Whether you have a new puppy or a fully grown adult dog, socializing them to people, animals, and places is important for their behavioral health. It's never too early to start if you approach the process carefully and positively. Research has found that far too many dog owners fail to provide their puppies with proper socialization which can lead to a lifetime of behavior problems.
What Is Socialization?
Socialization involves acclimating your dog to "everyday things" so the world isn't a fearful place. This means helping them to feel comfortable around other people and other animals as well as around strange noises and objects. A dog that is properly socialized can handle new situations with ease, whereas an under-socialized dog will be fearful meeting new people or pets, or terrified at familiar noises like a truck rumbling by on your street.
Why Socialization Is Critical
Dogs that are frightened of people, animals or situations can develop serious behavioral issues like fear, anxiety, and aggression. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior states that "early and adequate socialization can go a long way to preventing behavior problems and improving bonding between humans and dogs." Even if you have an unsocialized dog ends up with mild behavioral problems such as shyness, it's unfair to a dog to raise them to be nervous around new things. A responsible dog owner will want their dog to be happy and confident when dealing with the world at large.
Socializing a Puppy
Socialization is most often discussed in terms of puppy development. Puppies go through several stages of development during which there are "fear periods" where socialization is critical for the dog's behavioral health.
The First Fear Period
- The first fear period occurs around eight to 10 weeks of age. If a puppy does not have positive interactions with other people and pets, he or she may develop fear of them as she develops into an adult.
- Likewise, if a puppy experiences something very frightening during this period without any type of behavioral assistance, they may develop a severe fear for the rest of their lives.
The Second Fear Period
- Puppies experience a second fear period that can occur anywhere from six to 14 months of age.
- This period can be difficult for dog owners as their dog may be acting as a friendly, outgoing and active adolescent at the time it occurs.
- Owners can be caught unawares when their seemingly normal pup suddenly becomes fearful over a person, animal or event.
Socializing Tips for Your Puppy
If you're a new puppy owner just learning about fear periods, you might be feeling alarmed about your dog's future. The truth is it is important to know about these stages in a dog's development so you can provide your puppy with everything he needs to grow into a healthy adult dog. If you notice a setback and your puppy is becoming fearful, take steps right away to rectify the situation while he or she is still in a sensitive period and can respond well to positive feedback. Some general tips for socialization are:
- Start socializing your puppy as soon as possible. Puppy socialization classes are a great way to do this and many will take your puppy if he's not fully vaccinated as the class environment is set up to minimize risk. Research has found dogs that attended a puppy class before they were 12 weeks old had a much lower probability of developing a serious behavior problem as an adult.
- Have your puppy meet as many people as he or she can. Try to meet a variety of people, including different ages and ethnicities.
- Let your puppy play with well-behaved dogs that you know, such as the dogs of friends and family. Make sure these dogs are friendly and play nicely and won't overwhelm your puppy.
- Bring your puppy out with you anywhere you are able to, including car rides to run errands, or sitting out at a coffee shop patio if you have nice weather.
- Puppyhood is also a perfect time to get your puppy to love the veterinarian's office. Most clinics will be happy to let you stop by with your puppy and give him or her a few treats.
- Plan out puppy socialization "scavenger hunts" and use a chart to make sure you've thought of all the possible places, people, pets and situations to expose your puppy to.
- Always pair your socialization experiences with positive reinforcement. This can be some delicious, healthy dog treats coupled with happy praise. Every dog is different so use what he or she likes the most whether it's a dog treat or a tug on a favorite toy or a toss of a ball.
- Always work at your dog's own pace. Some dogs will run right up to new people and animals with great confidence while others will need some time to get closer. Never rush your dog! Just like people, every dog is an individual who does best handling new experiences on their own terms.
Puppy Socialization Chart
The best way to track your progress with socialization is to use a chart. You can check off all of the types of people, animals and places your puppy has met and experienced and the number of interactions. Review the chart weekly to see where your puppy is missing out. If you need any help downloading the chart, see our Guide for Adobe Printables.
Socializing an Adult Dog
Sometimes providing a dog with early socialization is impossible. For example, you may adopt a dog from a shelter that is already an adult, or your puppy missed out on early socialization because you were unaware or unable at the time to do it. This doesn't mean that your dog can never be socialized now that he or she is grown up.
