A New Dog Parent's Guide to Socialization
Early, positive exposure to the world around them helps dogs feel safe and confident. We'll explain what socialization is, when it's most important, and how to actually socialize a puppy.19 minute read
It’s a great big world out there. You want to raise your puppy to navigate it confidently by your side.
Early socialization is one of the most important things you can do for your puppy’s long-term health and confidence. It’s also a complicated topic—vets, trainers, and other dog parents offer contradictory advice. That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive guide so you can make informed decisions about your dog’s first experiences of the world around them.
Here’s everything you need to know about puppy socialization, all in one place.
- Socialization is the process of getting our dogs used to the world around them. Many sights, sounds, surfaces, and objects seem normal to us humans but are foreign to a young puppy. Positive early exposure teaches your dog how to feel and behave in multiple situations.
- Healthy socialization is more about exposure than interaction. Your puppy doesn’t need to engage with everything in her environment! Instead, focus on helping her feel confident and connected to you while the world goes by around her.
- Nature and nurture both influence your dog’s long-term traits. Proper exposure is an important part of your puppy’s development, but it won’t fundamentally change your dog’s personality. A herding breed is still going to pay attention to fast-moving objects, and a hunting dog will show interest in prey. It’s important to set reasonable expectations.
- There are ways to safely expose very young puppies to the world. Strollers, tote bags, and blankets can limit their contact with outside surfaces while still allowing them to experience new environments.
- Prioritize introducing your puppy to the situations you want her to handle when she’s older. Your priorities will vary based on your individual lifestyle and preferences.
- Focus more on the quality of your puppy’s socialization outings than the quantity. As a rule of thumb, it’s better to have just a few positive experiences than to have dozens of good with a handful of bad.
- Think about what mindset you want your dog to have in different contexts as she ages. Then try to create those emotions while she’s young. For example, you might take her to the park when she has a lot of energy to play but to a patio when she’s already tired.
- If your puppy seems overwhelmed on a socialization outing, show her you have her back. This builds trust and avoids her taking things into her own hands through reactive behavior.
- Short, sweet exposure is always better than pushing your puppy to the point of exhaustion. Take plenty of breaks between socialization outings and always try to end on a good note.
What exactly is puppy socialization?
Socialization is the process of your puppy habituating (getting used to) the world around her. Modern society is full of things which are no big deal to us humans but are completely foreign to a young puppy. Early exposure teaches your dog how to feel and behave in a range of situations! This sets you up to live a fulfilling life together without unnecessary fear or stress:
- Proper socialization benefits your puppy. She’ll feel more safe, confident, and secure throughout her life if you take the time to carefully expose her to things when she’s young.
- It’s also great for you as a dog parent. Your puppy will grow up with a reduced risk of aggression, fear, or other unpredictable behavior.
Puppies need consistent exposure to a variety of stimuli: sights, sounds, surfaces, and objects
Puppies are most open to forming connections with people and other animals early on in life (more on the exact timing of their critical socialization period here). It’s easier to build appropriate social skills from the get-go than to try to fix undesirable behaviors down the line.
In fact, dogs raised in socially or physically barren environments are often unable to handle normal activities like going on a neighborhood walk or visiting a restaurant patio.
On the other hand, repeated encounters where nothing bad happens teach your dog that common things are no big deal. Eventually she should be able to ignore them completely, even if they seemed a little scary or overwhelming at first.
Novelty is also important for healthy mental development. It’s tied to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt) and new experiences release dopamine. This chemical further motivates your puppy to explore—which boosts her overall curiosity and confidence!
Socialization requires exposure to every part of a new stimulus
When your puppy encounters something new in her environment, it’s important to recognize that she takes in multiple pieces of information at once, and that her perception is about the very specific situation at hand.
We might look at a new person as simply a “stranger,” but that stranger can move and speak in various ways. Changes in small details (like whether the person is standing still, moving towards you, wearing a funny hat, or speaking loudly) can create a different “picture” for your puppy. Just because she’s used to people on the other side of the street doesn’t mean she’ll be comfortable with them walking right up to her!
