Socializing Your Puppy: The Right Way

Socializing your puppy is vital to your puppy's foundation. You only have one chance to get it right; the window closes fast and your dog is only a puppy once!

Any training, tricks or anything else can come later on, and yes, you can teach an old dog, new tricks; but, you can’t put off socializing your puppy and every day counts. Once the time has gone, you can’t bring it back.

Dealing with environmental stressors and distractions will follow you throughout your dog’s life. However, if this part of everyday life is “explained” properly when you are socializing your puppy, it can be much easier to get through and it will be more beneficial for you and your dog.

Stereotypes and beliefs about Socializing your Puppy

One of the “rules” of socializing your puppy says to meet a hundred different people, different dogs, and different environments and situations in order to help your dog’s brain development during this short window of time (his first 16 weeks of life, in which about 85% of his brain forms the necessary nerve connections).

However, there is a stereotypical belief in how this should be done. It is a wide spread belief that dogs should interact with humans, and other dogs in order to avoid being aggressive later in life. So is this true? Not necessarily. I have worked with many dogs that have passed classically arranged puppy socialization classes and yet they have been some of the worst dog aggression cases of my career. Whether or not the dog will end up being aggressive depends mostly on the inputs he receives, and the behavior he creates for the environment where he lives and spends the majority of his time.

Common mistakes that are made when socializing your puppy

A fact about dog training is that if you don’t train for certain situations while socializing your puppy, he will create a behavior pattern for that situation on his own, that you may not like down the road.

For example:

  • While socializing your puppy, if you allow him to jump on people when meeting them, this will only progress once your dog grows up, and the later that you start dealing with jumping issues, the more time and patience they will take to address.
  • While socializing your puppy, if you allow him to run freely around (uncontrolled), investigating the world on his own, you will notice that he is slow (as he’s just a puppy) and will stay within a perimeter of a few feet. This will change within a few months and then your dog will react rapidly (he is no longer slow) to multiple different triggers in the environment and his perimeter has expanded greatly, what was once a few feet is now hundreds of feet.
  • Most people will react when seeing a puppy, and will pet him. This builds excitement in the dog and actually creates a dog behavior pattern towards people; however, what was cute as a puppy is later undesirable when the dog grows up. Although people love to have a cute little ball of fur come running up to them to be greeted; a 100lbs full grown dog is another story. Dealing with this behavior later, rather than while socializing your puppy, can take a long time and for some dog owners it can become a nightmare.
  • Introducing puppies to other dogs is another common one. If your plan for socializing your puppy is simply to bring him to a dog park or other social places where he will play with other dogs in order to fulfill his social needs, you may soon realize that your dog will go ballistic when spotting other dogs, and that all of your communication attempts will go downhill, fast. The reason for this is that playing with other dogs is simply too rewarding of an action and down the road you will probably face the bitter reality of it being impossible to get your dog’s attention or response when in the presence of other dogs. What you have allowed to create is a classically conditioned response from your dog when he sees another dog; enthusiastic excitement. The level of excitement will simply keep growing until it is completely out of control.

Social life of a dog

It is a common belief that due to the fact that dogs are pack-oriented animals they need social interactions with other dogs in order to fulfill their daily needs. That is actually a myth. The reason that dogs have such a special place in the human world is because they are capable of creating bonds with other species. Being a pack-oriented animal he actually has genetic predispositions and patterns that help him bond and live in a community with other dogs or any other beings.

That is right, if you place a puppy with a flock of sheep during the early puppy socialization period, he will bond with them and they will become his “pack”. It is common for dogs to merge with other animals like horses, goats, or even cats. Their relationship with humans is just another example of the adaptation of dogs.

Why is this so important?

It is important because it helps us create plans for building better relationships, puppy socialization plans, including our plan for introducing the environment to our dog in order for it to benefit us all.

Socializing your puppy: How to present humans, other animals and environments to your dog

How to properly present other peoples

As mentioned, one of the beliefs is that if your dog gets in contact with multiple people, and plays with multiple other puppies during his puppy socialization period he will not be aggressive. But we know now that that actually may not be the case. What your dog may learn instead is that it is acceptable and highly rewarding to run to any person he sees in his path (or within eyesight), and this can later become a problem. By creating these scenarios you are actually training your dog to get over-excited.

Not everyone will be pleased and will react friendly when they see a grown up dog running towards them to say “Hi”. The wrong reaction from a person can easily turn an excited dog into a nervous/fearful dog that may display aggressive patterns.

How about presenting other dogs?

The same thing goes with other dogs; what you are actually allowing to happen while socializing your puppy this way is a classical conditioning process which will result in your dog being highly excited when seeing other people or dogs (animals). Although we think of “excitement” as a good thing, this is actually just a level of energy that can spill either way.

