How to Socialize a Puppy
Everything you need to know to get your puppy off to a good start.
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There is no disputing the fact that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves a puppy’s odds of growing into a balanced, confident dog. Socialization as a concept is often misunderstood, and that confusion gets in the way of starting puppies off right. Here’s what you need to know to properly socialize your new puppy.
What’s the best age to socialize a puppy?
The most effective socialization period for puppies takes place between weeks 3 and 12 of the puppy’s life; then, it slams shut. Given that the last combination vaccine (against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza, and coronavirus) is usually administered when a puppy is 16 weeks old, it’s also the start of a dilemma on when a puppy can be around other dogs.
Some veterinarians, shelters, and breeders advise new pet parents to wait until after a puppy has had their final set of vaccinations to allow them to interact with others. Unfortunately, by that time, the socialization period has ended, precluding the pup’s best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills. So, what’s a pet parent to do? Let’s look at the research.
The Risk vs. Reward of Puppy Socials
A study conducted by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, looked at the risks to partially vaccinated puppies of contracting parvo at indoor puppy socialization sessions (socials). The results were reassuring.
It seems that puppies who have had only their first set of shots are at no greater risk of being infected with parvovirus than those not attending socials. During the study, it was reported that none of the 15 puppies who contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials, and that none of the puppies who attended puppy classes contracted parvovirus.
This dovetails perfectly with the standard of care suggested by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally recommends pet parents should begin socialization classes for puppies as early as seven to eight weeks of age, and seven days after the first set of vaccines. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA, and other dog health and behavior experts concur.
As the ASVAB statement reads, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time, puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal, or avoidance behavior.”
It is important to note that structured puppy socials run by a variety of training and daycare facilities and other pet-related businesses take place indoors on non-porous surfaces, and “accidents” are cleaned up immediately with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as dirt, sand, and, in particular, those found at dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination.
People unaware of puppy socials are more likely to take puppies to places they should not be until they’re fully vaccinated, which includes dog parks, beaches, and other settings with porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.
Understanding How Puppies Develop
Why is the window of opportunity so small? At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human counterparts. For example, puppies walk beautifully at three weeks, but it takes human babies about a year to reach that milestone. This acceleration affects cognitive function in dogs, which develops rapidly during the short socialization period; it’s during this time that a puppy’s framework for future social functioning evolves. A strong foundation built from a rich set of early experiences gives the puppy more context in which to evaluate and react to future stimuli in the environment, including people and other dogs.
The most important socialization period of puppies — the time during which they readily incorporate new experiences into the developing worldviews that directly affect lifelong behavior — lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Let’s break it down:
Puppy socialization 3 – 7 weeks
Puppies go through primary socialization during the first three to seven weeks with the puppy’s littermates, where they learn the ins and outs of being a dog — like bite inhibition — from their mother and siblings. How they interact with humans during this period is important too. Puppies that regularly interact and are handled during the first seven weeks will grow to be more stable, handle stress better, be more curious, and learn faster than other pups.
Because most puppies (but not all) remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (a whole other topic), this means that new pet parents have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunities to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.
Puppy socialization 8 – 12 weeks
Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period.” During those 28 days, a puppy’s brain is like a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. This is, without question, the most profoundly important period in a dog’s life. Their brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than during any subsequent period, and they learn not only to accept being around people and other dogs, but also, to enjoy and seek out these experiences.
While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s capacity to learn social skills is similar to a young child’s capacity to learn languages. Studies have shown that children younger than seven easily pick up new languages because their brains are capable of readily incorporating the sounds, words, grammar, and structure of multiple languages.
Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. A six-year-old child who spends a year in a Mandarin immersion class will come out fluent in the language. If an adult were to attend the same class, they would likely still be struggling with the basics. While their Mandarin would improve over time as they became more familiar and comfortable with the language, but they would never be as fluent as a child introduced at an early age. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it takes a great deal more time and effort and has a lower chance of success.
Puppy socials do not guarantee that a dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life; genetics, in-utero experiences, early nutrition, and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles.
Socializing Your Puppy
It goes without saying that your puppy needs to be socialized to the environment in which they will be living. Over 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, surrounded by many other people and dogs, which means socializing a puppy and exposing them to an array of experiences gives them a better chance at a good life.
Attending Puppy Socials
Attending puppy socialization classes allows puppies to learn and practice social skills. They’ll gain the skills needed to communicate, interact, play and read the body language of other dogs.
For some puppies, the sights and sounds may be initially overwhelming. Sometimes, a timid puppy will hang back for the first few events and then become a social butterfly. At their first puppy social, they may hang out under your chair and observe the other puppies playing. You do not need to coddle, overprotect, or force them to engage. By the second social, they may venture out, playing for a few minutes, then retreating to their safe place under your chair. By the third social, they may be actively seeking out playmates and practicing adult communication behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of these events.
A word of caution here: if you have a shy and fearful puppy and only take them to the first puppy social (during which they sit overwhelmed and frightened under the chair), it almost certainly will backfire. They may only learn that being around other dogs is an unpleasant experience to be avoided.
Introduction to a Variety of People
In addition to socials, a widely accepted goal is for a puppy to “meet” 100 people during these same four weeks: babies, children, elderly folks, men and women of all races, sizes and shapes, dressed in all sorts of clothing and carrying all kinds of implements — umbrellas, canes, plastic bags, etc. This socialization should be done at their pace, in a way that isn’t overwhelming, allows them to get ample rest, and is not overly fearful.
Stick to Positive Experiences
While puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets are important, they must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming, and not too scary. As your pup’s guardian, you need to shield them from overtly frightening situations (being pursued by an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance), but you must also allow them to jump into the rollicking puppy mayhem at their own pace.
If a dog has negative experiences with something (like other people or dogs) early on, they may learn not to be comfortable and social with people or other dogs but, instead, be nervous or afraid around them. For example, bringing a puppy to a large crowded place the day after being adopted is potentially damaging and not recommended. It’s much better to meet people one or two at a time and have those people provide treats, toys, and gentle touching in a calm setting. Exposure to people and other dogs that result in positive experiences for the puppy provides proper socialization. Being frightened and overwhelmed does not.
Here are a few other tips to help you socialize your puppy:
Sit with your puppy outside and watch as friends or neighbors do their daily activities.
Have friends wear different hats, sunglasses, and odd clothing, allowing your puppy to practice interactions.
Expose your puppy to things such as shovels, rakes, skateboards, bikes, and things with different textures and sounds, etc.
Take your puppy for car rides.
Go to a grocery store and sit in the parking lot, giving treats as your puppy watches people walk around outside.
Let your puppy walk over, under, and around various obstacles with varied textures.
Puppy socials are just one part of a well-thought-out socialization plan, but they form the plan’s cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations have been given. In part because the safety and benefits of early socialization are well documented, most urban and suburban areas of the country now have access to indoor puppy socials that require just the first set of shots. This bodes well for the heath and well-being of future generations of our best friends.
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Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., owns Better Nature Dog Training and works with clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.