Gradually exposing your puppy to novel things by breaking stimuli into separate parts can make socialization easier. Here are just a few examples of the many facets of different things to get you thinking.
- The sight of them wearing different clothes and moving in various ways (slowly with a walker, quickly on a run, directly approaching or passing by)
- The sound of their vocalizations and footsteps
- The sight of them standing still, walking slowly, running, or jumping up
- The sound of barking, growling, or jangling collar tags
Times of day
- The sight of common objects in different lighting (many dogs are more wary in the dark)
- The sounds associated with morning, afternoon, or evening (like animal noises and varying traffic)
Environments like parks
- The sight of other animals and playground equipment
- The sound of people, cars, and trees in the wind
- The surface of grass, concrete, woodchips, or gravel
Household objects like the vacuum
- The sight of it moving around
- The sound of its suction
Healthy socialization is more about exposure than interaction
“Socialization” often makes us think about directly interacting with other people and dogs. That’s what it means when we socialize at a work happy hour or friend’s birthday party, right?
While appropriate greetings and play behavior are absolutely part of the process, it’s not the whole thing. Healthy dog socialization is more about exposure than interaction. Your puppy doesn’t need to engage with everything in her environment! Instead, it’s most important that she feels confident and connected to you while the world goes by around her.
- Your dog won’t be able to interact with everything around her when she’s an adult. Not every person or other dog wants to say hi. Not every object can be safely investigated. Some environments (like restaurant patios or crowded streets) might call for a greater level of neutrality when you visit. Practicing neutral exposure when your puppy is young can prevent problematic overexcitement or leash reactivity down the line.
- Young puppies are particularly impressionable. We can’t control everything in our dogs’ lives, but we should be cognizant of avoiding negative experiences if we can. It’s a good idea to focus on coexistence rather than interaction if you aren’t sure how a strange person or dog will interact with your puppy.
- You ultimately want to be the most important thing in your puppy’s world. Prioritizing her engagement with you above everything else will make it easier to navigate the world as a team.
- It’s also okay if you don’t want to say hi to everyone. Puppies attract a lot of attention! You might feel pressure to interact with other people while out and about, but your time belongs to you. You don’t have an obligation to let anyone else engage with your dog.
- That said, there’s nothing wrong with letting your puppy interact with other animals and objects when the time is right! You just don’t want to create a strong habit that she always gets to investigate. Vary her experiences so she is comfortable both saying hello or walking on by. As she grows up, teaching a “go say hi” cue can be a great way to create clarity about when it’s time for an interaction and when you want her to stay focused on you.
Nature and nurture both affect who our dogs become
Neutral exposure is an important part of your puppy’s development. It absolutely will increase the chance that she grows into a confident adult dog, but no amount of socialization will fundamentally change who she is.
Consider these things when setting expectations for life with your dog:
- Our dogs’ personalities are influenced by their genetics, just like humans. The same way many physical health problems (like hip dysplasia) can be inherited, so can behavioral issues like anxiety and fear. Reputable breeders aim to preserve stable temperaments. Meeting your puppy’s parents can give you a rough idea of what she might be like as an adult.
- Your dog’s breed affects her instincts. Early experiences won’t be able to make a hunting dog completely uninterested in prey, or a herding breed fully indifferent to fast-moving objects. Proper socialization can help your puppy feel calmer in these intense situations, but you should still expect her breed traits to shine through.
Just because it isn’t “all in how you raise them” doesn’t mean we don’t have great power to influence our dogs as they grow up though.
Think of it this way: Once your puppy is born, the only thing you can control is her socialization. It’s important to be aware of what we might not be able to change, but we should focus our energy on the things we can.
When should I socialize my new puppy?
Proper dog socialization involves balancing risks. A lack of exposure during your puppy’s critical socialization window can cause problems like fear and reactivity as she gets older. But venturing out before she’s fully vaccinated can make her more prone to illness.
