You've brought home a new puppy — congratulations! One of the most important things you can do is proactively and carefully socialize your puppy while they are young.
Puppy socialization is one of the essential ingredients for a happy, well-behaved, and confident dog. Missing out on socialization during puppyhood can contribute to behavior issues like leash reactivity and fear-based aggression.
Now that you've brought your new dog home, you may be wondering about when to start socializing them.
And then, how do you go about puppy socialization the right way? Yes — there is a right way and a wrong way. The last thing you want is to overwhelm your new pup with too much, too fast. This can lead to a few different problems later on. I've got tips for you on how to start puppy socialization, so let's dive in!
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What is Puppy Socialization?
To better understand when and how to start puppy socialization, it's important to know what socialization actually is, and what it isn't.
Socialization means systematically exposing a puppy to different things that they may experience throughout their life. Sights, sounds, textures, sudden environmental change, and more. It's not just about a puppy playing with other dogs or meeting new people, although that's an important piece. But above all, it's helping a puppy make positive associations with these experiences and ensuring they feel safe.
Socialization Should Not be a Free-for-All
Interactions should be planned and carefully managed to make sure that a puppy is not overwhelmed or learning less-than-desirable behaviors (like jumping on people or pestering other dogs).
You'll need to be aware of body language that indicates your puppy is unsure, scared, or stressed. Obvious signs include tail tucked, ears back, and wide eyes, but there are lots of subtle indications beyond this. Check out our Canine Body Language Resources page to learn more about how to read your puppy's body language.
Because socialization is not only about your dog meeting other dogs and new people, that means there are lots of socialization opportunities you can do before your puppy has completed their vaccinations – whether inside your home or by taking puppy-safe "field trips."
The Critical Socialization Period (or 'Imprint Period')
Dogs go through a critical socialization development period between the age of roughly 3 weeks to 16 weeks. What they learn during this time will imprint on their little brains and have a huge effect on their future behavior.
What if Your Dog has Missed Early Socialization
You may have adopted a puppy older than 4 months that has missed socialization. Don't worry — all hope is NOT lost! You should still do socialization exercises. You'll likely just need to be that much more patient and go that much more slowly, and it's helpful to have the guidance of a certified dog trainer for this process. I call this "remedial socialization." But the payoff will still be well worth it.
Check out this article for more information about how to help a dog that missed out on early socialization.
When Should You Start Socializing Your Puppy?
- In the best scenarios, socialization starts from your pup’s day of birth.
- It’s never too early to start socializing your puppy inside your home.
- Research has changed standard veterinary recommendations regarding when to start puppy socialization classes. Don't wait until it's too late!
- Never take your puppy to a dog park before they have received all of their vaccines.
Right away! Proactive and positive socialization should start as soon as you bring your new dog home. But take it easy the first few days, as your pup is going through quite a big change in their life after leaving behind their littermates, learning a new routine, and building a relationship with you. Focus on providing calm and positive interactions between the puppy and their new family members (both human and pet) and introducing them to their new home environment.
Once they've had a few days to settle in, start incorporating at-home socialization exercises, taking puppy-safe field trips, and sign up for a well-run puppy class right away!
The good news is that if you got your puppy from a responsible breeder, their socialization has already begun. They have likely had good interactions with their parents and littermates, as well as with the breeder and their family and friends. Your puppy may already have had an opportunity to interact with children or other family pets. They've likely already heard many common household noises – including doorbells, vacuum cleaners, and hairdryers. They've hopefully had their paws on a variety of different surfaces, too.
Sadly, if you got your new pup from a “backyard” breeder or a pet store (many of which get their puppies from horrific puppy mills), they likely came to you without having any of this important initial socialization. This is not ideal, but, as you can see from the socialization period graphic above, you still have time in that crucial socialization window of opportunity (depending on your pup’s age when you got them).
If you adopted your puppy from a shelter, your puppy may have been fostered with their litter and mom at a volunteer’s home. Depending on the program at the shelter, your puppy’s time in the foster home may have included dedicated time for starting their socialization off on the right paw.
When Can Your Puppy Start Training Classes?
You can start a puppy socialization class as early as about 9 weeks of age. But there are some conditions that need to be met first:
- Your puppy needs to have received their first round of puppy vaccinations and dewormer at least 7 days before attending their first class.
- Your puppy needs to have received a clean bill of health from their veterinarian.
- The facility where the socialization occurs must be kept clean and disinfected. Click here to learn how to choose a puppy class and ensure it's run responsibly.
- The rest of the puppies attending the class must be healthy and up-to-date on their vaccinations.
- Your puppy must continue and complete their vaccination series.
The thinking and prevailing opinion used to be that puppies shouldn’t attend organized puppy socialization classes or be taken out into the greater public until after their entire puppy vaccination series was complete – which typically happens at about 16 weeks of age. But there's a problem with that!
The most crucial socialization window of opportunity ends at the same time vaccinations are usually completed. There’s a chasm of disconnect there, and when it comes to preventing the development of many behavioral problems in dogs, that’s a problem.
Preventable infectious canine diseases such as Distemper, Parvovirus, and others are real and debilitating (and sometimes fatal) concerns, yet they are currently responsible for far fewer deaths than preventable behavioral problems.
The wonderful advances in vaccines and disinfectants, as well as the fact that more pet owners understand the importance of pet vaccines, mean that early socialization is safer than it used to be. This is truly great news — and news that needs to spread. We’ve made great advances in combating and preventing many canine infectious diseases. Now, we can build upon those advances to start combating the bigger killer — behavioral problems.
