Puppy Socialization 101

If you have ever had a puppy, are getting a puppy soon, or currently have a puppy, you’ve probably heard the term “socialization” many times. With all of the conflicting information out there on the internet, you may be a bit confused about what socialization truly is, how to do it, and when to do it. What does it all mean?!

What is Socialization?

The term “socialization” can refer to the process of building positive associations with new experiences in an effort to help your puppy grow into a confident and well-adjusted adult dog. It’s so much more than just having your puppy meet new people and dogs, although that is a part of it! It also involves teaching your puppy to enjoy new experiences and confidently learn about the world around them. There is a specific time period called a “socialization window” that you have to work with when socializing your puppy, as this is when they develop associations that typically end up lasting throughout the rest of their life. This window varies between individuals and breeds, but generally can be from 8-20 weeks. Any productive work you can do to socialize your puppy during this time frame will help set them up for success to be the adult dog you want them to be!

Misconceptions About Socialization

There are misconceptions about what socialization is and isn’t that tend to make the process confusing for new puppy parents to navigate. Many times you may encounter people with the misunderstanding that “good” socialization just involves exposing your puppy to as many new stimuli, environments, objects, and people as possible early on in life, and that exposure alone is going to create a well-adjusted adult dog. This is not always the case, especially with puppies who may have a more timid or unconfident personality to start out with. Exposure alone isn’t going to create a good socialization experience with your puppy, the new experiences also have to be enjoyable and positive for the work to be effective. You want to make sure that when you are introducing your puppy to new places, people, dogs, and things, that you are also pairing that introduction with something positive (like treats or play) and making sure to watch your puppy’s body language throughout the experience to ensure they aren’t showing signs of being stressed and overwhelmed. Some body language signs of stress to be on the lookout for can include:

  1. Lip flicks- this is when your puppy does a lot of frequent lip licking, licking their nose, or flicking their tongue. When this happens often outside the context of eating, drinking, or anticipating food, it typically can be an indicator of stress or a dog who is unsure.

  2. Whale eye- when your puppy’s eyes are opened so wide that you can see the whites of their eyes, this is called whale eye. This is a common indicator of stress or fear.

  3. Flattened, pulled back ears- When your puppy flattens their ears and pulls them back, this can sometimes be an indicator of stress and fear. Typically this behavior is paired with other stress signals.

  4. Tail positioning- we all know that a tucked tail is the sign of an unhappy or fearful dog, but did you know that wagging tails aren’t always a good thing? If your puppy is wagging their tail with stiff body language, and the tail is stiff and upright, this may be a sign of stress or overarousal. When your puppy’s tail wags, you want to look for a wagging tail that is loose and horizontal with their spine rather than completely stiff and upright.

You want to make sure that when you are introducing your puppy to new places, people, dogs, and things, that you are also pairing that introduction with something positive (like treats or play) and making sure to watch your puppy’s body language throughout the experience to ensure they aren’t showing signs of being stressed and overwhelmed.

If your puppy is showing signs of stress or fear when you are out socializing them, it is very important to remove them from the situation or add enough distance between you and the trigger that they are able to calm down. Letting a puppy “work it out” while they are stressed may actually have the opposite effect of what you want, and may create a negative association or fear response around the triggering environment or situation. The last thing you want to do with a stressed puppy is force them to interact with what is making them uncomfortable!

How to Socialize Your Puppy the Right Way

Before you start your puppy’s socialization process, consider their personality, background, and breed-specific traits. For example, if your puppy is naturally reserved and timid, it may be important to focus a lot on building gradual and positive experiences in quieter places first before taking them somewhere like a busy restaurant with dozens of strangers trying to pet them. If you have a more boisterous and confident puppy, it may be worth starting to build some positive associations with focusing on you or displaying calm behavior around distractions like other dogs and new places. Regardless of your puppy’s temperament, it’s important to keep socialization experiences and outings short. While it may sound fun to bring your puppy out to dinner with you, asking them to be in that busy restaurant environment for upwards of 1-2 hours is too long for a puppy to handle and may overwhelm them. Instead, you could take your puppy on a short coffee outing and have them sit with you for 20 minutes or so. Keep in mind that during these outings with your puppy, it’s important to come prepared and bring all the tools you need for success. These can include:

  1. High value treats! It’s important to be equipped with multiple types of treats that are extremely interesting and not what your puppy normally gets every day around the house. While kibble may work for training at home, it’s important to bring treats that are guaranteed to get your puppy’s attention with you on outings to make sure that they are more interesting than the environment. Any time your puppy sees something they haven’t seen before (like a dog walking by at the park) pair it with giving them a treat as the dog walks past.

  2. Chew toys- Remember that your puppy is both teething and has a short attention span at this age, so it’s always helpful to bring a few favorite chew toys to help entertain them on outings, especially if they start getting overstimulated and need something to occupy their mind.

  3. Settle mat or blanket- Not only is building a settle skill and starting on mat training important, but bringing a settle mat or blanket out with you can be a great way to keep your puppy safe if they aren’t fully vaccinated yet and shouldn’t be touching the ground or communal surfaces. Having your puppy sit on a mat or blanket is a great alternative to this!

Since the socialization window is so limited to the early weeks of your puppy’s life, it’s recommended to ideally be able to take a couple of weeks off when getting a new puppy to dedicate as much time as you can to them and their training. At the very least, keep your schedule as clear as you can outside of work and make sure you work on socializing your puppy every day while still in this critical period.

Common Socialization Scenarios to Try

  • Field Trips are a common way to socialize your puppy and give them opportunities to see new environments. There are many pet-friendly stores that you can take your puppy to, like hardware stores, pet stores, and even some department stores like Home Goods. Even taking your puppy to a park or coffee shop can be good places to go as well, so long as you are being safe and not allowing your puppy to run around on the ground if they are not fully vaccinated (some people even invest in dog strollers for outings with their puppies to prevent this).

  • Practice going to the vet, as this is commonly a place where dogs feel stressed or develop negative associations. Call your vet office beforehand and ask them if you can arrange to spend a few short trips coming to sit in their lobby and give your puppy treats while they watch the world go by, and introduce them to an exam room and being touched and interacted with by the vet staff (all the while pairing these experiences with praise, play, and high value food).

  • Acclimate your puppy to being handled in sensitive areas like the ears, looking at their teeth, and touching their feet. We need to practice this because your puppy will need to be handled at some point by various people like vet staff, groomers, strangers, etc. and it’s important that they do not find this experience aversive and therefore develop behavior issues around handling.

  • Set up structured scenarios to introduce your puppy to people they have never met before. It’s best to do this at home or somewhere familiar where the puppy is not overwhelmed by new surroundings, and let your puppy meet one new person at a time. Remember that the goal is not forcing interactions, but letting your puppy go at their own pace and acclimate to meeting new people as they feel comfortable. Give your puppy treats as they continue to seek interaction from the new person, and make sure that you take a step b