This post focuses on socialization for pet dogs. For information on socializing a future service dog puppy, please read this post through, and then read our additional post, Puppy Socialization for Future Service Dogs.
What Is Socialization?
Socialization is the process of teaching your puppy to be relaxed and happy in the presence of anything they might experience as adults, such as new people or dogs. You do this by making positive associations with new people, animals, sights, sounds, smells, textures, or experiences.
What Are Positive Associations?
Positive associations are those good feelings you get around people, places, or things you’ve had a good experience with. Have you ever felt yourself relax just by walking into your home or seeing a loved one? Have you ever felt yourself start to smile when you heard a certain song on the radio, smelled something cooking, or saw a scene from a movie or book — because these sensory experiences were connected to happy memories? When we are “training” dogs to have positive emotional associations, we are not training them to do anything. We are just setting them up to feel good around people, places, or things.
Dogs can form negative emotional associations as well. If your dog is sniffing a house plant just as you accidentally drop a metal pan and severely startle him, he may avoid plants or that area of the house for months. A client told me her dog fell into a trashcan during puppyhood. For years after, she was afraid of that trashcan. This is why it’s so important not to scold your puppy, jerk his leash, or do other unpleasant things when you’re socializing him.
[Practice your puppy body language skills with the pictures in this post. Which of these puppies look happy, like they are building positive associations, and which don’t? See discussion at bottom of post.]
Why Is Socialization Important?
Good puppyhood socialization allows your adult dog to be relaxed and compliant at the vet or groomer (ensuringbetter health for them and less hassle for you). It will enable her to go for walks without reacting with fear or aggression to other dogs, people, or cars going past or other things that move, make noise, or look odd to dogs. It allows a future service dog to focus on work around lots of distractions.
Why Prioritize Socialization during my Puppy’s First Weeks at Home?
Dogs are naturally suspicious of new things, but before 16 weeks of age — the “critical period” for socialization — puppies are in a developmental phase that makes them more able to learn that new things are okay. Having lots of positive experiences with new things during the first few months of life “inoculates” an adult dog to accept newness. However, this socialization window closes at five months (20 weeks). This means that if you got your puppy at 9 weeks old, you have less than three months to focus on socialization. Make the most of this time!
How to Socialize Your Puppy
- Take your puppy where puppies are welcome (feed stores, pet stores, parking lots, dog-friendly local businesses and parks, etc.). Bring great treats. Act relaxed and happy.
- Pay close attention to your puppy and her body language (see TIP below). If she’s relaxed and happy, do some training, such as “sit for a treat” to meet new people.
- If your puppy looks worried or overaroused (see below), calmly and happily move her away from what’s worrying or over-stimulating her, give her a treat, play a game, train, or massage her until she’s relaxed. When she’s comfortable, allow her to approach the new thing at her own pace. Once she does, treat — and then quit!
- Praise her and yourself for doing great and then go home. Keep socialization short & sweet!
What types of things does my puppy need to be socialized to?
You want your puppy to be comfortable and happy around things he’ll be exposed to later in life. For all puppies, this means being comfortable with….
- All kinds of people — all genders, ages, sizes, shapes, and colors. Dogs are naturally more likely to be afraid of men (especially men with facial hair), elderly people, and children, and anyone who looks different than the people in their family. Try to give your puppy positive experiences with a variety of people, especially people who look different from their family.
- The things people wear and carry. Dogs often get freaked out by things like hoods, big puffy parkas, hats, sunglasses, umbrellas, canes/walkers/crutches, and things like that. If you have a summer puppy, take out the parkas and snow shovels to play with. If you have a winter puppy, bring out the sunglasses and umbrellas.
- Dogs. Even if you don’t plan on taking your dog to daycare or dog shows, every dog has to be
around other dogs at the vet, the groomer, and out for walks. Your puppy does not have to play or be friends with other dogs. Good socialization can involve playing games or doing reward-based training in the presence of other dogs and puppies, too.
- Anything else your dog is likely to see, hear, smell, or walk on: Cars (being in them and seeing them go past), cats, etc. In the country, horses, cows, tractors, chain saws, owls, gravel, mulch. In the city, flags and awnings flapping overhead, statues, police sirens, skateboards and bicycles, sewer grates, etc.
Parting Tips: Let your Puppy Set the Pace
- Revved or scared signals often look cute — when your puppy bounces and barks or when she rolls over onto her back — but ignoring them is not good socialization and usually backfires in the long run. Puppies who learn that lower-key signals will not make scary things (including people) go away will often resort to aggression in adulthood to get their meaning across
- If you have an adult or adolescent dog who is fearful or aggressive around people, dogs, or other new things, do not keep putting him in these situations in the hope that he’ll get socialized. A dog like this needs a behavior modification protocol designed by a trainer who uses positive methods based on science. Find a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.
- Want to do more? Check out our Puppy Socialization for Future Service Dogs post or Dr. Sophia Yin’s Checklist for Socialization for ideas of new experiences to get your pup used to.
Quiz Answers — Interpretation of Photos
We cannot know for sure what each puppy is thinking or feeling or the complete context of each picture. These are my interpretations of the brief moments in time captured in the puppy pictures in this post, intended to help you think about your own puppy’s body language when introduced to new things.
- Golden Retriever sniffing daffodils — Good body language for socialization: Relaxed curiosity. Exploring the flowers with relaxed body language — soft, squinty eyes, relaxed ears, body looks soft. This pup looks like she’s concentrating (wrinkles around the nose from sniffing) and engaged but not tense.
- Brown and white pup with person’s face above (upper left corner) — Problematic body language for socialization: Fear. Pup’s mouth is closed, ears are pinned back, whites of the eyes are showing.
- Black Bouvier (my own dog, Barnum) — Problematic body language for socialization: Hyperarousal. He is on his side, head whipped toward my hand, pupils dilated, teeth bared at me/my hand.
- Beagle — Good body language for socialization: Happy. Sitting, mouth open, ears and eyes in neutral positions/shapes, minimal facial tension.
- Running English Springer Spaniel — Good body language for socialization: play. Ears and tail are in neutral positions (level with body line), movements are large and open, body is very relaxed and loose.
- Shih Tzu being petted — Problematic body language for socialization: shut down. Pressed against the floor, not looking at the person petting her, mouth closed. To approach/pet a puppy, the puppy should look like she’s inviting contact. This puppy looks like she’s trying to disappear. (More on how to tell if a dog is enjoying being petted.)
- Yellow Lab on leash walk — Problematic body language for socialization: Hyperarousal. Everything about this pup says “forward motion.” Leash tight with front paws off the ground, ears forward, mouth closed, fixed gaze/eyebrow wrinkles.
NOTES: I am also not saying it is “bad” for a puppy to ever show signs of fear or hyperarousal. Every dog (and person!) has moments of fear or big excitement. But these are not the states we want a puppy to REMAIN in when we introduce them to new people, dogs, or things in the world.
Dog Body Language Resources
If you’d like to learn more about dog body language and what your dog is saying to you, check out these links. And have fun socializing your puppy!