For example; it is common for dogs after finishing classically arranged puppy classes to end up with only knowing the “puppy language”, which means that they get so excited when seeing other dogs that they simply plow into them when greeting them, which may create an aggressive response from the other dog (simply because in a dog’s world this is not part of the meeting ritual). In some cases, only one dog fight or bad reaction is enough to change a dog’s behavior from excited-happy to excited-aggressive.

When socializing your puppy and introducing him to new people and animals, present them to your dog like they are not a big deal. Instead of having people bend over and verbally praise the dog, etc., have them instead ignore the dog if he goes to greet them. Your dog will soon realize that meeting new people or animals is actually nothing special. Remember we don’t want our dogs to be scared of people, but we also don’t want them to expect that everyone they meet wants to play with them. This is an exercise that has to be started when socializing your puppy in order to help create a wanted behavior pattern on time.

Hands on training steps for socializing your puppy

Take some treats and have your dog engaged just like described in the building relationship and engagement part of the website. Have a few people (strangers to your dog) as decoys, or ask people around to assist you for a minute while training. Most people actually like participating. Have them stand in a spot completely ignoring the dog and you simply go around them while giving treats to your dog.

This will make your dog comfortable with the presence of people and he won’t feel nervous around strangers, but he also won’t get overly excited. After a few repetitions in which your dog has become fluent with this step, you can increase the level of difficulty.

This time, have a decoy person calling your dog (verbally praising, clapping with hands, etc.) once your dog responses to their call and runs towards the decoy, and just as the dog reaches him, the decoy will stop all movements, avoid eye contact, and simply become a statue. At this point, don’t call your dog back, or give any signalling cue; just wait for him to turn towards you, and “mark” that moment. This will encourage your dog to return to you and once he does, engage him in a highly-rewarding play session mixed with treats.

After a few sessions like this, your dog will simply start ignoring people since they are not fun or anything special; they are just another “object” in the environment.

Once the response from your dog is fluent, now the decoy person can actually interact with the puppy, by petting him. The goal here is for your puppy not to get over-excited, you have to have control of your dog.

Introducing other dogs to your puppy

It is a bit more delicate to set up this type of exercise with other dogs, so I would recommend that you have a decoy dog that is really low energy with low reactions to seeing other dogs.

Have your dog engaged with you at a certain distance from the decoy dog, (have a decoy dog on a leash). After a few sessions, start coming closer to the decoy dog and start performing “in and out” patterns (engage with your dog, run toward the decoy dog, stop at the half way and then run back to the starting point). After a few more sessions (when you think that your dog will be able to overcome the temptation) you can proceed to actually making contact. Let the dogs get in contact briefly (for a few seconds) and then immediately reengage your dog and back away.

From this point on, every few sessions you can increase the timing of how long the dogs are in contact with each other. Your goal is for you to always be able to reengage your dog and leave without any problems.

Essentially, the purpose of this socializing your puppy exercise is to build muscle memory patterns as well as classically condition your dog’s response in these situations (when meeting other people and animals).

Presenting the environment while socializing your puppy

A very crucial step is how the surrounding environment will be presented when socializing your puppy, and how he will react to it when he grows up. This is one of the main reasons why most dogs fail in dog competitions, professional services or as pets and everyday companions.

Since this is a bigger and more demanding subject, it has a page of its own on this website called Puppies and Distractions where you can find out more details and tips that can help you successfully present the environment to your dog when socializing your puppy.

The Steps You Can Do With Your Puppy

For many dog owners the time between the day they brought their puppy back home and the day he is grown up goes way too fast. Puppy-hood, teething, and the window for socializing your puppy, all become things of the past and that is when most dog owners start to face their first behaviour issues, and they question themselves over what went wrong.

So the natural questions are;

where to start and what to do when you bring your puppy home?

If you go online or ask around, the first thing that you may see is “puppy socialization class”. Unfortunately, just like with the “obedience classes” or “obedience schools” there is a huge misinterpretation and misuse of the name for marketing purposes, mostly. Hanging out in a class once a week may benefit your puppy at first but then it will just become a meeting with familiar people and familiar dogs in a familiar environment (in most cases, this is unfortunately the place where they start learning to get over-excited) . If this is your complete and only puppy socialization plan, then you are wasting your money, and more importantly, your time. Some of these classes, if done properly, can be a beneficial part of your socialization plan, but certainly not the entire plan.

Some other material and information that you may run into are puppy socialization plans and schedules.

