When you hear the word “socialize” you likely think of helping your puppy learn to play with other dogs, but puppy socialization includes much more than that! Socialization is all about helping your pup navigate the world safely. This includes everything from meeting new dogs to encountering unfamiliar situations and handling them calmly. The idea that you are charged with teaching your pup everything he needs to know about the world may seem daunting, which is why we’ve created this handy guide for how to socialize a puppy. These tips are sure to help guide your pup’s social development.
Why it’s Important to Socialize A Puppy?
Socializing your pup is critical for developing a well-rounded, even-tempered, patient companion. Just like people, dogs tend to fear what they don’t understand, so the more you can help your pup understand, the better! This will help him feel confident and give him the tools he needs to navigate unfamiliar situations. As a result, he’ll be tolerant and calm when encountering new people, sounds, smells, environments, and more. A well-socialized dog is less likely to react aggressively to scary situations or other dogs. As you work to help your pup navigate the world you will develop a deeper a bond. Your pup will see you as his point of reference and soon he’ll know that he’s able to endure any situation as long as you’re by his side.
When to Start Socialization
A puppy’s most crucial stage of social development occurs between 7 to 20 weeks of age. During this period pups are learning all kinds of lessons that will shape the way they see the world. They’re at their most impressionable and malleable during this time. Needless to say, socialization should start as early as possible. The more situations you can expose your puppy to during this age, the better. But, it’s important to take care to ensure that his socialization experiences are highly positive. Don’t rush him, but do push him out of his comfort zone.
How to Socialize A Puppy
Your goal with socializing your puppy should be to introduce him to a wide variety of new environments and situations while providing him with plenty of support and encouragement.
With this in mind, consider your lifestyle and how you want your pup to fit into it. Do you spend a lot of time hiking, walking through urban neighborhoods, going on road trips? Do you host parties, or have small children? Plan to slowly familiarize your puppy with each of those scenarios. You should also expose him to people of all different ages, dogs of all different sizes and energy levels, as well as other types of household pets and animals.
- Handling Your Puppy
Handling your puppy is really important and can be started right away. Make a point to pet and handle your puppy every day. Be sure you touch his paws, ears, snout, tail, belly, etc and reward him as you do. This helps your pup become tolerant and comfortable being handled by people. Once your pup is comfortable having his paws and ears handled, take things up a notch. Practice handling his snout and even having him open his mouth so you can inspect and touch his teeth and tongue.
If you use a comb or brush to groom your dog, introduce this to him too. Let him sniff it first, then slowly begin to brush his fur. Offer plenty of praise and treats as you go so that he understands the activity can be fun and rewarding!
These activities help your pup become comfortable being handled, and will cull any impulse he has to react negatively when someone touches him. As a result, he will be much more cooperative when he goes to the vet, the groomer, meets small children who want to grab his tail, and more.
- Preventing Resource Guarding
Resource guarding refers to when a dog shows signs of aggression when you try to take their food or toys. A great way to prevent this behavior is by petting and handling your pup while he eats. By doing this consistently you’ll help him understand that your pats are done out of affection, not because you’re trying to steal his meal. Once your puppy is comfortable with being petted while eating, begin randomly removing his dish in the middle of his meal. Give him a treat in its place, or place a treat in the bowl and give it back. Suddenly the interruption in his mealtime won’t seem so unwelcome!
Another good exercise is to practice removing your pup’s favorite toy while he’s playing with it. Some puppies are stubborn and won’t like it when you take something they’re playing with (after all, who would?). While this behavior isn’t unexpected, it’s important that your pup learns that it’s not acceptable to growl or show his teeth when you do this. Practice taking his toy, and if he’s cooperative reward him with treats and pats then give it back. If your pup growls or shows other signs of aggression as you try to remove the toy, say “no” firmly and wait for him to relax. Once he does, reward him with a treat and return his toy.
- Meet New PeopleIt’s one thing for your puppy to feel comfortable being handled by you, but it’s also important to make sure he’s comfortable around other people. Start by introducing him to other members of your household. Have them pet him, hold him and play with him while offering treats. Then, begin inviting friends over to meet him. Don’t overwhelm him with a huge group, but ensure he has consistent interaction with other people. Do your best to introduce your pup to people of different ages, genders, and energy levels. The wider your dog’s point of reference for people is the more confident he’ll be when meeting strangers. This practice helps your dog realize that humans are friendly and fun and he’ll be thrilled rather than fearful when he meets new people.
- Go For Walks
Walks are an essential aspect of your pup’s social development. It might not seem like a big deal to you to walk around the block, but remember, for your pup, it’s a whole new world of smells, sights, and sounds. Be patient as he may be fearful and hesitant at first.
