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Socializing Your Puppy

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Early handling and events that occur during the first few months of life are critical factors in the social development of dogs.  Exposing young puppies to many different stimuli, including people, other dogs, and new places, reduces the possibility of fearful responses as a puppy grows and matures.  Dogs that are not well socialized to people, other animals, and new environments during this critical time can develop permanent fears that often lead to timidity or aggression.

The primary socialization period for dogs begins when puppies are 3 weeks old, peaks at 6-8 weeks, and then tapers off by about 12-16 weeks.  Fears can begin to emerge around 8 weeks of age, and fears that are present after 12 weeks of age may no longer respond to increased socialization.  Although there is a great deal of variability between breeds and individuals, all dogs should be socialized to as many different people, animals, and situations as possible before the sensitive socialization period begins to wane.  However, regular social interactions should continue through adulthood so that puppies do not regress and become more fearful as they mature.  Another important time period for socialization is when dogs are 6-8 months old.  If social contact is not maintained during this time, canine social skills may diminish and fear may escalate.

Several factors affect a puppy’s overall sociability.  Genetics plays an important role in how playful, fearful, excitable, or domineering a puppy becomes.  Individual puppies can be shy and fearful, or friendly and unafraid.  However, it can be difficult to make an accurate social assessment of a puppy that is younger than 3 months old.  Puppies that are handled from birth to 5 weeks are generally more confident and handle stress better.  For dogs to have healthy social relationships with other dogs throughout life, puppies should stay with their mother and littermates until they are 6-8 weeks old.

You should work toward keeping each new introduction a positive experience.  Every time your puppy is exposed to a new situation or person, you may want to provide a reward such as a favorite toy or dog treat.  If you see any sign of fear emerging, work on repeating the situation very slowly and gradually, using favored rewards to turn the situation into a positive experience.

There is always a concern about the risks of taking the puppy out of its home before it is fully vaccinated because of potential exposure to infectious agents.  However, the benefits gained from these new and early public appearances can be enormous, and without them the risk of the puppy developing permanent fears or anxiety is a serious concern.  One solution is to have people and only healthy, vaccinated animals visit the puppy in its own home until it is fully vaccinated.  A compromise is to take the puppy out to meet people and other pets in low-risk environments.  For example, visiting a neighbor’s yard and pet is a much lower risk than taking a puppy to a public dog park.

Q&A

What is involved with puppy socialization?

Socialization involves exposing young puppies to many different stimuli, including people, other dogs, and new places.  Dogs that are not well socialized during the critical early months of development can develop permanent fears that may lead to timidity or aggression.

What determines overall sociability?

Both genetics and early social interaction play important roles in how playful, fearful, excitable, or domineering a puppy becomes.  Puppies need to interact with their mother and littermates during their first 6-8 weeks, but should also be handled by people during this time. 

How can I assure that early interactions will be positive experiences?

You may want to provide a reward, such as a favorite toy or treat, every time your puppy is exposed to a new situation or person. 

Is it safe to introduce my puppy to new people and pets before it is fully vaccinated?

Infectious disease is always a concern in such situations, so you may want to consider low-risk social interactions.  For example, you can invite healthy people and vaccinated pets to your home (or visit theirs), which is safer than taking a puppy to a public dog park.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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