There are many schedules for socializing your puppy that try to explain what to do, and what steps to take at what certain dates or weeks in your puppy’s life, in order for your dog to end up on the right track. In reality, it is not so easy. Every dog is unique, and you can’t create a “one-size-fits-all weekly schedule”, however there are certain rules that do apply to all dogs:

  • Introduce as many and as much as possible, different environments and situations, animals, people, etc. It is never enough (keep in mind that everything has to be presented in the way that you want your dog to react, it also has to create a positive outcome)
  • Introductions have to be done in a friendly manner, it is crucial to observe and follow your puppy’s reactions; you can’t rush or push your puppy. If the outcome of a certain scenario is positive, that is how your puppy will deal with it in the future, if it is negative, you will face issues down the road.
  • Build a relationship. This is a stressful period for any dog; they just have left their “family” and have a short period of time to adjust to a new environment and new owner, as well as going through the process of exploring and learning, in most cases this is overwhelming for any young dog. Building a relationship together, will help you and your puppy get through this time (and throughout anything that the rest of life may present) with the best chances of success. There are a few pages on this website that can help you build a better relationship like playing with your puppy and Building relationship

TIP:Always keep in mind and be cautious, although your goal is to introduce your puppy to as many different scenarios, people, animals, etc. as possible; the key is to keep those scenarios organized in a way that will benefit your puppy.

Some Ideas and Steps for Socializing your puppy

There are no strict guidelines, so I will just mention a few possible scenarios. You can create your own scenarios and ideas, both inside and outside of the house. Just always think ahead to the possible outcomes and what alternatives you can do, on the spot, if your puppy becomes overwhelmed by the given task.

  • Explore your neighborhood. The people, cars, parks, objects like garbage bins, lonely bushes in the middle of the field, traffic signs, benches, etc. Remember that as familiar as we may be with all of these things, they are all new to your puppy.
  • Take your puppy for a car ride, park somewhere that he can observe the environment around him. Take him to different places like beaches (sand surfaces, rock surfaces, board walks, tall grass, etc.).
  • Introduce your puppy to schools or playground areas and kids.
  • Introductions to people of all ages, both male and female, including, if possible, people in wheelchairs, on bicycles, with skateboards, etc.
  • Handle your puppy (and have other people handle him) in such a way that he is comfortable being brushed, turned around, having his ears, eyes, nails, and teeth checked, having a bath etc. Take your puppy to a local vet and ask if they can help you with your socialization plan. Introducing a vet clinic and their staff (along with their smells, noises, equipment, etc.) in a friendly manner will save you a headache later.
  • Introduce your dog to as many different environments as possible. (Other streets, parks, traffic rush, etc.).
  • Let your puppy explore different sounds, just remember that loud noises are normally overwhelming for dogs so you may start them from a distance or not too loudly until your dog is more comfortable.
  • Expose your dog to strange objects both indoors and outdoors. Make sure that all “exercises” end on a positive note; objects are to be of different shapes, materials, sizes, etc. And if possible incorporate them into a game (creating obstacles, for example). You can be creative and use anything from normal toys to yoga balls, sticks and branches, rain coats, etc.

TIP: I would just like to remind you again, that you have to be careful when introducing your dog to different situations, in order for them to become positive learning experiences. If your dog is uncomfortable with a certain situation, try to add distance or lower the level of stress in order for your puppy to become familiar and comfortable. The key to successfully socializing your puppy is to create positive experiences that help your puppy learn how to react.

Do not wait or waste your time. You literally have days rather than months to do the majority of your puppy socialization. In studies done by Coppinger in 2001, it was proven that the biggest part of puppy development and the development and connection of nerve cells in a dog’s brain are mostly created between the ages of 3 weeks to 4 months old, and this is the perfect window in which to help your puppy’s brain develop properly and successfully.

Socializing your Puppy Matters!

And finally, I would like to recount for you a study just to show you how very important puppy development and socialization are:

J.P Scott and J.L Fuller’s studies prove how bad the impact can be on a dogs’ life with insufficient socialization as a puppy.

They made a study with a litter of beagle puppies that they kept separated from human interference for the first 12 weeks and then gave these puppies to families with a lot of experience in dog behavior and training.

For the rest of the dogs’ lives, they were unable to conduct normal contact with humans. These dogs were so fearful that they were unable to participate in anything. This highlights the poor consequences of a lack of proper socialization during puppy development.

On the other hand, there was once an example of a dog that had had great early socialization, but that later ended up in a bad situation where he was heavily abused for months before being left to die.

Fortunately, the dog was rescued and after a short period of time he made a complete recovery, including his trust in humans. One of the reasons that this dog recovered so successfully was because of his good socialization as a puppy.

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