The Importance of Proper Socialization

The word “socialization” generally makes people think of hanging out with friends and meeting new people, but in dog’s it has a slightly different meaning. For dogs a better word would be “exposure” or “habituation” rather than “socialization.” Regardless of what word we put to it, the end goal is the same; to create a dog that interacts with the world around it with confidence. 

So how do we reach that goal? It all begins with their mom and litter mates. Puppies learn how to communicate at a young age by interacting with their litter mates, playing with them, exploring the world with them. They learn bite inhibition, they learn how to tell when they’re playing too hard, they learn how to tell when another dog is upset with them, they learn lots of crucial lessons in those first few weeks of life. This stage of learning is why it is so important for puppies to stay with their mothers until they are at least 8 weeks old.

So what about after 8 weeks? After 8 weeks, puppies are usually headed into their new homes. The following months are when your puppy will learn what’s scary, what’s exciting, what predicts something negative, and how to interact with people and other animals. This is an incredibly important part of the puppy’s development. The experiences they have early on will shape their behavior for their entire lives. This is why it is so incredibly important to socialize puppies as soon as possible. provides a wonderful breakdown of the stages of puppy development and why it’s important to get your puppy out in the world as soon as possible. The stages of development they list are the Curiosity Period (5-7 weeks), Behavioral Refinement (7-9 weeks), Fear Imprint (8-11 weeks), Environmental Awareness (9-12 weeks), and Seniority Classification (13-16 weeks). This critical socialization period will set the stage for how your dog interacts with the world for the rest of their lives.

But what about getting all their vaccinations first? Most vets don’t recommend taking puppies out before they’ve received all of the puppy shots, but most vaccination schedules don’t end until the puppy is 16 weeks old. However, there are safe ways to take your puppy out for socialization before their puppy vaccinations are complete.

What does proper socialization look like? The goal of socialization is to create a confident and stable dog. To achieve that goal, we want to expose them to as many different sights, sounds, textures, smells, animals, and people as we possibly can. However, there is a fine line we walk when socializing our dog. We can easily create a frustrated or reactive older dog by allowing our puppy to greet people and dogs on the daily basis. By allowing the puppy to interact with people regularly we teach them that is an acceptable behavior and they learn that they enjoy it. So when you go to tell your now adult dog they can’t go greet people, they get frustrated and that frustration can eventually develop into reactivity. 

So how do we socialize our dog without creating problems down the road? When I am working on socializing a dog, I aim for neutrality. I don’t want them to get scared of things, but I also don’t want them to get overly excited about things. I want them to remain calm and confident. But how do I achieve that? I spend a lot of time rewarding for handler focus. I want my dog to eagerly engage with me regardless of what’s going on. I don’t correct them for looking or exploring something, but every time they offer me any form of engagement I reward. I do this in every area I safely can when I have a young dog. I specifically pick areas where there are lots of different sounds such as hardware stores, train tracks, fire stations, or construction sites. I also frequent parks to work on getting my dog used to seeing other dogs, birds, squirrels, and other animals. The places you choose to take your puppy will depend on the area you live in and what kinds of things your dog needs to be prepared for. City dogs must be very accustomed to hearing different car sounds while a country dog may need to get used to the sounds of gunfire. Expose your dog to whatever you think they will benefit from the most.

It’s important that our dogs learn that strangers aren’t scary, but we also don’t want our dogs getting over excited every time they see a person approaching them. I spend a lot of time people watching when I’m socializing a puppy. We just watch people go about their business and work on handler engagement. If someone asks if they can pet my puppy I may choose to allow it or tell them no depending on how my puppy is doing that day. It’s up to you to decide when you think it’s appropriate for your puppy to greet a stranger.

What about dog socialization? First thing’s first, do not go to dog parks. For one, dog parks are breeding grounds for various infections that could do serious damage to your puppy. Dog parks are also frequented by dogs that may not have the best manners. Often times I will see dogs that are pushy, rude, and don’t understand the signals the other dogs are giving them with their body language. It’s important for dogs to understand how to read another dog’s body language to avoid conflict. Puppies have to learn how to read these signs from older dogs that are good at it and you won’t find that at a dog park. Most fights at a dog park are the result of one dog not understanding the body language of the other and pushing things too far. Instead, try to find people with dogs you’re familiar with and you trust to teach your puppy how to behave appropriately. If you think their play is starting to get inappropriate or rude, intervene and give the dogs a break from play. When they’re not playing with dogs you trust, practice just existing around other dogs without interacting with those other dogs. Again, heavily reward for handler engagement. If your puppy is getting too excited or scared, create space and continue to reward for handler engagement until you feel like your puppy can handle moving closer.

Socialization is about exposing your dogs to new sights, smells, sounds, and situations. The goal is to create a stable and confident dog that is fairly neutral. If you have any questions about socialization or would like to discuss any of the content of this article, please feel free to reach out to me.