What is Socialization?
Socialization is the process of safely introducing a puppy to people and other animals.
Why do puppies need socialization?
Socialization helps puppies learn how to interact with humans and other animals. Puppies with limited socialization may show fearfulness, anxiety or other undesirable behavior.
When should socialization happen?
The “sensitive period” for socialization occurs from 3-14 weeks of age. During this influential period, puppies:
- learn quickly about the world around them
- make life-long associations between experiences and good or bad outcomes
- show a willingness to approach and interact with people
- learn important social behaviors from littermates and mom
Although socialization must start early, it is a life-long process.
Experiences must be safe, gentle, gradual, and positive – neutral is not good enough! Watch body language to be sure that puppies are having a positive experience.
See our article Canine Body Language for more!
How to socialize your puppies
- Provide moms with space to get away from the puppies during weaning. This reduces the risk of aggressive interactions.
- Keep puppies with littermates until at least eight weeks of age.
- Expose puppies to new people (such as family and friends) between 3-8 weeks of age.
- Familiar caretakers can appear as “strangers” by carrying an umbrella or wearing a large coat, different hats, or new shoes.
- Have visitors hand out small treats to dogs as they pass through the kennel. If puppies are comfortable, include gentle stroking.
- Expose puppies to healthy puppies from other litters in the same kennel.
- Expose puppies to unfamiliar, puppy-friendly adult dogs. Any dogs your puppy meets should be healthy and fully vaccinated.
- Provide play sessions with litters of different breeds of similar age and developmental stage. This promotes positive social behavior toward a variety of dogs in adulthood.
GOALS: Frequent, short, incremental interactions that leave the puppy happy and wanting more!
What is a fear period in puppies?
Puppies experience a fear period during the socialization window. During this time, puppies are more sensitive to negative experiences. These experiences can impact adult dog behavior. Manage interactions to keep them positive.
When does it occur?
On average, the fear period in dogs occurs between 8-10 weeks of age. Individual and breed differences can impact this timeline. Watch the behavior of puppies for indications that the fear period has begun.
Make sure puppies have positive experiences with transport, grooming, handling, veterinary care, and transitions to new homes. A single negative event can create lifelong fears!
Although 3-14 week old puppies are not fully protected through vaccination, it is important to socialize them. The benefits of safe socialization far outweigh the risk of illness.
- If attending a puppy class, be sure up-to-date vaccinations are required for all participants.
- Have visitors wear fresh clothes and use shoe covers before engaging with the puppies.
- Sanitize socialization areas before and after use.
More tips for socialization success!
More is not always better. Increasing exposure when a puppy is showing fear or discomfort can be harmful. The puppy’s brain is primed to rapidly learn what is safe and what is unsafe.
Go slow. Experiences must be positive (not neutral or bad). Watch the puppy’s behavior and body language. If the puppy is comfortable, increase the duration or level of exposure a small amount. If the puppy is uncomfortable, go back to where they were comfortable. If the puppy remains uncomfortable or fearful, stop and consult your veterinarian or a behaviorist.
Socialize puppies in several locations. Variety is needed for a puppy to generalize their learning. If a puppy only experiences new people in the whelping area or kennel, they may view people outside of that area as scary.
Different breeds and individuals develop at different rates. Use behavior, not age, to determine where a puppy is developmentally and when the fear period has begun. An increase in fear behavior and less exploration mark the start of the fear period.
Topic(s): Bare Bones Basics, Breeder Resource, Socialization