What is socialization?
“Socializing” a dog means getting the dog used to a variety of experiences (e.g., different people, animals, environments, sounds, etc.) in a positive way. It is particularly important for these experiences to be things the dog will encounter on a regular basis in your home or with your lifestyle. We want our dogs to feel comfortable and know how to behave in a variety of situations, and minimize the amount of fear a dog feels when encountering something new.
Why is socialization important?
Developing social skills
During socialization, social play and exploration with other dogs are important; these experiences will allow puppies to develop appropriate adult behaviours. Puppies that interact with a variety of dogs will also learn how to behave with other dogs by observing others.
Confidence building, fear minimizing
The experiences your dog has during the socialization period will help shape general patterns of how your puppy will react to situations later on. This is why slowly getting your dog used to a variety of people, environments, sounds, and animals is important. Well-socialized puppies usually become more confident dogs because they’ve been exposed to a wider variety of experiences than dogs who have not been socialized. Dogs that have not been exposed to many things outside of the home are more likely to be fearful or aggressive towards unfamiliar people, dogs, and experiences.
When should I start to socialize my puppy?
Many experts suggest the primary and most important socialization period for a puppy occurs within the first three months of life. However, if your dog has missed this critical period, you can still improve things.
What kinds of things should I expose my puppy to?
It would be impossible to try to expose your dog to everything it will encounter in its whole life! However, the more things you expose your puppy to within the first three months of life, the more likely your puppy will be able to find something familiar in a new situation. It’s important to get your dog used to people, animals, environments, experiences (e.g., physical handling for veterinary exams and grooming), and sounds that it will encounter on a regular basis.
In saying this, remember, you also want to make the experience a positive one. When exposing your dog to a new situation, it is important to watch your dog’s response. You don’t want your dog to become too overwhelmed or overly fearful. If your puppy looks scared, you will need to tone down the exposure and introduce the situation even more gradually. In order to ensure the experience was positive, always reward your pet after a socialization experience. A reward could be in the form of praising, petting, giving a treat, or some combination of these.
Example from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) of toning down an exposure:
If your puppy seems scared while in a park full of children, sit farther away and praise your puppy and offer them a treat each time a scary noise or movement happens. You could also go to a quieter park where there are only a couple children playing. Praise your puppy and give your puppy treats so your puppy knows it’s a great place to be. Over days or weeks (depends on your puppy!) of these socialization sessions, gradually approach a busier park again once your puppy is more comfortable around children.
Please see this checklist that was developed by Dr. Sophia Yin for ideas as to what you could expose your puppy or dog to and how to gage your dog’s response during exposures. Remember, you want to make the experience a positive one. Watch your dog’s response. Tone down the exposure if your puppy or dog shows fear. Give praise and treats to ensure that it is a positive experience.
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour (AVSAB). (2008). AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization. Retrieved from http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/puppy_socialization.pdf
Davis, K.D. (2004). Socializing dogs to places. In The Canine Behaviour Series. Retrieved from http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=1799
Davis, K.D. (2004). Socializing dogs to people. In The Canine Behaviour Series. Retrieved from http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&S=0&C=0&A=1811
Landsberg, G.M., Hunthausen, W.L., & Ackerman, L.J. (2012). Canine development: socialization period. In J. Rodenhuis and Z. Youd (Eds.), Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat (3rd Edition). Retrieved from
Schultz, J.L. (n.d.). Bringing up baby (socialization for young pups). Retrieved from http://www.aspcapro.org/sites/pro/files/socialization-for-young-pups.pdf
Yin, S. (2011). Puppy socialization: stop the fear before it starts. Retrieved from http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/puppy-socialization-stop-fear-before-it-starts