Start with short walks on a quiet street, and offer plenty of praise and rewards as your pup adjusts to his surroundings. Gradually you’ll want to extend the length of the walks and introduce him to new environments. Once your pup is comfortable on a quiet street, try one with a little more action.
Remember, things like bicycles and traffic sounds are all new to your pup, as are different ground surfaces. You don’t want your pup to be a rockstar on grass but deathly afraid of sand, so try to expose him to as many different environments as possible. Offer praise and treats any time he encounters something he’s unsure of. Your pup sees you as his support system, so make sure he feels supported and protected at your side.
- Attend Puppy Classes
Puppy classes are a great way for your pup to meet new people and dogs in a structured environment. They’re also a wonderful way to bond with your pup. These classes may involve anything from basic obedience to handling and socializing with other puppies, as well as other life skills. If your pup is extroverted and excitable, these classes are an opportunity for you to help him approach situations more calmly. On the flip side, if your pup is more timid, puppy class will help him come out of his shell a little. The best part is you will have the support of an experienced trainer who will be able to offer guidance tailored to your puppy’s personality.
- Take A Drive
Car rides are bound to be part of your pup’s life to some extent. Imagine if the first car ride he ever goes on leads to the vet’s office? That probably wouldn’t be a positive association and lead him to fear and dread getting in the car.
In order to help your pup feel comfortable in the car, start taking him for drives. At the end of the drive reward him with a fun walk, playtime, and plenty of treats. This will help him realize that car rides have positive outcomes and that going for a drive is exciting, not scary!
- Set Up A Playdate
Introducing your pup to new dogs is a crucial part of his socialization, but it should be done carefully. Many dog owners think “my pup is really friendly, he’ll do fine at the dog park.” Sure, their pup isn’t likely to start any dog fights, but he may find the prospect of meeting 10 new dogs at once a tad overwhelming. Wouldn’t you?!
The best way to set your pup up for success is to start introducing him to other dogs in controlled environments. If you have a friend or family member with a friendly dog, invite them to join you and your pup on a walk. This way the dogs can get to know one another in a low-pressure environment.
If the walk goes well, let the dogs play together off-leash in your backyard. Keep a close eye on them to ensure neither one feels overwhelmed (some dogs aren’t prepared to contend with rambunctious puppies). Make sure to offer plenty of encouragement, praise and even treats throughout their playdate.
- Go To the Vet
Many dog trainers recommend taking your pup to the vet’s office during their socialization training. This might sound strange but think about it. If your puppy’s first experience in the vet’s office involves getting jabbed with sharp needles he’s liable to develop fear and anxiety about the location.
If you instead take him to visit the veterinarian on a social call where he’s met with praise, pats, and yummy treats, he’s going to build positive associations with the animal hospital. Down the road, this association will make taking him for checkups SO much easier and less stressful for both of you.
Tips for Successful Socialization
- Take it Slow
Be patient throughout the socialization process. Teaching your puppy about the world may be overwhelming for him, depending on his personality. At times you may feel like you’re taking one step forward only to talk two steps back the following day. This is normal. Even puppies have bad days, so don’t feel discouraged if after just one walk your pup is still scared of his shadow. Socialization takes time and shouldn’t be rushed. As you continue to bond with your puppy his confidence will improve and he’ll be more equipped to navigate unfamiliar situations.
- Use Plenty of Praise
Don’t underestimate the power of positive reinforcement. Reward and praise your puppy every time he does something well! This is especially important when he’s in unfamiliar situations. For instance, your pup may be fearful of his first walk, but constant praise and rewards from you will help him feel confident and empowered.
- Note Your Pup’s Body Language
Always pay attention to how your puppy is reacting to new situations. While it’s good to help him push past his fear, pushing him too far could result in major setbacks. If he’s nervous, praise and treats should help him relax, but if he’s cowering in fear it may be best to remove him from the situation.
Signs that your pup is truly scared include:
His body is tense and rigid
His tail is between his legs and his ears are pinned back
He’s constantly licking his lips
You can see the whites of his eyes
If your pup is showing any of these signs he’s too scared to continue with the activity. It’s best to take him home where he’s comfortable and let him relax. You can always try the activity again later, and you should!
- Practice Makes Perfect
It’s not enough to introduce your pup to a new environment or situation once and assume he’s fine with it. You should make a point of reinforcing his socialization by continuing to put him in a variety of new environments. Take him for regular car trips, encourage him to meet new dogs, etc. He needs to practice feeling confident and comfortable in these environments. Again, puppies do have bad days. One day he may love a car ride, and the next he may be traumatized by it. The more familiar each situation becomes the more prepared your pup will be to face it.