Puppy Socialization – Getting Started

Socialization is the process of preparing a puppy to be comfortable with interactions with people, other dogs, other species, and the outside world. Ideally, this should take place during the sensitive period between 3 and 14 weeks of age. This is the period when puppies benefit most from exposure to new or strange stimuli and show a willingness to explore and play with little fear when encountering new people, animals, objects, and experiences. Puppies deprived of these experiences will have a significantly increased risk of developing into adults with fear, aggression, and arousal issues. The idea here is to stop fear before it starts and to raise a well-adjusted, well-mannered dog.

It's Important to Start Early

By three weeks, the puppy’s eyes and ears are well developed. They will readily interact and explore a passive human. They are ready and able to start bonding with people, littermates, and other animals around them and can start recognizing their environment. The importance of starting socialization at this time cannot be overstressed. If socialization is not started until five weeks, puppies may be wary of new people at initial presentation; by seven weeks, they will avoid a passive handler. This makes it especially important to get a puppy that has been raised in a social, family situation rather than a factory-style operation where little to no emphasis is placed on positive early socialization experiences.

By 8-9 weeks of age, puppies have the brainwaves of an adult dog. They are neurologically developed and ready to explore new and unfamiliar social and physical environments. Puppies that are not allowed to do so by 14 weeks of age lose this flexibility and may forever be fearful in new situations. As adults, they may function well within an extremely limited environment but become fearful and reactive (barking, growling, biting) around unfamiliar people, pets, and surroundings.

Socialization Periods – What to Do

3-5 Weeks

Puppies should be raised in an enriched environment providing positive and diverse experiences. This will be done by the puppy raiser (breeder) and is something you will have no control over unless you are on a waiting list and have interviewed the breeder about their socialization techniques ahead of time. Knowing what should be done provides you a framework from which you can ask questions about your future puppy’s early socialization.

Here's what puppies need during this phase:

  • Interaction with members of his own species (mom and litter mates) that are friendly and outgoing. This allows him to learn normal canine behaviors and interactions.
  • Passive exposure to familiar and unfamiliar people so he can learn to investigate on his own terms and solicit attention. Passive means sitting there and allowing the puppy to come to you, not grabbing him and putting your face in his, which might scare him.
  • Providing toys of various shapes and textures to encourage play. Daily exposure to a variety of objects and textures will also encourage fun exploration and early self-confidence.

8-13 Weeks

Puppies are usually adopted out at eight weeks of age. Taking a puppy any earlier than this risks encroaching on the first socialization period and subjects the puppy to a new set of experiences before it is emotionally ready to handle them.

Here are some things to keep in mind during this period:

  • At this age, the puppy will be more mobile and will begin activities outside of the home. Outdoor access should be limited to spaces where unvaccinated animals and wildlife do not go as your puppies’ vaccinations will not be complete at this age. Avoid dogs of unknown temperament or aggressive tendencies that can scare or injure your new puppy.
  • Your puppy will need to learn to travel to new locations and interact with new people and other healthy, vaccinated pets. Providing these experiences early on will allow your puppy to have positive interactions that will build competence and confidence in coping with new situations. Car anxiety and motion sickness should be addressed early before it becomes a learned behavior or lifelong fear. Enriched, new environments and a variety of toys will encourage play. Interactions should be supervised so no one gets overly excited and causes an accidental injury that can induce fear and anxiety.
  • Expose your puppy to diverse groups of people of different genders, ethnicities, and ages. Include people wearing hats, carrying umbrellas, briefcases, and backpacks. Watch closely to be certain he does not show any signs of anxiety or fear. If he does, allow him to retreat, then start again slowly rewarding positive behavior with treats and praise.
  • Provide positive experiences in different types of environments. These might include concrete, metal, tile, carpet, linoleum, and sand floors. Allow him to withdraw when anxious and provide treats to encourage him to remain calm and relaxed.
  • Gradually train your puppy to walk on a leash using treats to encourage him. Walk in safe places before he is fully vaccinated, avoiding parks and other areas where dogs of unknown status may congregate. This should include wooded areas where wild animals may carry diseases such as parvovirus and distemper.
  • Continue working on handling exercises. Place your puppy in positions that allow all parts of his body to be examined. Handle his ears, feet, and mouth to prepare him for ear cleanings, nail trims, and teeth brushing. Never verbally or physically reprimand for non-compliant behavior, but rather use slow, gradual exposure with rewards and praise.

Following these tips will help you get your new puppy off to a healthy start. For more information, download Nutrena's FREE Puppy Guide. It contains this and other really helpful information, and don't forget that our Giddings store is full of all the supplies you need to get your new companion off on the right paw. Stop by today and we'll be glad to take care of you!


NOTE: This post is adapted (with permission) from content proudly brought to you by our partners at Nutrena and Cargill Animal Nutrition. The original article appears here.

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