Let’s start with the dictionary definition.
“Exposure of a young domestic animal (such as a kitten or puppy) to a variety of people, animals, and situations to minimize fear and aggression and promote friendliness” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
What Does Socialization Mean?
In the definition above, notice that socialization is not just exposure, but has the goals of minimizing fear and promoting friendliness. This means building positive associations with new things. Socialization is more than just taking your puppy places and showing him things. It means making sure he has a good time! The best way to do this is to use things puppies love—food and play (and don’t forget social interaction) —to make sure the exposure is happy and comfortable for him. We like to think of socialization as helping puppies form positive associations with the things they are going to encounter during the course of their lifetime.
Why Do I Need to Socialize My Puppy?
There is a special time when puppies are young when their bodies and brains are more open to learning about new things. This is extremely important to understand. Why? Because puppies not exposed to typical “human world” things are more likely to be afraid of new things when they get older. Could a dog really be afraid of a statue in the park, children, having his nails trimmed, loud noises, a houseplant moved to the other side of the room, or being alone? Yes. We see that all the time. And it is heartbreaking. It is stressful for the dogs and the people who live with them. That is why it is important to take advantage of this magical time in your puppy’s development.
There are breed and individual differences, as you’d expect. And, this magical time starts while your puppy is still with the breeder, shelter or foster family. There is so much that puppy raisers can do to start puppies on their way to behavioral health. We highly recommend the Puppy Culture program for anyone responsible for raising puppies.
When Should I Socialize My Puppy?
What we know about how puppies develop behaviorally is that there is a magical time when puppies are primed to be open to learning about their world. We call this important period in their development the sensitive period for socialization. In dogs, the sensitive period for socialization is from about 3 weeks to 12 weeks of age (Overall, 2013, p. 123).
What Should I Do to Socialize Him?
During this sensitive time, we want to help puppies form positive associations with the things that will be part of their world. This includes:
- new environments
- other dogs
- other animals
- time alone
Why does this matter? Puppies who do not form positive associations with those things (or some of those things) are more likely to be afraid of them when they encounter them later in life. That fear can be serious. It can limit the things the dog is able to participate in during their life. And it can be very hard on the family, too.
What Do I Need to Learn in Order to Make Sure My Puppy Is Happy During Socialization?
You need to learn about dog body language, both in general, and by observing your individual puppy. Some of the more subtle signs of fear and discomfort in dogs and puppies are hard to spot. And if your puppy is scared when you are trying to show him new things, you are doing the opposite of socialization. He may develop new fears instead of confidence, and these fears can be hard to unlearn.
You need to plan your outings so they are at a level your puppy can handle. This could mean a quiet park or even your neighbor’s front yard (with permission) for early outings. Please don’t take him to a festival, family reunion, big box store, or dog park! These activities are much too intense for your baby puppy. We recommend choosing low-intensity settings and gradually increase the intensity as the puppy tells you he is ready for more. This article by the fabulous Laura VanArendonk Baugh has some additional good points, such as to always make sure your dog or puppy has an escape route from whatever he is viewing or interacting with. She adds that if he is taking that escape route often, the challenge is probably too much. If that’s the case, you can get your puppy out of there, even call it a day if you have to, and roll back the intensity for his next outing.
How Do I Do It?
We help puppies form positive associations with new things using food and play. We are going to take advantage of a type of learning called classical conditioning, discovered by Ivan Pavlov. If new or novel things (to the puppy) predict things the puppy naturally likes (like food and play), the happy feelings associated with food and play get associated with the statue in the park, children, having his nails trimmed, loud noises, a houseplant moved to the other side of the room and/or being alone. That’s very lucky indeed! We can use things we’re going to give the puppy anyway (food, play) to help introduce him to a human world filled with variety.
Let’s see what that looks like using food.
Here’s what using play looks like.
Is a Puppy Class Enough?
Generally speaking, no. A well-run puppy class is a great experience for your puppy and we hope you have good classes near you. If you do, take advantage of them! In a good puppy class, your puppy will experience lots of new things, people, objects and other puppies, all in a fun and safe environment. And a good class provides learning opportunities for you, too. That said, your puppy will need experiences outside of a puppy class environment (groomer, veterinarian, new environments, and so on), so it’s important to know what to do. We go into great detail on how to introduce your puppy to a human world in our book, Puppy Socialization: What It Is and How to Do It.
How to Choose a Puppy Class
Puppy classes for puppies in their sensitive period for socialization (when you get him, 8–12 weeks of age) look different from traditional obedience classes. They should focus on introducing your puppy to new things (see the categories mentioned above) using positive reinforcement methods (food, play and social interaction). We want the puppy to be rewarded (reinforced) for interaction with novel things, not forced or pressured to come near things or people that might seem scary to him.
As you introduce your puppy to his world, you want him to find it fun and safe. Puppies at this age should be managed, not corrected.
Puppy Class Focus: Management vs. Correction
It is your job to teach your puppy about life with humans. He is a baby of an entirely different species! He doesn’t know chewing on an electrical cord is dangerous but chewing on a toy you bought for him is safe. A good puppy class will teach you how to manage your puppy’s behavior (prevent rehearsal of behavior you don’t like) so you have time to teach him your preferred behavior using positive reinforcement. All teaching should employ positive reinforcement instead of punishment (“corrections”). Veterinarians who specialize in animal behavior explain this and more in a position statement on Humane Dog Training.
Make sure any class you take or instructor you use follows the COVID safety protocols for your area.
Is It Safe to Socialize My Puppy?
Some people used to recommend keeping puppies at home until their last set of vaccinations because of the risk of diseases. It’s true that we should be careful about hygiene. But science has shown that socialization can be done safely, and that it is vitally important. The risks of not socializing a puppy at the appropriate age are just too high.
The professional organizations of both veterinary behaviorists and primary veterinarians both recommend that puppies be taken out for careful socialization trips 7 days after their first vaccinations (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, 2008; Hammerle et al., 2015). Careful means keeping your puppy away from other animals with unknown vaccination status and also any kind of animal droppings. You can use a mat or other washable item for your puppy to sit on during these trips. Also, research has shown that there is little risk of disease transmission in a well-run puppy class (Korbelik et al., 2011).
Talk to your vet about how to socialize your puppy safely in your area.
Do I Have To Socialize My Puppy?
We don’t have a crystal ball, and neither do you. But we see every day the unfortunate and sometimes tragic results when puppies aren’t 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.
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. (2021). AVSAB Position Statement on Humane Dog Training. https://avsab.ftlbcdn.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/AVSAB-Humane-Dog-Training-Position-Statement-2021.pdf
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. (2008). AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf
Goldman, J. G. (2012, January 11). “What is classical conditioning? (and why does it matter?).” Scientific American Blog Network. Retrieved September 1, 2021 from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/thoughtful-animal/what-is-classical-conditioning-and-why-does-it-matter/
Hammerle, M., Horst, C., Levine, E., Overall, K., Radosta, L., Rafter-Ritchie, M., & Yin, S. (2015). 2015 AAHA canine and feline behavior management guidelines: Age and Behavior. American Animal Hospital Association. https://www.aaha.org/aaha-guidelines/behavior-management/age-and-behavior/
Korbelik, J., Rand, J. S., & Morton, J. M. (2011). Comparison of early socialization practices used for litters of small-scale registered dog breeders and nonregistered dog breeders. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 239(8), 1090–1097.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Socialization. In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialization
Overall, K. L. (2013). Manual of clinical behavioral medicine for dogs and cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.