Every dog parent gets to make their own risk assessments. The general consensus is that we should try to expose our puppies to the world around them as early as possible, while keeping safety top of mind.
What is the critical socialization window?
Old dogs can learn new tricks, but your puppy is best suited to habituate to novel environments early in her life. Remember that neuroplasticity we talked about earlier? It never completely goes away (adult dogs are still able to form new brain connections), but it does significantly decrease as your puppy grows up.
When exactly does my puppy’s critical socialization period take place?
Different sources say your puppy’s critical socialization period lasts until she’s twelve, fourteen, or sixteen weeks old. The general consensus is that she’s most impressionable in her first three to four months of life. Once your dog passes sixteen weeks, she becomes less open to novel experiences.
We know this window seems short. Once you bring your new puppy home, you have a month or two for her best exposure to as many things as you can. It’s normal to be overwhelmed! A thoughtful puppy raising schedule can make the socialization process more manageable.
What to know about puppy fear periods
Your puppy’s critical socialization window is also the start of her first fear period. It might seem weird to socialize your dog when she’s feeling wary of loud noises and sudden movements, but it’s still the best time to create positive associations. Just be mindful of not pushing her too far (more on that here). If she seems afraid of a certain person, dog or situation, take a step back.
This first fear period should last a couple of weeks. Your puppy might have another in early adolescence which is usually less pronounced.
Is socialization over once my dog is an adolescent?
Just because your puppy’s critical socialization window is closed doesn’t mean she isn’t still open to new experiences!
While socialization is most important when your puppy is young, older dogs still need regular, neutral exposure to the world around them. Adult dogs won’t be able to build new associations as quickly as eight-week-old puppies, but you can maintain and gradually improve their comfort with things even after your puppy’s critical socialization period has ended.
Can I expose my puppy to the world before she’s vaccinated?
Canine professionals are divided on whether or not it’s safe to socialize puppies in public before they’ve been fully vaccinated.
- Many trainers advocate for as much socialization as possible. Because they often deal with behavioral problems in adult dogs, they prioritize the importance of early exposure to prevent insecurity and fear (Behavioral issues are actually the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age).
- On the other hand, some veterinarians might recommend waiting to socialize until a puppy is completely immunized. They’re the ones who see cases of devastating illnesses like parvovirus firsthand.
There are no easy answers. Professional opinions provide important context! But when to socialize your puppy is a decision you need to make for yourself. Multiple variables will factor into your personal risk assessment:
- How common are certain illnesses where you live? If you carefully select your socialization locations, will you be able to minimize risk if disease?
- What's your puppy’s baseline temperament like? If she’s nervous, you might be more focused on preventing long-term behavioral problems than someone working with a very confident dog.
- Did your puppy have a strong start to early socialization with her breeder? Or are you hoping to compensate for a lack of exposure before you brought her home?
- What does your ideal long-term lifestyle look like? How many environments will your puppy need to be comfortable in? If you plan for your dog to be a homebody, early exposure to environments outside of your own property might not be as vital. (Remember that socialization isn’t just about being in public. Your puppy needs to get used to your household objects and routines, too!)
Ways to safely socialize your puppy before she’s fully vaccinated
Thankfully, socialization isn’t all or nothing. There are ways to teach your young puppy about the world while being cognizant of potential risks.
Each individual dog parent gets to decide what they are and aren’t comfortable with. As a starting point, you might:
- Invite trusted people over to your place. This way you can manage the situation from start to finish. Ensure any other dogs are fully vaccinated and safe for your puppy to interact with.
- Visit a family member or friend’s place. This is another way to be in control of your puppy’s new environment.
- Go on car rides. You can park just about anywhere—outside of stores, dog parks, or even the vet’s office. Open your car door and let your puppy watch the world from afar, without actually leaving the safety of your vehicle.
- Carry your puppy in a stroller, tote bag, or blanket. If you supervise closely, you can prevent your puppy from touching potentially unsanitary surfaces while still exposing them to a variety of environments. This is a great option on walks, at parks, and in pet-friendly stores. A bonus? It’s easier to prevent unwanted social interactions if your puppy is in your arms rather than on the ground.
