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Socializing Your Puppy

A yellow labrador puppy looking up at a person.

If you are a dog parent, you have most likely heard the term “socialization.” But not everyone understands how important it is or how to do it effectively. Many dog owners automatically think it means socializing their puppy with other dogs, but it is so much more than that. Understanding the importance of socialization and how it is done correctly can mean a much better life for you and your pet.

What is Socialization?

Simply put, socializing your puppy means helping her develop positive associations with various people, places, and things in her environment. When done consistently and properly, socialization will result in a confident dog versus a dog who becomes fearful of various people and things in her environment. Over time, a fearful dog will often resort to aggressive behavior to make that scary thing go away. A confident dog will be comfortable in a variety of environments and that means others will tend to be comfortable around the dog as well. That’s a win-win!

Why is Socialization Important?

Socialization is crucial to a puppy’s growth and development and could potentially save her life in the long run. It has been stated that lack of socialization results in the death of more dogs than all physical illnesses combined. As previously stated, dogs who are not properly socialized as puppies will become fearful of many things in their environment. Resorting to aggressive behaviors is an unfortunate common response, and this is often when a dog is given up or euthanized.

When do you Socialize your Puppy?

Socializing your puppy starts with a reputable breeder. Be sure to ask the breeder about whether they will socialize the puppy and how. If it’s not a priority for the breeder, look elsewhere. The puppy should start being exposed to visitors, both human and non-human, as well as a variety of objects, sounds, smells, etc. prior to your bringing them home between the ages of 8 to 10 weeks (and research shows that no, you don’t want to work with a breeder who will release the dog before 8 weeks.) The rest is up to you.

The crucial window for socialization will close at roughly 16 weeks. This does not mean you should stop doing it at that point. Rather, you should make it a top priority during the open window.

How do you Socialize your Puppy?

If you are like me, you like checklists and organization. This results in data that can be tracked. Having a list will help you understand what is important and keep you on track. One useful tool is Dr. Sophia Yin’s socialization checklist. You can download the free checklist via this link.

Each day, make it a point to expose your pup to several items on the sheet. This means making it a positive experience for your puppy. So, you will be giving them high-value treats (your dog will decide what this means) or having them engage in something fun while being exposed to that person or thing. Think about your neighbor popping over to do something with your puppy that she really loves, like throwing the ball for her if that’s what she really likes. Or you give her high-value treats while you work on handling her paws. If at any time your dog stops taking treats or expresses any sign of stress, stop the activity. Signs of stress can be very subtle, so for more information on this see my blog on Dog Body Language. Think about what may have made your dog stressed. Did the person have too loud of a voice? Was the session too long? You may need to adjust something in the future. For example, you may have that person lower their voice, stay at a further distance at first, or use higher-value treats. You may need to figure that out. But the important thing is to pay attention to your dog. If your dog is stressed, take a break from the activity. That means it’s too much for your pup, and you don’t want it to backfire on you.

Why should you socialize your puppy?

  1. You will have a more confident and happier dog. And this means you will enjoy taking your dog into a number of environments in a safe and secure manner because the dog will feel comfortable (and so will you!)
  2. Relationship Building – Your dog will feel secure knowing that if they are ever in a stressful situation, you will get them out of it. This will strengthen your relationship with the dog. Also, as the dog will be more secure, you’ll be able to take them to more places and spend more time with them.
  3. Easier Training – Your dog will be more focused on you in training and in general as they will be less distracted/concerned by stimuli in the environment.

After years of volunteering in various shelters around the country, I have seen too many examples of what happens when dogs are not properly socialized. This is one reason why I teach volunteers and my clients about dog body language. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Taking the time now to socialize your pup will be worth its weight in gold. If your dog is experiencing behavior issues, please consult with a trainer or behaviorist who uses positive methods to address the behavior. Your dog will thank you for it.