How to Socialize a Puppy the Right Way!
Raising and socializing a puppy is not all rainbows and unicorns. And despite the promises of puppy socialization classes, they aren’t in the business of spitting out bombproof dogs at the end of 6 weeks of off-leash playtime.
Proper socialization takes equal parts of patience, knowledge and strategic thinking in order to get it right.
Sadly, many new puppy buyers make some mistakes along the way.
In this post, you will learn,
- What the critical socialization window is and how we can make the most of it.
- The biggest mistakes new puppy owners make when socializing their puppy.
- 20 ways puppies show fear and how to help them.
- Why waiting for vaccines does more harm than good.
- What your puppy needs from you as he/she experiences the new world around them.
- 50 ideas for how to safely and effectively socialize your puppy.
In a rush? Download your FREE Puppy Socialization Checklist – 50 Ideas for Socializing Your Puppy the Right Way!
Critical Socialization Window for Puppies
Puppies go through several stages of development and each one affords both you and your puppy’s breeder an opportunity to positively impact your puppy’s temperament.
Starting at about 21 to 28 days, puppies are able to see and hear and, as such, are taking everything in around them and learning all the time.
It is from this time until 16 weeks that present the absolute best time to positively introduce your puppy to new people, animals, and situations that you would like him to accept as a mature big dog.
After 16 weeks, your puppy is genetically pre-programmed to become wary of unfamiliar things and that makes it much harder to shape him into an easy-going, friendly, “bomb-proof,” big dog. 
Top 5 Mistakes New Owners Make When Socializing a Puppy
1. Pushing a Fearful Puppy
What is the Risk of Pushing a Fearful Puppy?
So often I see people dragging their leashed puppy to greet new people, ignoring obvious signs of fear, or, even worse, scolding the puppy for fearful behaviors.
However, what people claim is “teaching my puppy how to be nice” or “helping my puppy get over it,” effectively destroys any hope of a positive relationship with their dog in the future.
I recently came across a great podcast episode from (Hi. My name is Big Dog Mom and I am addicted to podcasts.) the Fear Free Podcast Series. Here is a little nugget from Dr. Kenneth M. Martin, DVM, DACVB that is particularly relevant to this discussion.
“More dogs and cats lose their lives due to behavioral concerns than due to all combined infectious and non-infectious diseases out there. …The socialization period, or the first three months of a puppy’s life, is really a time when we can make a big difference in terms of future behavior. Socialization is a behavioral investment, like putting pennies in the bank.“ 
Behavior expert, Debbie A. Martin, goes on to say in that episode,
“A big problem and a reason why dogs and cats are relinquished is often a result of damage in the relationship between the pet and the pet owner. And once that relationship is damaged, or that bond is broken, it’s sometimes difficult or impossible to repair.” 
Punishing or pushing a fearful puppy are two surefire ways of destroying a relationship before it has a chance to flourish.
How to Know if Your Puppy is Afraid
All puppies go through fear periods. These are finite periods of time in a puppy’s life when they are particularly impressionable and when a single negative experience can have a lasting impact.
However, whether the puppy is going through a fear period, or is simply a fearful puppy by nature, you will want to know what to look for and how to help your puppy through it.
How You Should Respond if Your Puppy is Afraid?
One of the most popular beliefs is that you should never coddle or comfort a fearful puppy. That by giving treats while a puppy is showing fear will somehow reinforce or encourage the behavior to happen more.
While there may be some truth to the idea that you don’t want to coddle a fearful puppy… “it’s ok, it’s ok, mommy’s here…,” giving treats to a fearful puppy may be very beneficial in reframing how the puppy feels about the thing that is scaring him or her.
In this article by my favorite canine behavior expert, Patricia McConnell,
“Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog.” 
If your puppy is showing signs of fear, remain calm and confident.
If you freak out over the puppy freaking out, you can expect more freaks to come out in the future.
I have found a short demonstration of harmlessness can help an unsure puppy.
Touch the vacuum – see, I’m ok. Touch the pot that is making so much noise – see, all good… just loud. Shake the person’s hand with a friendly greeting and cheery voices – see, no stranger here, we’re friends.
My last recommendation is to find a Fear Free Certified® professional to help you.
With a mission “to take the pet out of petrified” Fear Free Certified® professionals have the knowledge and tools to not only look after a pet’s physical wellbeing but their emotional wellbeing as well.
