them off the floor and prevent accidental physical interactions with other animals. If practicing socialization around a dog park or bar, don't go inside; work with your puppy around the outside where they can still hear, smell, and experience the goings-on inside from a safe distance.
Keep your puppy updated on vaccinations, heartworm, and flea prevention. Many heartworm preventives also have worm prevention, such as hookworm or roundworm prevention.
Avoid any areas where other animals (wild or domestic) urinate and defecate. Clean your pup's poop up swiftly to avoid reinfection in case your little fluffy ball of love does happen to have a parasite on board.
What to Do If You Missed the Puppy Socialization Period
Perhaps you didn't get your new dog at a young age when they were still spongy and super impressionable. Socialization still counts! Even though you cannot control what did or didn't happen during their critical socialization period, you can still practice everything outlined in this article to help build confidence and adaptability in your older dog.
Adult dogs are less malleable than puppies, and it's essential to recognize their likes and dislikes as individuals. In contrast, puppies are still figuring out their likes and dislikes. If you notice your dog has social anxieties or fears related to new things such as dogs, sounds, or kids, recruit the help of a dog pro. The type of dog pro to enlist depends on the severity of the fear or social anxiety. For example, if it is more severe, you'll want the help of a Veterinary Behaviorist or Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. If your dog's anxiety is mild, an Accredited Dog Trainer can help you build confidence and social appropriateness with your canine companion.
Remember that even a well-socialized dog may not be as interested as an adult to interact with or play with other dogs or even certain people. Some dogs simply enjoy the company of their pet parents, and that's okay!
Let's Get Social
Early socialization plays a vital role in shaping the dog your puppy will ultimately become. The socialization process involves exposing your furry friend to as many controlled and positive experiences as possible during early puppyhood. By doing so, you are equipping them with the skills they need to thrive in ever-changing and new environments. You can prevent unnecessary behavioral issues and strengthen your bond with each social exposure activity. Embrace this window of opportunity and set your new pup up for social success!