Everyone has an opinion on what to do with your puppy. I’m sure family members, friends, neighbors, the breeder or rescue group, all have advice on what you should do to socialize your puppy and what you shouldn’t. We’ve sorted the good information from the bad with our 6 Dos and 6 Don’ts for puppy socialization.
First, congratulations on your new puppy! Puppies bring such joy to a home (and a lot of work!). I always tell people to enjoy the puppy stage. They grow up so fast!
Did you know there is a magical time during your puppy’s development where some effort on your part has huge payoffs? Puppies are primed to learn about their world during a sensitive period for socialization. This magical time occurs for puppies from about 5–12 weeks of age. Puppies in this period are typically more likely to approach things that scare them, and their temperaments are more moldable. Smart owners take advantage of this sensitive period for socialization to introduce puppies to things that might seem normal and natural to humans but strange to puppies. The goal of socialization is to help puppies form positive associations with the things they will encounter during their lifetime.
Word is finally getting out that puppies need socialization, but there is little information about how to do it. That’s why we wrote our book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It. In addition, we want to share with you some of our favorite “Do’s and Don’ts.”
What to Do
1. Do Learn About Canine Body Language
This piece of mission-critical information has been missing from most socialization advice. And the thing is, you can’t effectively socialize your puppy until you can read his body language. You really can’t. Without that knowledge, you could end up making your puppy afraid of things he’s going to see in his lifetime, like children, the veterinarian, noisy trucks, nail trims, and more.
In our experience, most owners can tell when their puppy is “shouting” for help by cowering, shaking, trying to escape, or barking. But we find that owners have not been taught to look for “whispers” for help (more subtle signs) from their puppies. You can learn the more subtle signs of fear and anxiety in dogs with this wonderful free download by the late Dr. Sophia Yin. You can also get more information on our page on canine body language.
Look at the photos below. It is easy to see the contrast in the puppies’ body language when you see photos side-by-side. In real-time, it takes a lot of practice.
2. Do Pair New Experiences with Food and Play
Remember, the goal with socialization is to help your puppy form positive associations with things that are going to be part of his world. We know that the best way to do that is to make the new things predict good things for the puppy. If going to a new place, meeting a new person, or getting brushed predicts food or play, you are well on your way to helping your puppy form positive associations with those things. It’s your job to teach your puppy the world is a fun and safe place. You can do that by using things you’re going to give the puppy anyway (food, attention, and play) as you introduce him to the world.
It is important to remember that exposure alone is not socialization. Socialization is the process of creating positive associations with the new person, place, thing, sound, or experience.
3. Do Let the Puppy Go at His Own Pace
Puppies should be allowed to meet people and things at their own pace. I like puppies to be on the ground (leashed, of course) if it is safe to do so. Having the puppy on the ground is preferable to the puppy being held when they meet new people or encounter new things. Let’s say a person new to your puppy approaches while you are holding him. Your puppy is trapped in your arms. He can’t move away if he’s scared. And it’s harder for you to read his body language (see number 1 above) if you’re holding him. If he’s on the ground, you can see if his weight is shifted forward or backward, if he moves towards the person, stands still, or moves away, if his brow is wrinkled, his ears are relaxed, his mouth is open, or closed. You are better able to assess and read his body language if he’s on the ground. Then, your puppy can move toward the person and interact or not. And if he’s on the ground, it is much easier for you to do number 2 above: pair meeting the new person with food, initially. And, maybe if he’s comfortable, some play.
I try not to lure puppies with food toward things that scare them. Why? That’s something that can backfire, too. I once watched someone lure a puppy with a piece of food to take the first step down a slide. The person thought it was cute and adorable. They didn’t observe the puppy’s body language. The puppy was frozen and terrified. What did that puppy learn from that experience?
4. Do Start at Home
Socialization starts at home. Most people don’t think of socialization starting at home. But if we take a moment to reflect, when you bring your puppy home, everything will be new to him. He’s getting used to the people in the home, the sounds, and the rhythms of the household. In addition to that, he still has a lot to learn about: grooming, noises, handling, nail trims, package deliveries, people coming to the home, holiday decorations, and so much more.
5. Do Plan Ahead
Planning ahead will set you and your puppy up for success. There are a few things to into consideration.
- Location: make sure you start with low-intensity locations. If you haven’t already, please see our page on choosing the right intensity for your puppy.
- Make sure your puppy is hungry (not starving). Using food to help your puppy form positive associations with new things works better when your puppy is not full.
- Bring some of your puppy’s regular food and some extra special treats that he really likes. Make sure to dice the treats into very small pieces (about the size of a pencil eraser).
- Bring an appropriately sized tug toy to play with your puppy. We mention appropriately sized because many people use toys that are too big for puppy mouths.
- Bring a mat or blanket to set on the ground.
- Depending on the outing and your plans, you may want to bring a stuffed Kong or other long-lasting toy for your puppy to chew.
- Your puppy should wear a regular buckle, snap, or martingale collar or a non-restrictive shoulder harness.
- Use a regular, fixed-length leash (not a retractable leash). Make sure to keep your puppy leashed when you are away from home.
