Socialization and How to do it Properly
Updated: Apr 21
Every trainer I've ever met tells their students to socialize their dogs. It is one of the most important parts of puppy ownership and continues on for the rest of the dog's life. Socializing your dog is no doubt influential towards who they will be as an adult, but what does it mean to socialize your dog?
Puppies have what's called a "socialization window" that begins at about 3 weeks of age and ends around 14 weeks of age. This is a very short window of opportunity as you shouldn't be bringing your dog home until they are about 8-10 weeks old. You should be doing as much socializing as possible before your puppy hit 14 weeks old. Dogs also go through two main "critical fear periods", one between 8-12 weeks old, and the other between 6-14 months. These fear periods are when your dog is more likely to develop a fearful response to stimuli than normal. Being proactive before and during these periods is vital to your dog's behavior as an adult. This is why it is recommended you sign your puppy up for a puppy class or obedience class at around 10 weeks of age.
Adopting a dog that is already over 14 weeks old? That's okay, you can still follow these tips however be more watchful of their body language as they may already have developed some fears before you adopted them. If this is the case, let us know and we'd be happy to talk it through with you, or if you'd rather find a force-free trainer in your area, please do.
Socialization is a word that trainers, veterinarians, and other dog professionals throw around a lot. I am no exception. When I talk about socialization, I make sure that my students understand what it is that I mean when I tell them to go out into the world and socialize their dogs. Here's a hint: Socialize ≠ Exposure.
Socialization is defined as: Having positive experiences around various stimuli. That's it!
Exposure means simply throwing your dog into the world and expecting them to become used to the various people, places, and things that exist within. This has been proven to not work effectively and can cause great harm to your dog's well being. Yes you will be exposing your dog to many different things however it is much more controlled that that. Exposure needs to be done in such a way that your dog learns to trust all that she is experiencing. For example, a street light that is shaking in the wind. Your dog doesn't know that this street light can't hurt her, so she might begin to feel fearful of it. This is where your earlier socialization training comes in handy. Follow these tips to socialize your dog and help them feel more confident in the world.
1. Dress up! This is a common recommendation for socialization training and it works so well. Simply throw on a different hat and some sunglasses and reward your dog for being relaxed when you enter the front door. Put on some noisy heels and walk around the house while tossing tasty treats on the ground for your dog to eat. Put on a big coat and walk around outside the house, having someone inside the home reward each time she notices this funny person in a big coat outside. By changing your physical appearance, you'll be teaching your dog that there are many different types of people out there, and they are all safe to be around.
2. Walk on different surfaces! Your dog will encounter many different types of surfaces in their life time, and if you don't let them experience these surfaces for themselves they might develop a fear of them later on (trust me, I've seen it). There are various indoor floors such as carpet, hardwood, tile, cement, stone, etc. There are also many types of surfaces outside such as grass, blacktop, mulch, cement, gravel, etc. All of these surfaces should be walked on as much as possible at a young age. Be sure to reward for walking on these surfaces by tossing the treat on the ground or feeding it from your hand.
3. Sounds, sounds, and more sounds! There are a lot of sounds going on all day long. The alarm clock and coffee maker in the morning, the TV and music in the evening. The garbage truck that comes once a week, the smoke alarm that sometimes goes off when you tried that new recipe. Then there are the sounds you have no control over like thunder, the neighbors house party, fireworks from a nearby town, cars and buses as they go by on the street, etc. All of these sounds have the potential to become triggers for your dog and cause stress. Remember that your dog's hearing is much better than yours so if you can hear it, they can hear it much louder. If there are sounds your dog will be hearing a lot around the house, make sure to reward each time they hear these noises for the first few days and weeks of having them. Hit the button on the smoke alarm with your dog in a different room and have someone else feed treats each time the sound goes off. Play thunder and firework sounds on YouTube at a low volume and play fetch or tug while the video plays, or simply treat each time the sound is heard. Continue to increase the volume as your dog becomes less concerned with the sounds.
4. People and dogs (and other living things)! This is the most obvious one and the thing most people think of when they hear the word "socialization". However, again this doesn't mean you need to expose your dog to these people by having them come up and touch your dog all over the place, or having your dog greet every dog you walk past (which is a no-no to begin with). When in public, have your dog watch other people/dogs at a distance and reward frequently. Especially if these dogs are barking or people are running. Creating positive associations around various stimuli will help build your pet's confidence around these stimuli. The best way to socialize your puppy or new dog to close encounters with people and other dogs is to let your dog go up to them when they are ready. They will go investigate the new people in the home and that's when the new people can offer some gentle pets or simply feed some treats. Follow a "consent to pet" approach. The person pets your dog for 3 seconds and then stops. If your dog wants more, they will say so. Consent is often not thought of from a dog's perspective, however it is unreasonable to expect a living animal to be okay with having their space constantly invaded. Dog's need their space too! The same goes for introductions to other dogs. This should always be done off leash, in a fenced in area or where the dogs won't feel cornered. When introducing any puppy or dog to a new dog, it should be done in a neutral space with no resources like food or water around. Once the dogs understand each other more, you can slowly begin to add resources while being mindful of their body language. Dog parks are not recommended tools for proper socialization, however if you do use them please follow the 1:1 ratio. Read more about that here! Be sure to reward for calmly noticing a squirrel on a walk, or when the cat comes around. Other living animals are bound to either excite or scare your dog. Make sure they enjoy their company and feel relaxed around them.
5. Anything goes! There is so much more your puppy or dog will be experiencing with you as they age. Take a look around your home and the areas where you plan to bring your dog for play, walks, hangouts, etc. What objects are there around; vacuums, brooms, cars, buses, other dogs, school children, cats, trash blowing in the wind, etc. Create positive experiences with these objects simply by treating when they come around. Like the example before, if you have a street light that shakes in the wind, be sure to create a positive experience with this street light by treating your dog as you approach it, as it shakes, and as you walk past it. If she seems fearful of it (not taking treats is a definite sign), stay calm and back up to add more distance. Continue the flow of treats as she begins to take them again and find a way to walk past it at a greater distance. By being proactive in your training, you're greatly decreasing the chances of your dog growing up to fear that street light (and potentially all street lights), or whatever it may be. Don't wait for your dog to become fearful, teach them now that there is no reason to feel that way.
I am hopeful that if you follow these tips to socializing your dog, you will have a confident companion that is eager to explore and see the world with you! Remember it's up to us to give them the structure and safety they need to grow up and be amazing animals.
If you'd like even more information on proper socialization and receive pages of handouts, guides to follow, how to properly introduce your dog to another dog or person, and more, sign up for our Socialization 101 Webinar!