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Puppy Socialization

Bringing home a new puppy is incredibly exciting – and a lot of work! It’s important to have a plan in place for how you will raise them, so it’s best to start your research before you even take your new addition home. While dogs learn and make new associations throughout their lives, the critical period for socialization narrows at 12 weeks old and ends sometime between 12 and 18 weeks of age. Since puppies generally do not go to their new homes until they are 8 weeks old (or older), it is important for families to start their socialization plan from the moment the puppy arrives. 

Puppy Socialization 101


Vaccinations and Disease-risk During Early Socialization

Per the recommendation of the American Veterinary Medical Association, puppies who have had at least one vaccination and continue to follow an age-appropriate vaccination schedule can safely attend puppy classes and have other safe socialization experiences. We do not recommend that puppy owners wait until their vaccination schedule is fully complete before beginning socialization. The minimal risk of infection is far less concerning than the massive risk of your puppy developing serious behavior concerns due to a lack of socialization. 

The Complexity of Socialization

Many people think that socialization is as simple as exposing their puppies to as many new dogs and people as they can during puppyhood. It is, unfortunately, not that simple. Appropriate socialization requires careful structure and support so that your puppy does not become overwhelmed or afraid. During this sensitive time, puppies are as vulnerable to negative experiences as they are to positive ones. It is also important that you not just socialize your puppy to people and dogs, but also to sights, sounds, textures, and different types of handling. As you are developing your puppy socialization plan, it will be important to be aware of their body language so that you can be sure to support them most effectively. See our canine body language resource for more information. 

Quality vs. Quantity

While it is absolutely important that your puppy has a lot of socialization experiences, it is far more important that they are quality experiences, rather than focusing strictly on the quantity. If you expose your puppy to children and those children frighten and overwhelm them, your puppy is not being socialized to children. Rather, they are learning that children are frightening and overwhelming. Instead, your puppy would benefit from meeting one quiet, polite child at a time who they can greet and approach on their own terms, rather than that child approaching them. Be sure to be thoughtful about how you are going to set your puppy up for success with each new experience. In the beginning, be sure that the experiences are quiet and relaxed, and that you maintain distance from whatever it is that you are exposing them to. If they are successful, you can progress to a more complex interaction. 

Goal Setting

It is important to consider what your goals are for your puppy when creating your socialization plan. There are a few things that they will experience in everyday life, such as going to the vet, interacting with visitors entering your home, going for car rides, etc. These are things that you will have to practice with your puppy. Depending on your lifestyle and environment, there may be goals that are necessary to set outside of that, too. Do you want your puppy to go camping with you? Ride in a canoe or kayak? Accompany you to a beer garden? Join you for picnics? Attend your child’s softball games? It is important to consider all of your goals for your puppy and plan to work with them in all of the spaces that you want them to be successful in as adults. 

When you consider your socialization plan, be sure to work on acclimating your puppy to sounds, sights, spaces, objects, people, dogs, and other animals as separate projects. If you start with the “full picture” all at once, you risk overwhelming your puppy. Instead, break down each experience into their separate pieces. 

EXAMPLE: You have the goal of taking your puppy on family picnics in the summertime. Rather than taking your young dog to their first picnic and being frustrated when they pull on leash, jump on the table, bark at passing people, and are unable to settle, consider all of the skills that they will need to be successful and practice them separately. Go to your local park when there are no people and dogs around and let them sniff, explore, and acclimate to the space. Bring along a filled Kong and a blanket and sit under a tree with your puppy. Let them work on the Kong (which promotes relaxation and helps to build positive associations) and when they finish, take them home. Then create separate training plans to teach them manners around food, not jumping, loose-leash walking, and settling in the presence of people and other dogs. 

The Role of Food

Food consumption promotes relaxation and can be used to help your puppy build positive associations with novel experiences. You should always bring a treat pouch full of high-value food with you when you take your puppy out into the world. You can offer your puppy a treat when they have new experiences to make that stimuli even more positive and impactful. Be sure to allow your puppy to acknowledge the sights, sounds, etc. that they are experiencing before you begin to feed them. Feed them a few treats and then pause. What does your puppy do? If they are showing relaxed body language, continue walking past that thing. If they are showing signs of stress, move a few feet further away and offer them a few more pieces of food. If your puppy is interested in investigating a safe, stationary object, allow them to do so, moving closer or further away as they choose. 

Socialization to Sounds

There are many sounds that are important to socialize your puppy to. Some that we would suggest would be the sound of thunderstorms, loud traffic, motorcycles, fireworks, children playing, people talking loudly, dogs barking, vacuums, construction, knocking, your doorbell, and any other sound that you can think of that your puppy may need to be comfortable with. The idea is to work daily to teach them that novel sounds are merely background noise and to feel relaxed when they hear them. 