In summary, if you have a fearful puppy you SHOULD:
- Never push or punish a puppy for being afraid.
- Toss treats to reframe the scary person or thing into something the puppy likes.
- Make sure your veterinarian, trainer, and groomer are Fear Free Certified®.
- Check your emotions and be calm. Don’t overreact.
- Get help from a canine behaviorist and positive dog trainer if the fear is extreme and not getting better.
2. Waiting Until the Puppy is Fully Vaccinated
Popular opinion holds that a puppy should not be taken in public or to public areas until he or she is fully vaccinated, typically around 16 weeks.
Many people will limit outings with their puppy to and from their veterinarian until vaccinations are complete. Preferring to hold off on training and socialization until after fully protected.
While there is an element of truth to part of this, which I will explain, taken at face value, this popular axiom is not only false, but detrimental to your puppy.
Let me explain.
According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), puppies should be vaccinated every two to four weeks between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks with the final puppy vaccines given no earlier than 16 weeks of age. All puppies should receive the core vaccines of canine distemper, adenovirus 2, canine parvovirus, parainfluenza virus, and rabies virus. 
This is true for all puppies.
What is the Risk to Unprotected Puppies?
The risk is this.
When unvaccinated puppies come in contact with the feces of or are put in close contact with infected dogs, those infections can be spread to an unvaccinated puppy.
That’s why we vaccinate them!
For example, parvovirus affects dogs’ gastrointestinal tracts and is spread by direct dog-to-dog contact and contact with contaminated feces (stool), environments, or people.
And while distemper is primarily transmitted through airborne exposure (sneezing or coughing) to the virus from an infected dog or wild animal, it can also be transmitted by shared food and water bowls and equipment.
So keep these two things in mind: Feces and close contact with infected (unvaccinated) dogs.
How to Mitigate the Risk Before a Puppy Is Fully Protected
There are a few puppy socialization tips to keep in mind as you and your not-yet-fully vaccinated puppy venture out into his/her exciting new world.
- Avoid populated places with strange dogs. These include dog parks, public parks, the floor of Petco, etc.
- Walks in the neighborhood on streets and sidewalks are ok because you can usually avoid feces of other dogs.
- Pet stores are great for socialization, but keep your puppy in a cart until fully vaccinated.
- Coordinate puppy playdates with known vaccinated dogs.
Why is Waiting for Puppy Training and Socialization Bad?
It comes down to this.
If you wait to begin hardcore training and socialization until your puppy is fully vaccinated at 16 weeks old, you have just missed the single best time in your puppy’s life to do it.
According to the Pet Professional Guild,
“The Puppy Socialization Period (4 to 16 weeks) is the most critical period for influencing a dog’s temperament, character, behavior and avoiding problems.” 
In fact, 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.
“Puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.” 
And one final point to all my fellow big dog moms and dads out there.
If you wait to put a collar and leash on your big dog until they are 4 months old, good luck!
With the size and strength of a small horse, a 16 week old large or giant breed puppy is a force to be reckoned with.
Start early. Socialize often!
Vaccinate WHILE you socialize. Not BEFORE.Puppy Socialization Tip #2: Start early. Socialize often! Vaccinate WHILE you socialize. Not BEFORE.
3. Picking Up the Puppy Too Young
The third big mistake new puppy owners make is picking their puppy up too early – either in the middle of a fear period, or earlier than 8 weeks of age.
Impact of Fear Periods in Weeks 8 – 10
As I mentioned earlier, all puppies go through fear periods.
In Puppy Fear Periods: The 5 Things that Can Save Your Puppy!, I discuss these periods in detail, so I encourage you to read that if you are unfamiliar with the term.
One of the most significant fear periods occurs when a puppy is 8-10 weeks of age.
Imagine for a moment what it does to a puppy to be taken from his mother and siblings during these two weeks.
Being thrown into a strange place with new people, threatening noises and unfamiliar surroundings can be traumatic for many puppies, particularly during this period.
Even puppies who were confident and easy going on a temperament test at 8 weeks will go through this period of insecurity.
So, unless you must pick your puppy up earlier, I recommend waiting until 10-12 weeks or later.
Benefits of a Puppy’s Dam and Siblings
A 2011 study published in The Veterinary Record examined the behavior of dogs who were separated from the litter at different ages.
