Few topics are met with more controversy in dog training than that of socialization. Despite its importance, it is difficult to find a dog trainer or behaviorist who will give you completely similar advice about how to go about socializing your puppy. This article takes a look at the many different ideas behind socialization and why it is so important for puppies.

Socializing refers to introducing your new puppy to all sorts of different people, animals, sights, sounds, vehicles and environments while he still has his mother’s guidance and pack support. Socializing helps build confidence in your dog by exposing him to lots of positive experiences early on in life which means he will be less likely to develop fears later on that may cause him problems. For example, a puppy who is not socialized will never be comfortable around other dogs and may become dog-reactive or withdrawn from the world.

Prevention is better than cure, so take action before problems develop rather than trying to fix them after they have appeared. A well socialized pup is less likely to show fear-related behavior such as shyness, fears of certain objects, places or situations and aggression later on in life. Socialization also exposes your pet to many different stimuli during the sensitive ‘fear imprint period’ between seven and twelve weeks when he learns about appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with fearful or unfamiliar experiences (Zimen).

When it comes to raising a well adjusted canine companion, there are three main components: training , teaching , and socializing . All three are equally important but many owners find the topic of socialization particularly difficult to grasp, probably because it raises so many questions.

Here are some common statements I have heard from owners who are struggling to figure out how they should be going about the socialization process with their new puppies.

“My breeder said not to take my puppy anywhere until he has had all his vaccinations at twelve weeks old.” “I read that I should never leave my dog with other dogs when he is alone for the first year of his life.” “Until my dog is one year old, I shouldn’t take him any place where there are a lot of distractions or things happening, like busy streets or children running around.”

Truthfully, these statements and the many like them I have heard from owners over the years are not accurate descriptions of how to socialize a puppy. The better way to think about it is that there are certain steps you can take at specific times in your new puppy’s life (before 12 weeks, between 12-16 weeks and after 16 weeks), which will allow you to safely introduce your pup to as many positive experiences as possible.

Before Your Puppy Is 12 Weeks Old

This first part of your puppy’s socialization period has been called the ‘sensitive fear imprint period’ by behaviorists and trainers and it occurs very early on in a dog’s life. Basically, this means that we need to ensure our pups experience only positive things during this time so they can learn that new things are safe.

Early socialization is easiest and safest when it involves the pup’s mother and littermates. In nature, a puppy would stay close to his mom and siblings until he was about seven or eight weeks old (Zimen), at which point he would begin to explore on his own away from them. During this stage with her pups, a mother dog will limit negative experiences by teaching puppies what they should be afraid of through her actions rather than words. For example, she will nudge a pup who tries to explore something out of their comfort level, move them away from potential danger before they even realize anything is amiss and remove them from situations which make them uncomfortable.

When we take a puppy away from his mom and littermates before he is truly ready to be by himself, we risk taking away all of the great things they learn from their mother at this crucial time. We also take away the opportunity for pups to develop important life skills like bite inhibition (when a pup learns how hard it is okay to bite since his sharp little teeth can actually do damage) and learning about canine communication (which will help him understand body language and other signals in future interactions with other dogs).

As this sensitive fear imprint period ends around seven to twelve weeks old, your pup will begin exploring off on his own more often at which point you should introduce him to ‘toddler safe’ places (places that are not too overwhelming), such as a backyard or familiar park. In these places, you should provide your pup with as much control as possible so he learns to trust his instincts and has time to approach new things at his own pace rather than being forced into positions that may not be comfortable for him.

If you have friends who have friendly, well mannered dogs, consider asking them if you can take your pup to their house a few times where the pups can play together. If you do this before 16 weeks of age it is unlikely that your pup will view another dog as competition (we process images by looking for differences), meaning he will most likely just see another puppy to play with! As adults, having fun playing is an important part of socialization since it is often easier to learn from one’s mistakes and have fun at the same time than it is to learn something important while being stressed.

After Your Puppy Is 12-16 Weeks Old

During this second stage, your pup will become more interested in exploring the world around him as he gains confidence and learns how to read canine social signals. This means it is time for you to begin taking your puppy to ‘socialization safe’ places that are full of different sights, sounds and experiences! Though every dog may differ a bit, there are some things most pups will enjoy during these weeks. For example, puppies generally love going on play dates with other friendly dogs who know how to politely greet others (meaning their owner has taught them how to do so properly). These dogs tend to be more stable and better at reading canine communication, making them excellent playmates for canines.

Another great option is visiting a dog friendly beach or park where your pup can run around and play with other dogs while you watch and learn how he interacts with others. Dog parks should generally not be used before 16 weeks since there are often unknown dogs present which, depending on their behavior, may cause problems in the future. If you do wish to visit a dog park during this time, make sure all of your pups play by the rules (no bullying/rough housing) and try to avoid taking young pups until they have been vaccinated against kennel cough, distemper and parvo virus.