You can find sound clips on YouTube and save them to an album for this training. You can also download the Sound Proof Puppy App on your phone for this work. In the beginning, be sure to have high-value treats, such as small pieces of cheese or hot dogs. Play the sound at the quietest volume possible and feed your puppy constantly. When the sound stops, the food should stop. If your puppy cannot eat, that means they are too stressed or the food is not incentivizing enough. Try a higher-value reinforcer or play the sound at a quieter volume. In the beginning, this session should be less than a minute long, but can be practiced multiple times per day. Do not progress unless your puppy is showing relaxed body language (Refer again to our resource on dog body language.) 

If your puppy is relaxed and interested in the food, you can start to progress with these exercises. Begin to play the sound for longer periods of time at higher volumes; this should be a slow progression. If, at any point, your puppy begins to show signs of stress and fear, the volume needs to be set to a quieter level and the sessions need to be shorter. You can have the goal of eventually playing these sounds while your puppy works on a filled Kong or eats their meals. These sessions should be short and highly reinforcing for your puppy. Ideally, this should be practiced at least once per day. 

Socialization to Sights/Spaces 

As discussed, when acclimating your puppy to your local park, if you have the goal of taking your puppy to picnics, you will need to give your puppy the opportunity to experience the spaces that you want them to be successful in without the pressure of interacting with people or other animals. Several times per week, take your puppy to a new space to explore. This might be the parking lot of your veterinarian, local pet store, a family member’s house, your local park, the building that you intend to take training classes in, or other dog-friendly stores. 

The first time that you visit these spaces, politely ask people to give your puppy space so that they can investigate the environment without the added pressure of social interactions. You can find a variety of dog vests, harnesses, leashes, or bandanas that simply say “in training” which may help. As your puppy is exploring the space, you can periodically offer them a high-value treat, especially if they choose to interact with something particularly challenging or new. If your puppy is fearful, you will need to move further away from that space, person, animal, or object. If your puppy is still showing signs of fear and stress after increasing distance, you should leave and attempt to revisit the space a different day at a much further distance and at a slower pace. 

Regardless of your puppy’s response, this is not the time to ask them for behaviors such as “sit” or “down.” The goal is to teach your puppy to feel relaxed and confident in the presence of new things, so avoid the temptation to guide their behavior. Rather, allow them the opportunity to absorb their environment and access reinforcement, and focus on cued behaviors in novel environments later in the process. Once your puppy can confidently enter new spaces consistently, you can begin to also ask for directed behaviors. 

Socialization to Objects/Surfaces

Everything that your puppy is interacting with is novel and strange, and they will need support to learn to be physically confident. Each day, give your puppy the opportunity to explore new objects and surfaces in a positive way. One example: put your puppy in another room, lay the broom and vacuum flat on the ground (so that there is no risk of it falling on them), scatter treats or kibble all around them, let your puppy into the room, and stand back. Let your puppy decide how close they choose to get to the object without any social pressure. For puppies who readily and enthusiastically eat their kibble, this is a great way to provide enrichment while you feed their meals. Every day, place different objects on the floor and scatter their meal around it. These objects could be a sturdy step stool that will not tip, a ladder flat on the ground, a plastic tarp, a tunnel, a cardboard box, pots and pans, or any other novel, safe object that you can think of. The goal will be for your puppy to see new objects as an opportunity for reinforcement rather than something to be concerned about. 

Socialization to People 

Your approach to socialization with people will be dependent on your individual puppy. If your puppy tends to show more fearful behaviors in new environments and with new people, it will be important to direct people to give your puppy space. They can toss your puppy treats from a few feet away (they should not hand them to your puppy) and not pet your puppy unless the pup approaches and actively solicits attention by climbing into their laps or nudging their hands. Keep in mind that many fearful puppies may approach to tentatively sniff and gather information; if they inch closer but maintain a stretched-out body posture and do not nudge the person for petting, the human should not reach out their hand to pet the puppy. 

If your puppy is exuberant and very excited to interact with people, you will have a slightly different approach. Remember, although your puppy garners a lot of attention at this age, fewer people will be interested in interacting with them as they mature and grow larger. It is important that you not build the expectation that your dog will interact with every person they see. You should regularly and politely tell people who approach, “sorry, we’re training,” and not allow them to pet your puppy. While they pass by, you should drop high-value treats on the ground. This way, your puppy will learn that whenever people pass by, there is a reason to give you attention rather than becoming frustrated about the lack of opportunity to greet everyone they see. 

When you do allow your puppy to greet people, be sure to stop them before they fully approach and let the person know what you will need them to do. Ask them to crouch down so that your puppy can access them without having to jump up. If they do jump up, the person should calmly stand up and walk away. You can make keeping their feet on the ground even more attractive by intermittently scattering treats on the ground for your puppy as they interact with the person. 

Socialization to Dogs

As with all aspects of socialization, it will be important to work slowly and thoughtfully in the beginning with your puppy. Overwhelming them with boisterous dogs (or groups of dogs) will not be beneficial. Instead, be sure that the first few dogs they meet are social, stable, and not overly exuberant. If the first few introductions with dogs go well, you can begin to expose your puppy to a wider array of energy levels. Be sure that your puppy meets a lot of different types of dogs, too (i.e. very small, very large, coated, smooth-haired, etc.). See our resource on dog-to-dog introductions for more information on appropriately introducing dogs to each other. 