They compared adult dogs taken between 30-40 days ( 4-6 weeks) with those taken after 8 weeks.
Researchers found that,
“the odds of displaying destructiveness, excessive barking, fearfulness on walks, reactivity to noises, toy possessiveness, food possessiveness and attention-seeking were significantly greater for the dogs that had been removed from the litter earlier during the socialization period.” 
Additionally, researchers found puppies who were removed earlier than 8 weeks were:
- 15 times more likely to be fearful on walks
- 7 times more likely to have attention-seeking behaviors and noise reactivity
- 6 times more likely to bark excessively 
A puppy’s dam and siblings not only provide a safe and secure environment in which to explore and gain confidence, but it is the optimal place for a puppy to learn dog-to-dog social skills.Puppy Socialization Tip #3: Puppies should be kept with their dam and siblings until 10 - 12 weeks old. Humans can not replace the education provided by other dogs in a young puppy’s life.
4. Allowing Strangers to Hold, Hug and Pet the Puppy Inappropriately
People can’t help themselves. Well, they can, but most choose not to.
I’ve talked about this before when it comes to buying a puppy. People have no self-control when it comes to the power of a puppy.
Your ownership of the puppy is inconsequential to the people around you who feel compelled to force themselves into your puppy’s space with little regard for anything beyond their selfish desire for the momentary fix of puppy breath.
It is your responsibility to hold up your stop sign respectfully and speak for your puppy.
You Are Your Puppy’s Voice!
Junior and I attended a puppy socialization class at a local Petco.
The owners of a tiny German shepherd puppy (purchased at 6 weeks old) shared with me their excitement and exasperation as first-time dog owners. With an extremely fearful and reactive puppy, these first-time puppy parents needed help.
Over the next 45 minutes I observed aggressive play by the other puppies, humans (including the trainer) pass this terrified puppy around the ring to be petted and fondled by strange humans, forcing the puppy through obvious fear.
According to the “trainer,” it was important for the fearful puppy’s owner to not give in or coddle him.
This entire experience was as traumatizing to me as it was the desperate puppy.
I spoke out about alternatives they could try, demonstrated a better way to approach a fearful puppy, how to handle the extreme mouthiness (common in puppies taken away too young), etc… but at the end of the day, this puppy had no one he could depend on.
This was my first Petco class and my last.
Puppy Socialization Class Tips
Puppy socialization class should not be social hour for you. It should be an enriching and positive experience for your puppy.
This means when you go, you pay more attention to your puppy, than making friends and taking selfies with the other puppies.
Ensure the humans and other dogs your puppy comes in contact with respect his desire for space and understand how to appropriately approach and pet your puppy.
How to Approach a Fearful Puppy
- Don’t approach head-on – stand to the side, it’s less intimidating
- Pet under the chin and on the side of the body – on the head is disliked by nearly 100% of dogs.
- Do not force a puppy to greet anyone he’s unsure of. Let the puppy make his own decision. Off-leash greetings are most helpful if in a safe area.
- If children are present, have them sit down and be still if possible. Allow the puppy to come to him versus the kids bombarding the puppy.
- Lots of treats and calm praise
5. Not Enough Variety
The fifth and final mistake new puppy owners make when it comes to puppy socialization is not providing enough uniquely stimulating experiences.
Same route, same people, same smells…. Boring!
So what happens when there are new people, new smells, new adventures?
One of two things:
- Your puppy is fearful of new experiences given his lack of exposure.
- Your puppy wants nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the world around him.
To address the first issue, allow your puppy to experience as many novel stimuli as possible in his first 16 weeks.
If you have a puppy that is ready to explore the world, let him and encourage his curiosity and confidence. Have patience and give space and time to a more reserved puppy.
And for the second issue, my rule of thumb is to strive to be more interesting than the world around your puppy MOST of the time.
For more on the power of play, check out this terrific podcast episode by my two friends Julie and Meagan on Dog Lover’s Unleashed.
Expert dog trainer, Meagan Karnes, the founder and head trainer at The Collared Scholar, provides some tremendous insight into the power of playing with your dog.
Puppy Socialization Tip #5: Variety is KEY to raising a bomb-proof dog. PLAY with your puppy. Aim to be more interesting than the world around you and you will have a puppy who is ready to LEARN.