How should I socialize my new puppy?
You should prioritize your puppy’s socialization experiences based on long-term lifestyle goals above all else. Get her familiar with the environments you want her to frequent as an adult! As you socialize, try to imagine how your puppy experiences the world. Err on the side of caution if you’re not sure she’s ready for a new experience, and always show her you have her back by preventing interactions that make her feel uncomfortable. Keep your outings short and sweet so that you don’t overwhelm your puppy and can end on a positive note.
Prioritize what’s relevant for your lifestyle
Think about what you want out of this new relationship, for both yourself and your dog. What drew you to a canine companion? What do you hope to experience together? What does your ideal lifestyle look like?
Prioritize introducing your puppy to the environments you want her to visit when she’s older. Are you a nature enthusiast? Spend time getting used to the stimuli of hiking trails. Do you plan to take your dog to pet-friendly patios? Go on some short visits while she’s still young.
Think about how your puppy experiences the world
Dogs don’t experience the world like humans do:
- A canine’s primary sense is smell, followed by hearing and sight.
- Dogs have an associative memory rather than an episodic memory. They learn patterns and develop “pictures” of certain situations as opposed to recalling specific events.
What does this mean for socialization?
- Differences that seem subtle to us can be jarring to a puppy without life experience. We might just see “a person”, but our dogs pay more attention to height, facial hair, accessories, and body movements. We might think it’s simply going to the bathroom, but our dogs’ picture of a situation changes if they’re on leash or in a new place. This ties back to helping our puppies habituate to a variety of sights, sounds, surfaces, and objects.
- Your puppy’s general emotions in a new environment matter more than any particular events or behaviors that take place.
Err on the side of caution
Canines don’t have an episodic memory the way we do, but dogs can experience one-trial learning. If a single exposure is bad enough, your puppy can develop a permanent negative association with a person, place, object, or even entire groups of stimuli (like all strangers or all other dogs).
As a rule of thumb, it’s better to have just a few positive experiences than to have dozens of good experiences paired with a handful of bad ones. Don’t worry, though. You can reduce the chances of something going wrong with a bit of simple planning! We can be thoughtful about our puppies’ socialization without living in fear of the what-ifs.
Simply exercise caution when:
- Visiting dog parks with unfamiliar guests. Watch from outside the fence and get to know the other dogs first. You can also skip the public dog park altogether in favor of playdates with trusted friends or an organized puppy class run by a trainer you trust.
- Going to busy environments. You might not be able to predict startling events or gradually ease your puppy into chaotic situations.
- Interacting with strangers. While there’s no need to be antisocial, it’s a good idea to pause before letting someone you don’t know interact with your puppy. Don’t be afraid to give instructions (like “please be gentle” or “let her come to you first”).
Create the long-term mindset you want
Before taking your puppy on a socialization outing, think about what mindset you want her to have in different contexts as she ages. When your dog is an adult, do you want her to be able to settle in some public environments and investigate in others?
Then try to create those emotions while she’s young! For example, you might:
- Visit the park right after a nap when she has a lot of energy to play.
- Bring her to a patio when she’s already tired and you’ve met her basic needs.
- Walk on a crowded sidewalk when she’s alert enough to observe her surroundings but calm enough to stay still in your stroller or tote bag.
Timing your socialization like this will create clarity about expectations in the long run. By easing into new situations while she’s a puppy—and appropriately fulfilling her beforehand so what you’re asking is fair—you’ll seamlessly set the stage for your dog’s adult behavior.
Show your puppy you have her back
If your puppy seems overwhelmed on a socialization outing, show her you’ll keep her safe.
Does she shy away when someone tries to pet her? Don’t put pressure on her to interact. Instead, feed her treats while the person speaks in a pleasant voice nearby. Is a scary sign flapping in the wind? Observe calmly from afar or play a fun game. Does she seem nervous to meet another dog? Same story there.