Meeting a dog does not necessarily mean that they physically interact with them. For some interactions, seeing the dog at a distance while the puppy eats treats will be the most appropriate way for your pup to learn about them. The dog park is NOT an appropriate place to take your young puppy. In this environment, they may become overwhelmed, injured, or learn inappropriate play styles. In general, it is not recommended that puppies greet unknown dogs on leash. Instead, politely avoid unknown dogs on leash while you feed your puppy high-value treats. 

While play is wonderful, the goal of socializing your puppy does not need to be that they actively play with other dogs in all circumstances. Socialization with other dogs should include seeing dogs at a distance that you do not greet, passing by dogs who you do not greet, calmly sharing space with dogs, and generally being non-reactive to dogs. 

Socialization to Other Animals

If your dog will be interacting with animals other than dogs, it will be important to acclimate them to those animals, as well. Even if they will not be routinely around them, take advantage of any opportunity you can to have your puppy experience sharing space with other animals while they are young. If you have friends with larger animals on farms, ask them if you can bring your puppy, stay several feet outside of the fence line, and feed your puppy treats. You can do the same with cats, chickens, rabbits, etc. Help your puppy understand that when they see other animals, they should stay relaxed and look to you for direction and reinforcement. 

A Note About Fear Behaviors

If you are seeing significant fear behaviors in your dog (including but not limited to barking, growling, lunging, resource guarding, running, and hiding in fear) you will need to seek out a higher level of support in the form of a force-free professional trainer. It is normal for puppies to be afraid of things here and there – that’s a part of learning and development. If you notice that your puppy is consistently fearful or reactive, however, seek out support immediately. If you are uncertain about whether or not you and your puppy need additional support, you can reach out to the Wisconsin Humane Society Behavior Tip Line at 414-431-6173. 

After 16 Weeks

Though your puppy’s socialization period technically ends after 16 weeks, your work is not done. Your puppy will reach physical maturity between 12 and 18 months, but will not reach emotional maturity until they are between 2 and 4 years of age. They will still need thoughtful, supportive opportunities to interact with people, animals, places, and spaces well into adulthood or the behaviors that you have worked so hard to develop will disappear. 

Additional Resources:


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Dos and Don'ts when Socializing

Do remember that socialization includes safe, positive, and careful exposure to novel sights, sounds, surfaces, handling, people, and other animals.  

Do start slow. Introduce them to one polite child in a space that is quiet and calm. Introduce them to one polite, social dog who will not overwhelm them. Take them to the parking lot of the pet store during a quiet time and feed them treats in the car, then take them home. If, at each level, they are comfortable and successful, you can increase the amount of stimulation that you are asking them to cope with. 

Do support your puppy when they are nervous. There is no need to panic, but you can absolutely comfort them, feed them treats, and remove them from the situation that is making them nervous. 

Do make your puppy your priority. During this critical period, your puppy (and their comfort) should be your focus when you are out in the world with them. Unable to focus on your puppy? No problem, just leave them home for that particular outing.  

Do set expectations. Before you allow novel people to interact with your puppy, communicate exactly what you expect of them. Is your puppy nervous of new people? Be sure that they understand that their job is to toss treats and that they may not attempt to pet your puppy. Is your puppy incredibly exuberant? Let them know that if they jump on them to calmly stop petting, turn their back, and wait for further instruction.  

Do introduce novelty. Lay your broom, vacuum, an umbrella, a baking sheet, or other safe household items on the floor in your home and scatter food all around them. Step back and let your puppy explore at their own pace. It is important to teach our puppies that they have the ability to interact safely with new items and that we will not force them. The same approach can be taken with the scale at the vet clinic, sets of stairs, and other objects that our young, uncoordinated puppies can safely engage with.  

Don’t use your leash to hold your puppy in place or hold them in your arms to let people pet them. It is incredibly important that your puppy have the option to NOT engage with people if they choose to.  

Don’t let people hand treats directly to your puppy if they are nervous (tossing treats from a distance is fine!). 

Don’t pull your puppy towards or carry them up to a person, dog, space, or object that they are nervous of.  

Don’t force handling on your puppy. If your puppy is struggling or nervous when you touch their feet, ears, faces, or any other body part, it is a sign that you need to move more slowly. Try spreading cream cheese or peanut butter on a spoon. While one family member holds the spoon (as long as your puppy is licking the spoon) you can gently and slowly begin to acclimate your puppy to physical handling.  

Don’t take your puppy out for a full day of adventures without breaks. Puppies tire easily and we have to be careful not to overwhelm them. Be sure that their socialization adventures are broken up with crate breaks, the opportunity to chew, and time to nap and rest.  

Don’t wait! Make the most of the early months and be sure to give your puppy at least three novel experiences every day. These can be easy, quick sessions (i.e. play a thunderstorm recording at a very low volume while feeding your puppy treats, have one visitor come over to interact with your puppy and walk them in one new space and allow them to sniff and explore).  

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