Though play dates are a great way for dogs to socialize with other dogs, young puppies should be watched carefully by their guardians since dogs do not always ‘play nice’. If you notice any potential issues or problems, take your pup away from the situation. Furthermore, even friendly dogs may have trouble getting along with pups who lack proper play skills so find a friend who is willing to help teach your pup how to play!

A few rules of thumb when it comes to meeting new people and/or pups during this time include:

– Dogs are usually more comfortable in quiet places where there are no big distractions. Keep outings short when in busy areas with lots of activity until you know how your dog responds around new sights and sounds.

– Don’t force your dog to interact with people or dogs he seems uncomfortable around. Instead, find a friend who is willing to help teach him how to be more confident around strange people and pups.

– Watch the body language of the dogs you are playing with and make sure that they seem comfortable around your pup, too. If a dog looks stressed out, leave the situation immediately.

16 Weeks – 7 Months Of Age – The Fear Imprint Period

Though socialization is typically something most puppies enjoy almost from birth, it does not mean all dogs will remain as such throughout their lives! A period called the fear imprint period which occurs from roughly 12 weeks to 7-8 months of determines whether or not a puppy will be friendly or wary/fearful of strange people and pups moving forward.

During the fear imprint period, your puppy will begin to form lasting opinions about certain things so it is important to expose him to a variety of different types of people (age, race, size) and other pups at this age so he does not develop any fears later on. Note that it is better to err on the side of caution during this time since if your pup becomes afraid of another dog, person or thing for whatever reason, there is little you can do after 7 months has passed! The best option at this point is to use desensitization techniques where you gradually get your pup used to something he scary by slowly exposing him to it over time.

– Avoid allowing your pup to meet any dogs or people he is fearful of until both the other party and yourself have proper training since you will need to help keep your pet relaxed during the introduction process. If your dog becomes aggressive with others, it can be very difficult to change such behavior so take extra care when exposing him to new people and pups!

– Play sessions should also be short when introducing new types of surfaces (carpet, tile, cement etc.), objects (plastic bags, umbrellas) and areas that seem strange or intimidating in some way. You will want to increase play time and exposure with these things slowly over time so that they eventually lose their scariness. 8 Months And Up – The Maturing Period

Pups who reach 8 months of age and older are considered mature enough for most types of pet socialization. Though they may not be ready to play with just any person or dog, this is the age when many pups will happily meet new people and pups without their guardians having to help keep them calm. They can be allowed to run around off leash in wide open spaces where it is unlikely anything scary will happen (note that your pup will probably still be cautious at first but should relax soon after). If you notice your puppy acting excitedly/anxiously, use verbal cues like ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ until he calms down before continuing onward. Remember that only because a dog seems okay with other beings does not necessarily mean he is! Watch him closely and make sure he is relaxed.

– By this point, you should have a good idea of what types of things your dog likes or dislikes so make sure to take him to places where such things are available (parks with grass and trees vs. cement and tennis courts for example) and do not leave until you notice him starting to tire out. Remember that playing too long can lead to overly worn out pups who might be less willing to explore new things later on in life!

– Again, try not to force your pup into meeting dogs/people if they seem nervous around them at first since it will just create more anxiety which could potentially lead to aggression problems in the future. At this age, most pups will happily meet new friends after their initial excitement dies down though you should keep an eye on them just in case!

– Playtime should also be kept to a minimum with overly young pups since playing too much when they are very young can lead to burnout later in life. You want your pup to last as long as possible before getting tired out so save the longer sessions for when she is older (generally around 9+ months) where she will likely play until too exhausted make make sudden movements or reactions. The Hard Work Begins Now That Your Dog Is An Adult

Adult dogs who never received proper socialization during the fear imprint period may act fearful/shy of everyone and everything moving forward – including you! – and will require very gradual training to get them over their fears. If your dog is acting fearful, she should be handled with a lot of care until she gets used to you since it can easily lead to aggressive behavior down the road if not followed up with proper socialization.

– When trying to help your dog overcome her fears, avoid using force or yelling as this will only stress her out more which could lead to her biting you. Instead, try keeping a toy in one hand and rewarding any attempts at friendliness while also keeping an eye on other dogs/humans around so that your pup does not become too anxious.

– The best way to deal with aggression problems is through appropriate reinforcement of positive behaviors (using treats for example) and avoidance of negative environments/behaviors where such things occur. If your dog barks, lunges or growls at another dog or person, you should keep her on a leash and away from them until she relaxes so that they do not become more excited than they already are.

– Most dogs will likely never be perfectly socialized but it is still possible to help things along by introducing the right types of stimuli early on in life (see earlier sections). Dogs with true fears may take longer than others though this again is something you should discuss with your vet and/or use professional help for if necessary.

– Always remember that there are no set guidelines for raising a perfect pup – only general advice!