Socializing Your Puppy

© American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior 

It is impossible to overstate the importance of socialization for a young dog. Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral issues—rather than disease or illness—are the number one cause of surrender to shelters and death for dogs under three years of age. 

Every effort should be made to introduce puppies to as many different people, well-socialized animals, situations, places, floor textures, noises, etc. as possible while in the first three months of life. During this time, puppies should be exposed to as many new stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing overstimulation which could result in excessive fear, withdrawal, or avoidance behavior. 

Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new things. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression.

While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem. 

If your puppy is older than three months, continued socialization following the guidelines below is strongly encouraged. 

The Process of Socialization

  • Puppies should be encouraged to explore, investigate, and manipulate their environments. Interactive toys and games, a variety of surfaces, tunnels, steps, chutes, and other stimuli can enrich the puppy’s environment. 
  • Puppies should accompany their breeders/owners on as many car trips as possible. These exposures should continue into adulthood to maintain an outgoing and sociable dog. Continuing to offer dogs a wide variety of experiences during their first year of life is also helpful in preventing separation-related behavior.
  • Puppy socialization classes can offer a safe and organized means of socializing puppies and more quickly improve their responsiveness to commands. Each puppy should have up-to-date vaccinations and be disease and parasite free before entering the class. Where possible, classes should be held on surfaces that are easily cleaned and disinfected (e.g. indoor environments).
  • Visits to dog parks or other areas that are not sanitized and/or are highly trafficked by dogs of unknown vaccination or disease status should be avoided. 
  • Classes and at-home training should be based on positive reinforcement with frequent rewards, praise, petting, play, and/ or treats. 
  • Time must be scheduled for puppies to play alone with their favorite toys (such as stuffed food toys) or take naps in safe places such as crates or puppy pens. This teaches puppies to amuse themselves, and may help to prevent problems of over attachment to the owners. 
  • Proper confinement training using pens or crates helps to ensure that puppies have safe and secure places for rest and confinement. Puppies that are used to being crated will be less stressed if they must be hospitalized or be confined for travel by plane or car. Crates should serve as comfort or play areas. 
  • Early and adequate socialization and programs of positive training can go a long way to preventing behavior problems and improving bonding between humans and dogs. 
  • Owners of puppies displaying fear should seek veterinary guidance.