A lot of this ties back to neutral exposure over interaction. Your puppy doesn’t need to be comfortable greeting every stranger in the world. What matters most is that she can coexist near them.
When you show your puppy you have her back, she’ll grow to trust your guidance and judgment. If you push her into situations she doesn’t like, however, she might eventually develop reactive behaviors (like barking, growling, or lunging) to take more control herself.
How do I know if my puppy is uncomfortable?
Dog body language can be nuanced. You’ll learn to read your individual puppy’s signals over time. Picking up on her subtle cues is essential to being a great dog parent.
Here are some signs your dog might be scared, anxious, or overstimulated:
- A low, tucked tail that might twitch or wag between her legs
- Cowering or crouching towards the ground
- Freezing in place, especially if it’s difficult to get her attention
- Raised hackles (the hair between her shoulders standing on end)
- Ears pinned against her head
- Wide eyes, especially if they dart around quickly or show the whites (often called “side eye” or “whale eye”)
- Yawning and lip licking
- Panting when not otherwise tired or hot
Interact with scary things yourself
You might consider interacting with things that make your puppy uncomfortable on your own, without forcing her to come any nearer. This way you show her that she doesn’t need to be afraid while also reinforcing that you won’t make her feel unsafe.
For example, it might be helpful for your puppy to watch you:
- Shake hands or hug a new person while speaking in a pleasant voice
- Happily pet another dog
- Get up close to an unfamiliar object
Keep socialization outings short and sweet
Quick exposure is always better than pushing your puppy to the point of exhaustion. Remember that young dogs need a lot of rest—between 18 and 20 hours of sleep a day! Leave plenty of room for breaks in your socialization schedule and avoid being out of the house for hours at a time.
You should also try to end every outing on a good note. If your dog is uncomfortable around a new stimulus, try to hang out around it until she begins to settle in.
Here are some strategies to make your puppy’s new experiences positive:
- Play games like short-distance fetch or tug with your puppy in new environments. This way she’s focused on an engaging activity while also passively taking in information about the world around her. As a bonus, this shows her that having fun with you is possible in any kind of environment. That engagement is great for more advanced training later on.
- Toss treats on the ground for your puppy to sniff out. Using her nose is great for your dog’s stress levels. Sniffing lowers her heart rate even if she’s moving. You can also gently jog back and forth while having her chase food in your hand.
- Observe calmer environments like you sipping coffee on your patio. The more unbothered you are by the world, the more confident your puppy will become. Remember that she takes her cues from you.
Example puppy socialization checklists
Every dog parent’s socialization goals will vary. Here are some example checklists to use as a starting point for your puppy’s new experiences!
A baseline for every puppy
- Being handled by you and your family (paws, head, teeth, back, stomach)
- Common household objects (like pans, the vacuum, and other cooking or cleaning supplies)
- Flooring and surfaces at home (tile, laminate, hardwood, polished concrete, carpet, etc.)
- Standard collars, leashes, and harnesses
- Riding in a car
- The veterinarian’s office (waiting room, exam table, being touched by new people)
If you live in the city
- Pavement, gravel, and sidewalk grates
- Fast-moving traffic
- Emergency sirens and car horns
- People wearing different clothes
- A variety of other dogs
- Bikes, skateboards, shopping carts, and strollers
- Umbrellas, shopping bags, and large purses
- Tile lobbies and building elevators
- People and food close by on patios
If you love to get out in nature
- Wildlife sounds like bird calls and leaves in the wind
- Grass, mud, water, and rocky ground
- Different types of weather like rain and snow
- Being outside at multiple times of day
- Bikes, skis, scooters, and hiking poles
- People wearing bulky clothing or carrying packs
- Hiking harnesses and dog life jackets
If you have kids or frequent visitors
- Loud, sudden noises like crying and laughter
- People moving quickly
- Baby supplies like strollers and swings
- Knocks at the door
- Suitcases and luggage
- Groups of people in one room
- Being walked and handled by multiple people
- Being run into and "pet" by uncoordinated toddlers