I've had clients inform me that their veterinarian told them to not take their puppy anywhere before 16 weeks old. If you are ever told to wait before starting socialization classes with your puppy, that's a great opportunity to have a discussion with your veterinarian and share the AVSAB statement linked below.
The animal behavior experts of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) released a position statement in 2008, stating that it “should be the standard of care for puppies to receive [such] socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” They recommend that if the conditions I outlined above are met, the risk of contracting one of the diseases for which you can vaccinate is low enough to be eclipsed by the behavioral risks associated with not receiving such socialization. (You can read the full AVSAB position statement on puppy socialization here.)
When Can Your Puppy Go to the Dog Park?
You should never bring your puppy to a dog park or other area where groups of dogs gather or many individual dogs frequent until your pup has received all of their vaccinations in their initial puppy series (around 17 weeks old). In these settings, the risk of disease transmission is just too high.
As a dog trainer, I recommend that any dog under six months of age should not attend a dog park. Why? Dog parks are not ideal for proactive and positive socialization. They tend to be a free-for-all, with different play styles and dog personalities that may not be well-matched for puppies learning how to interact with other dogs.
Dog owners at dog parks may not understand canine body language or may not have the training foundations in place to call their dog away from your puppy when needed. This can lead to dog fights or a traumatic experience for your puppy that causes lifelong fear or reactivity. It's just not worth it.
I much prefer puppy playgroups and classes where a certified professional can supervise and match puppies to ideal playmates. This helps your puppy learn good play manners and prevents them from becoming a bully (or being bullied).
If your puppy has completed all of their vaccinations, consider setting up a playdate with another dog in your yard or at a local SniffSpot. You can also reach out to local dog daycares to inquire about appropriate daycare options for your puppy.
Check out What You Should Know Before Taking Your Puppy to the Dog Park for more info and tips.
How to Socialize Your Puppy the Right Way
I like to say, "Low and Slow, Short and Sweet." Socialization activities should begin at low intensity and move at your puppy's pace. For example, don't turn on a recording of thunder at max volume. Start it at the lowest volume setting and make sure your puppy isn't showing signs of distress or fear before slowly increasing the volume over time. Another example would be watching people and other dogs from a distance before allowing closer interactions, always watching to see what your puppy is saying with their body language.
For in-depth help socializing your puppy safely and effectively, join me in my Socialization Foundations virtual workshop. Not only do you get self-paced training steps to follow with your puppy, but you'll also have the chance to ask me questions about your puppy's socialization plan in a virtual one-on-one coaching session.
Socialization In and Around Your Home
There is no debate regarding the timing of this phase of socialization. You can, and should, start from the day your new pup comes home with you.
This is where you’ll help your new puppy become comfortable with the typical sights, sounds, smells, and “feels” they’ll experience at home. These should include vacuum cleaners, people wearing hats, doorbells, other household pets, a variety of different floor/ground surfaces (carpet, tile, wood, grass, concrete, etc.), and many other things. You can start introducing your puppy to experiences like brushing, bathing, nail trimming, and other handling they may experience while at the groomer or vet.
We've created a free app to help you work through all of these things at home – download it today to get started!
Our free Pupstanding App helps you socialize your puppy to sounds, sights, and so much more.
Socialization Out and About
Socialization Before Vaccines are Completed
A week after your puppy has had their first round of vaccines, it's a good time to start doing puppy-safe socialization activities. These things aren't about direct interactions with other dogs – in fact; you'll want to avoid contact with other dogs outside of puppy class while your puppy is young. The only other exception is dogs that you know are healthy and up-to-date on their vaccinations, such as a friend or family member's dog. And those interactions should be done at home and closely supervised, not while out and about.
There are quite a few ways to take your puppy out into the world while minimizing the risk of illness. Here are just a few options:
- Use a specially-designed backpack or sling to carry your puppy as you explore new places.
- Invest in a dog stroller so your puppy can accompany you to different environments while still staying off the ground.
- Use a fully-enclosed pop-up portable puppy pen so you can sit at a park or the beach with your puppy safely inside. (Tip: bring along a potty pad, so your pup has somewhere appropriate to relieve themselves while staying in their safe zone.)
- Park your car in different places (parking lots of big box stores, outside of a park, across the street from a school, etc.) and sit with your puppy in the car to just watch. Start with the windows rolled up to focus on the sights, and then roll down the windows a bit to let in more sound and smells. If you have a hatchback or truck bed, sit with your puppy there (with your pup on leash) and watch the world go by.
Make sure to pair different things happening around your puppy with something positive. The easiest and most effective way to build positive associations is to USE FOOD. I can't emphasize enough how beneficial and easy it is to use tiny training treats or even just use some of your puppy's kibble. Eating food releases the feel-good chemical dopamine, and we want to piggyback on that emotional association.
- Does your puppy look towards a group of children playing? Give them a yummy treat!
- Do they stay relaxed when a bicyclist passes by? Praise and treat!
This does require a bit more situational awareness from you, so stay alert but keep calm and happy, so your puppy does too.
If at any point your puppy gets tense, starts to bark, or shows signs of fear or stress, immediately add distance or otherwise reduce the intensity to allow them space to think. Go at your puppy's pace! If it's just too much to handle, leave the area and try again later. But if your puppy settles a bit, just watch from a further distance, so it's less intense to help them acclimate.
Get help for your puppy's socialization plan in our Puppy Essentials: Socialization Foundations Workshop
Includes self-paced training modules, videos of puppy-safe socialization activities, and a LIVE one-on-one virtual session with certified dog trainer, Cathy Madson
– all for only $29