Dog Training Classes
Taking your adult dog to a training class is a great way to socialize him as you'll be in a controlled setting with a small group of dogs. If you have concerns about how your dog will react, let the instructor know beforehand as many can give you additional advice and accommodate you by placing your dog further away from other dogs or behind a visual barrier until he feels comfortable coming closer to the other dogs. Classes are not only a great way to socialize an older dog but they can also help you develop your relationship and communication with your dog and have fun. Don't limit yourself to just "obedience." Look for classes doing things like trick training, scent work, agility, or Rally.
Another option is to have "play dates" with the dogs of friends and family that you know well. This can be a much more controlled setting and less stressful for you if you're working with people you feel comfortable with. If you are working with a trainer or behavior consultant, sometimes they can also recommend dogs that they know of that can be good playmates and connect you with their owners.
Many people think that taking their dog to a dog park is a great option for socialization. In truth, dog parks are a bane to dog trainer and animal behavior professionals. Associate Applied Animal Behaviorist Katenna Jones, MSc, ACAAB, CDBC, CPDT-KA explains, "The optimal time to socialize dogs with other dogs is between eight and 11 weeks. Exposing poorly socialized adult dogs to other (possibly poorly socialized) dogs, for example at a dog park, can actually cause more harm than good." Many dog parks are not well-managed and you can find yourself quickly surrounded by dogs that may have behavioral problems of their own. You don't know the histories or temperaments of the dogs or their owners for that matter. Your dog could be fine in this situation, or he could become terrified and anxious or aggressive.
Doggie daycare is a possible outlet for socialization if your dog is reasonably comfortable with other dogs and people. If he is shy or aggressive, then this is not a good choice. Most professional daycares have an "interview" process where they will meet your dog to assess his temperament and will let you know if he or she is a good fit for their program. Depending on the level of training of their staff, some daycares have programs where they will slowly work with a shyer dog to acclimate him positively to other dogs. In general, avoid any daycare that doesn't meet your dog first and discuss his or her needs and just places dogs together without assessment!
Going Out and About
Just as with puppies, you can also socialize your adult dog by making it a habit to bring him out with you whenever you are doing an activity that can accommodate a dog. For example, taking a ride in the car with you while you need to run errands, weather permitting or visiting dog-friendly retail stores. There are many small local stores that are dog-friendly and several big national chains that welcome dogs. Some examples are retailers for pet supplies, home improvement, landscaping nurseries, outdoor recreation and more. Always call beforehand to check with your local store to inquire about their dog policy.
Difficult Dog Socialization
Sometimes socialization doesn't go as well as we would hope. Or depending on the type of dog it may take more work and planning to be successful.
Socializing and Dog Breeds
Some dog breeds you may find harder to socialize than others. Dogs that were bred to be wary of strangers may be more standoffish in social settings. If they become nervous, they may guard you as a resource or become scared and attempt to get away from new people or dogs. On the other hand, some dogs have a naturally friendly temperament and if socialized correctly should be happy to meet new people and dogs. Ultimately remember that every dog is an individual and should be treated as such and your socialization plan should be based on their unique needs and personality.
Socializing an Aggressive Dog
If you have a dog that you know has some aggressive behaviors, this does not mean you can't socialize them.
- In certain types of aggression, such as leash reactivity, getting the dog comfortable with other dogs can have a positive impact on the problem.
- However, how you work on desensitization and counter-conditioning your dog to like new dogs or people can be quite complex and there are many steps involved.
- If you move too quickly or reinforce the wrong behaviors, you can make the problem worse.
- Luckily, if you are committed to working with your dog, there are many dog behavior consultants and trainers who are experienced with these issues who can work one-on-one with you and your dog. According to Jones, "An animal behavior professional can guide you in the subtle nuances of exactly when and how to expose, how to manage, when to push, and when to back off when your dog is too stressed."
- A professional can also make sure you use the right measures to keep everyone safe.
If You Need Help Socializing Your Dog
Working with a behavior professional can have huge benefits for you and your dog. If you decide to look for someone to help you with socialization, remember these key tips:
- Always work with a professional who uses positive reinforcement and who has demonstrable experience with aggression.
- Look for certification in behavior work, such as through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
- A veterinary behaviorist or Applied Animal Behaviorist can also be of assistance although there are a much smaller number of them available in the United States. Many are willing to do remote consultations with your veterinarian and dog trainer or behavior consultant though.
Dog Socialization Is Critical
Whether you have a puppy or an adult dog, it's never too late to socialize them. It's also never too early! Make sure before you start you have a plan in place and know how to work with your dog if he or she becomes nervous. Helping your dog to see the world as a wonderful place is the best gift you can give to your dog to lead a long and happy life.