- Make sure to take a treat pouch or wear clothing with pockets.
- Take waste bags in case your puppy eliminates.
- Take water and a bowl for your puppy.
6. Do Keep It Safe
This sensitive period for socialization overlaps your puppy’s vulnerability to disease because he’s not fully vaccinated. Previously we thought puppies had to stay home until their vaccinations were complete. Now behavioral and general veterinary experts advise not to wait until vaccinations are complete. The Behavior Management Guidelines for the American Animal Hospital Association state, “If dogs and cats are deprived of appropriate exposure during critical sensitive periods, they have an increased risk of developing problematic behavior . . . . There is no medical reason to delay puppy and kitten classes or social exposure until the vaccination series is completed as long as exposure to sick animals is prohibited, basic hygiene is practiced, and diets are high quality. The risks attendant with missing social exposure far exceed any disease risk.” (Hammerle et al., 2015).
When you start taking your puppy out in the world, look for areas that are not frequented by other dogs. I avoid pet stores and dog parks. Those places have been soiled by many dogs and diseases can be transmitted through feces. I look for paved areas, like empty parking lots or sidewalks. And, during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may even drive your dog places and observe from the car. Positive exposures from a distance are better than no exposures at all.
What Not to Do
1. Don’t Start at Big Box Stores
As we explain on our page about intensity, big-box home improvement stores are the worst place to start for almost all puppies. It is imperative that you learn to read your puppy and start in low-intensity locations. As your puppy is comfortable in those locations, increase the intensity gradually. I have had many, many clients who, on the advice of someone they trusted, took their young puppy to a big home improvement store. They knew their puppies were overwhelmed and frightened, but they were told they had to socialize them. And it made their puppies worse. Choose your locations wisely. Your puppy’s behavioral health depends on it.
2. Don’t Take Your Puppy Everywhere
This is another one I hear all the time from clients. The puppy’s breeder or the rescue group told the owner that they should take their puppy everywhere to socialize them. We already know what’s wrong with this advice. Putting a puppy in situations that scare him will most certainly make him more afraid. Yes, you want your puppy to learn about the world, but we have to go at his pace. Taking a puppy who is terrified of people to a restaurant where people are all around him will not make him feel better about people. It could make him more afraid. Socialization outings for your puppy should be planned and managed and at the puppy’s pace.
3. Don’t Keep Your Puppy Home Until He’s Had All His Shots
We already talked about this in #6 above. The American Animal Hospital Association writes, “There is no medical reason to delay puppy and kitten classes or social exposure until the vaccination series is completed as long as exposure to sick animals is prohibited, basic hygiene is practiced, and diets are high quality. The risks attendant with missing social exposure far exceed any disease risk.”
4. Don’t Use Tools That Startle, Hurt or Scare Your Puppy
Additionally, compressed air, penny cans (soda cans filled with pennies or stones), anything meant to startle or scare are not recommended. People who use those tools often say they don’t scare the puppy, they say ” they just interrupt” the behavior. These tools work by startling or scaring your puppy. It is not necessary to scare or hurt puppies to train them.
5. Don’t Force Your Puppy Near Things That Scare Him
Forcing or allowing a scared puppy to be held by a stranger can backfire big time! We’ve seen it happen too many times to count. Owners tell me (Marge) that their dog met lots of people when he was a puppy, but now he barks (or worse) at people he doesn’t know. How could that happen? Were those experiences meeting people scary for him based on his body language? Were they paired with yummy treats or a short game with a toy?
I’ll tell you up front, there is a lot of social pressure on people who go out with puppies. Almost everyone loves puppies and wants to interact with them when they see them (myself included!). Picture this: it’s the first day you have your puppy home. His whole world has just been turned upside down, and everything is new. Your neighbor comes running over exclaiming, “He’s so cute!! May I hold him?” and your puppy hides behind you. He’s a bit scared of this new, loud person that came running up into his space. Societal norms make you want to pick up your puppy and hand him over. The right thing to do is to talk with your neighbor, while feeding your puppy some treats and see if he ventures out on his own. If he doesn’t, that’s okay. Tell your neighbor your puppy had a big day and needs some time to settle in. Then you can set up a time (and the environment) to make it a bit easier for your puppy to approach and greet on his own.
6. Don’t Expect Your Puppy to Just Get Used to Things on His Own
Exposure alone is not socialization. That is so important, we’re going to say it again, in bold. Exposure alone is not socialization. Socialization is the process of creating positive associations for your puppy with the things he’s going to encounter during the course of his lifetime.
Is it ever okay to just let your puppy sit and watch the world go by or just explore? You bet. That happens all the time, without you even noticing. That said, we want you to err on the side of creating positive associations. Use food and play and don’t leave things up to chance.
We don’t have a crystal ball and neither do you. Every day we see the unfortunate and sometimes tragic results when puppies aren’t properly socialized. Why take the chance? If you’re fortunate, your puppy is going to be a part of your family for a long time. Why not take what you learn about how puppies develop behaviorally and stack the deck in your favor? Give your puppy the best chance to live a confident and happy life.