The ABCs of Socializing

When it comes to socialization, the clock is ticking! 

Socializing puppies is vital to helping them grow up to be wonderful companions. And because most people have high expectations for their dog’s ability to be quite social these days — like riding nicely in the car, behaving around people and other dogs, and spending time at the park — socializing puppies early is among the most valuable building blocks for a long, happy life.

Most development happens in the first 2 two years

One of the best investments — of time and money — a new pet parent can make is enrolling their puppy in a class or classes combining the best elements of veterinary behavior and dog training.  Such programs typically follow these developmental guidelines:

8- 18 weeks are typically the most crucial for socialization. This is when puppies should approach and be exposed to novel objects and situations.

8-19 weeks are sometimes called “fear periods,” when dogs may begin to approach novel situations fearfully.

6mos – 1 yr is when some say a secondary fear period may occur.

Dr. Valli Parthasarathy of Synergy Behavior Solutions (SBS) supports the statement on puppy socialization from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. It reads, in part: “Because the first three months are … when sociability outweighs fear, this is the window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals and experiences.” 

This is a great time to consider a rewards-based puppy preschool that emphasizes experiential socialization and dog-dog socialization (as opposed to manners/obedience class). “If your puppy is sick or injured during this critical socialization period, then private work should to be done to ensure the opportunity is not missed,” Parthasarathy says.  

Counseling pet parents on the fear period is routine for certified animal trainers Scott Raymond and Sara McLoudrey, also of SBS. “During this time puppies are more likely to have a fear response to novel situations, people or other animals. It is especially important to avoid frightening events during this time of their lives as it may have a lasting impact,” says Raymond. “This is best done by making the experiences they do have with novel situations very positive and not too intense.”

When is it safe to play with others?

Your veterinarian will provide guidelines for when your puppy can safely start socialization classes. S/he must have had at least one series of vaccines at least seven days prior to the first class. Perhaps surprisingly, it is now believed that puppies can start socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Remember that the most crucial socialization period starts at 8 weeks.

“There is no evidence that a puppy with his or her first round of vaccines is at risk in a structured, well-rounded puppy class,” says Parthasarathy. “Many animals are euthanized because of behavior issues, so we think of socialization as a behavioral vaccine.”  

“But that doesn’t mean taking them to the dog park either,” adds McLoudrey. “There are lots of places you can socialize your puppy without interacting with strange dogs.”

Your best bet?  Get puppy to puppy class — the sooner, the better!

“Puppy classes should include structured time with other puppies, which helps set up the dog for positive interactions,” says Raymond. “Classes should also include experiential socialization — things like walking over unusual surfaces, exposure to a running vacuum, and mini agility equipment.”

Early socialization classes that teach a balance of both self-confidence and self-control are very important, says Casey Newton of Wonder Puppy. “Over the years, I have discovered that there are five stages of play that are very important to be aware of. We teach this in Wonder Puppy's Social Puppy class. Each stage shows pet parents their puppy's specific level of comfort in social situations. That way you know how to help them best so they can become a confident and well-behaved adult.”

Dr. Parthasarathy notes that while anxiety is typically associated with older dogs, it can affect puppies too, and that medications can be helpful. “If behavioral medications can reduce anxiety from the onset, then the puppy can have better experiences.”   

Quick n Easy Tips for socializing your puppy

Let the baby explore new environments at his or her own pace. This also means happy visits with the groomer and your veterinarian. Happy visits should be “pop ins” when you’re not there for nail trims or vaccinations. The visits should include treats — on the way, when in the lobby, and even in the parking lot. Visit your favorite technician or customer service representative as they’ll be happy to see you and your new addition (please extend the common courtesy of calling ahead for the okay to stop by).

  • If your puppy is showing fear-based response behaviors at 6-8 weeks, seek out a trainer for one-on-one work with. The session with the trainer will likely mimic many elements of puppy class but the trainer may arrange safe play with just one well-mannered dog, and lessons will be conducted and paced according to puppy’s individual needs. 
  • If you cannot leave the house, explore scary things/places in the house — crinkled paper, rippled flooring, a running vacuum
  • Take puppy along for car rides
  • Take him or her to Dairy Queen for a tiny cone or to Starbucks for a Puppacino (positive experiences)
  • Exposure to family pets is not enough. Puppies should be exposed to (vaccinated) dogs of varied age and appearance
  • Every experience should be positive! If you think your puppy needs help with desensitization therapy, seek out veterinary behavior consultations and private socialization 


Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog, Kenneth Martin

Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right, Dr. Sophia Yinn

Christy Caballero writes from the heart about all things pet-related, from a couple deer trails off the beaten path, typically juggling a cat (or two) on her lap as black kitty AsTar teeters on her shoulder and Mojo the retired Greyhound quietly calls for reinforcements!!