“For anyone who is trying to teach a basic behavior, how much easier it would be if you started with a dog who was naturally focused versus starting with a dog who wants to be anywhere but with you.”
50 Ways to Socialize a Puppy the Right Way!
Ideally, puppy socialization would start with early neurological stimulation (0-8 weeks) and continue with daily exposure to new things.
Consider that nearly everything around your puppy during this period is an opportunity for learning.
I like to think of puppy socialization in buckets using the 5 senses: sight, sound, smell, sensation, and taste.
A good rule of thumb is 100 new experiences in the first 100 days. This list should get you started!
Want to take these to go? Download your FREE Puppy Socialization Checklist – 50 Ideas for Socializing Your Puppy the Right Way!
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- Men and women, young and old
- Kids on scooters, bikes, skateboards
- People with hats, sunglasses, or other items covering head and hair
- People with wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches
- Toddlers crawling on the floor or walking unsteadily
- Dogs, cats and other animals close and from a distance
- Pet-friendly stores, restaurant patios, library, coffee shops
- Inside and outside of a crate, kennel or play yard
- Ride in a car to different destinations
- Working construction site
- Lawnmower, hairdryer, vacuum cleaner
- Thunderstorm with lightning and thunder
- Kids laughing, screaming, and being kids
- Construction and landscaping equipment
- People or sounds out of sight (hide & seek, neighbors)
- Dremel or nail clipper, prime a clicker
- People outside when puppy in a car
- Cars, motorcycles, remote control cars, electric scooters
- Baby crying, babbling
- Every kind of food possible
- Nature parks with wildlife
- Other people’s homes
- New people of varying ethnicities
- Nursing home or assisted living
- Hospital visit
- Non-medical visit to a veterinarian clinic
- Baby and toddler with a diaper
- Nose work games with treats
- Puppy socialization class
SENSATION (TEXTURE, FEEL)
- Bath in warm and cold water
- Warm air from a hairdryer
- Dremel base or tip on nails once conditioned
- Walking on tile, carpet, concrete, rocks, grass, sand
- Petting from men, women, kids, elderly
- Swimming or getting into a pool
- Ear, teeth, weight and body exam to mimic vet visit
- Learn to climb up and down stairs (safely)
- Walking with a collar, leash, or harness
- Grooming with comb, brush, scissors, shaver
- Even if feeding kibble, tastes of human food stimulates their senses
- Probiotic-rich foods (kefir, yogurt)
- Variety of foods you may want to use when giving medication
- Safe chew or bone (naturally shed antler, air-dried chew, bully stick)
- Sweet potato chews (Dr. Harveys!)
- Fresh Green Tripe
- Dehydrated liver
- Raw meaty bones (click here for safe options for puppies)
- Warm, cold, frozen foods
- Pumpkin (fresh or canned)
A Puppy Owner’s Responsibility
As a new or existing big dog owner, whether you have acquired your big dog through purchase or by adopting a rescue dog, it is your responsibility to adequately socialize your dog so that he/she doesn’t present a danger to others around you.
You have the power to prevent that with due diligence when you buy, and puppy socialization before 16 weeks.
Our goal is a bomb-proof big dog.
A dog that can be put in any environment without fear or reactivity.
One that will walk next to a busy street, venture into a crowd of people, children or other dogs, explore new places, and form new human friendships with confidence and ease.
I encourage you to take full advantage of the optimal socialization window by raising your puppy in a home that is busy, periodically noisy, and that stimulates all five senses.
Use the new puppy owner and puppy socialization tips here and the Puppy Socialization Checklist to survive and make the most of your puppy’s first 16 weeks.
“Socialization is a behavioral investment, like putting pennies in the bank.”
And a flourishing bank account produces a bombproof big dog.
- 15 Signs You Have a Scared Dog & What To Do
- Kittens and Puppies – Prevention is Easier than Treatment
- The Importance of Puppy Socialization
- Puppy Socialization: Stop Fear Before it Starts
- Bringing Up Baby (Socialization for Young Pups)
- AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization
- Top 10 things you need to know about AAHA’s Canine Vaccination Guidelines
- 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines
- I’m Okay, You’re Okay A gentle hand or tasty treat doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it by Patricia McConnell
- Help Your Puppy Grow Up to Be a Happy Dog
- Prevalence of owner-reported behaviours in dogs separated from the litter at two different ages.
- Fear Free Pets