Never underestimate a puppy’s ability to learn. Between three weeks and sixteen weeks of age, puppies go through what’s called the “critical socialization period.” As a trainer, I’ve worked with many puppies, and these are the key tips I offer to dog owners in terms of how to socialize a puppy.
How to socialize a puppy: early socialization
Whether you know it or not, you started training your puppy the moment you brought them home. Since pups are rarely taken from their mothers before 6 weeks (and more often, not before 8 weeks), their training, in fact, began before you even met.
As a puppy parent, your number one most important job is exposing them to as many new people and new dogs as you can during this critical period of time, and to do so in a manner that doesn’t create any fearful situations for your new best friend.
By the time your puppy is weaned and home with you, your sponge window has shrunk to less than two months! That’s not much time to prepare your little friend for the big world.
Creating positive experiences
Most people interpret socialization to mean teaching a dog good interactions with other dogs or humans. And while these are the essential tools to nurturing a well-adjusted dog, proper socialization also means introducing young puppies in a safe and positive way to all of the possible sights and sounds that will be part of their world.
For city dwellers (or anyone anticipating regular visits to a city during the 12+ years of their dogs life), this may include busy streets and car noise, loud buses and skateboarders.
For travelers, car rides (and a crate), bodies of water, and escalators are important.
For families living in more rural environments, farm animals and loud machinery may make the cut. And don’t forget children of all ages, disabled people whose canes or wheelchairs can form a frightening picture, men—particularly those wearing hats, hoods, or sunglasses.
Introduce new situations gently and positively
The key is not to overwhelm your puppy upon first introduction. It’s natural for a puppy to be frightened the first time they experience something new. They may show this fear by shaking, whining, tucking their tail, yawning, lip licking or trying to hide or run away.
Be sure to keep the experience as pleasant as possible by talking to your dog through it and rewarding them with tiny tidbits of delicious food. If your dog is concerned, move farther away from the object of socialization or to a less intense version of it (for example, try a less busy street if a main drag is too noisy for your pup on your first try).
If your dog isn’t fully vaccinated yet, be careful of group dog situations. However, most puppies can be easily carried in a bag or simply in your arms. In public places, your puppy can join you as long as you put a blanket or towel on the ground first. Keep puppy on leash so they don’t go beyond the boundaries of the blanket.
The other socialization must for puppies is the Puppy Social. These puppy classes are designed for puppies to learn how to interact with other puppies in a safe, friendly environment. Because all puppies are at the same vaccination levels, most puppy socials allow pups to play right after their 2nd round of shots (typically around 10 to 12 weeks of age).
At a social puppy training class, your pup will learn good social skills. If you have the luxury of choosing between different puppy social options, you should always pick one that is run by a certified pet dog trainer who can help your puppy to build healthy play skills, protect them from negative experiences, and teach you how to do the same.
Your puppy can also interact with the adult dogs of friends and family members as long as you know they are fully vaccinated.
Always supervise these meet and greets closely. If the adult dog becomes annoyed or overpowers the puppy too much, give them a break. Many older dogs are not patient with puppies, so they count on you to show them the way.
Your guide to puppy socialization: the takeaway
For this 3-month period of their lives, puppies are knowledge sponges, soaking up information about the world as fast as it is presented to them.
You’re able to influence your puppy’s life and temperament (though of course, not change it completely) for years to come with proper socialization. Take the time to introduce your puppy to plenty of new experiences, dogs, and people, and make those experiences positive.
You’re laying the foundation for a long and happy life together. There’s nothing better!