Socialize Your Dog

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Dog Training - What You Should Know - Socialize Your Dog

Socialization is a process of exposure and habituation to the environment around them that all animals undergo after birth.   In addition to genetics, the most important factor in determining your dog’s temperament is usually his/her socialization history.

 The time window for socialization: For a certain period of time after birth, animals have a much lower level of fear avoidance of the unfamiliar than they will have later, as adults. Trainer and author Jean Donaldson explains that this “window of time” allows young animals to be more easily acclimated to normal sights, sounds and experiences in their environment so they will not go through life being spooked by harmless things like the wind blowing through trees. Once this time window closes, animals seek to distance themselves from novel things, and this too serves an adaptive function, since fear of the unfamiliar increases their chances of survival by preventing exploration of things which may do them harm.

Sensitive period for dogs: This sensitive time window for socialization of dogs occurs approximately between 4 weeks and 4 ˝ months of age.   This is the when puppies need to be introduced and acclimated in a positive, carefully supervised way to whatever they will be expected to accept and tolerate as adult dogs.  This includes new experiences, situations, sights, sounds, people of all ages and other animals.  Every new thing your dog successfully encounters as a pup is like money in the bank, building up her confidence and ability to “bounce back” to overcome anxiety and stress.  Inadequate socialization produces fearful or aggressive adults who react inappropriately to environmental stimuli and to the proximity of people and other dogs.

Routine socialization of puppies and dogs should include the following:

1. Meet several new people each week of many different sizes, ages and races including:


People wearing hats, uniforms and helmets.


Crowds and people clapping, children running, shouting, waving arms, babies crying.


Kids on bikes; people using canes, walkers, umbrellas and pushing carts;


People carrying umbrellas, briefcases, backpacks and tennis rackets.

2. Acclimation to gentle touching and handling and mild restraint by family members and your vet.

3. Exposure to common household and yard noises such as vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and music.

4. Introduction to water hoses and bath routines.

5. Acclimation to car rides and to passing traffic.

6. Elevator rides, passing in front of automatic doors, etc.

6. Experience walking on different surfaces—tile, carpet, grass, gravel, sand, cement, chicken wire.

7. Regular meetings with dogs, cats and other animals your dog will routinely encounter.


Benefits of “pumped up” socialization—Socializing your pup to your own family and home is a good start, but not nearly enough to promote stable temperament!  Dogs that may have some genetic tendency to be reactively wary (for example, most of the terrier, herding, and guarding breeds) need extra heavy doses of socialization.  If your dog has a breed standard that says something like “reserved” or “wary of strangers” this is your cue to super-socialize!  You provide “pumped up” socialization by exposing the puppy to everything under the sun that you want her to be at ease with, in the most pleasant positive way that you can.  Never push your puppy beyond his comfort level or give him more stimulation than he is ready to handle—an important part of socializing your puppy properly involves protecting him from unpleasant, emotionally overwhelming, or dangerous experiences.  The result of continuous low key exposure to novel things is usually a more stable dog with vastly improved  “bounce back” capability.   Here is how trainer Jean Donaldson describes the results this kind of socialization can produce (Dogs Are From Neptune):

 “I live in the middle of a large city (Manhattan) with my dog that comes from a spooky line, close to 100% fear biters on the mother’s side, and yet (temperament wise) she is an unflappable rock.  Why?  Every time my dogs go for a pee, they encounter novel people, sights and sounds.  Every single time.  Scores of new people a day.  All sizes, shapes and demographics patting them…screeching dog phobics, skateboards, bikes, strollers, drunken university students, moving vans, wheelchairs, emergencies, football fans with beer hats, couriers, homeless people talking to themselves, film crews…They have not only seen it all, they continue to see it all every day.” 

In contrast, dogs that live in the suburbs or the country typically experience far less daily variety, and are therefore more easily alarmed, something Donaldson labels  “Suburban Dog Syndrome.”

How  You Can Socialize Your Dog:  Some ways to socialize your dog include neighborhood walks and outings to shopping malls, parks, softball or soccer games,  and friends’ homes.  Plan some walks to coincide with when neighborhood children are on their way home from school.  Make it a habit to keep treats handy in your pocket. Merely exposing your puppy to children may help him to tolerate them, but if you want your pup/dog to actively like children, the best way is to achieve this is through hand feeding and gentle play.  When babies are around, hand feed treats to your pup.  Allow willing children to do some of the hand feeding under careful supervision.  If your pup loves balls, let the children also throw a ball for him..

Trainer Pat Miller gives this suggestion for providing either a puppy or an older dog that needs some remedial socialization with a pleasant exposure experience:

“Sit in your front yard or farther back in your driveway with some magazines and a tall drink.  Have your dog on leash resting on his rug/mat.  When anyone or anything goes by, start dropping treats.  Stop the treats when the person or thing passes out of sight. Do this as often as possible until your dog seems relaxed and comfortable with passing people, bikes, etc…Now move on to other locations and do the same.  Let your dog’s reactions guide you as to how much stimulation he can take without triggering any negative reactions or feelings.”  This technique will train your dog to associate the sight/presence of other people and dogs with something pleasant (getting a treat).

Be proactive about socialization with other dogs— Inadequate socialization with other dogs is one of the primary factors in dog-to-dog aggression.  Before they are 4 ˝  months old, puppies need to be able to freely play off leash with a variety of other friendly puppies and socially savvy dogs.  This enables them to develop their canine social skills, which include being able to "read" the body language of other dogs and exchange communication signals with them.  Regarding this, Dr. Ian Dunbar says: “Remember, socialization is not just playing with the same dogs in the same place over and over. Socialization is meeting unfamiliar dogs in unfamiliar places…an excellent socialization exercise is the good old dog walk, especially if you take the time to sit on a park bench so your dog can hide and peak and watch the world go by…as you classically condition with kibble every time another dog approaches (regardless of your dog's reactions), and differentially reinforce calm or friendly behavior with liver treats.”   In other words, feed your puppy/dog treats every time another dog passes, even if your dog is acting shy, fearful, etc. and this will help your dog to begin forming a more positive reaction to the sight and proximity of other dogs--then if your dog shows more desirable behavior (relaxation or friendliness), reinforce this even more with a higher value yummy t treat that he especially loves! 

Socially savvy Holly gives a play bow to her pal Cecil. 

However, there is an important caveat regarding your puppy’s safety and health that can complicate your efforts to provide enough socialization with other dogs:  Until puppies are about 4 months of age and have completed all of their inoculations, they are still susceptible to diseases such as distemper and parvo.  Therefore until your puppy is past this age or at least has completed the second set of shots, you will need to take precautions to avoid close encounters with strange dogs  who may spread disease. One solution to this socialization-vaccination dilemma is to arrange play dates with friendly healthy dogs and to attend a puppy class that is careful about cleanliness and requires all participants to be vaccinated.  

Socialization is a Lifelong Process--It is important to understand that the process of socialization doesn’t come to a dead stop once your dog passes four months of age, but rather that your dog’s willingness to accept novel things becomes greatly reduced.  This means that while remedial socialization is still possible, making up for missed opportunities requires more time and effort and results are less predictable. 

Since a dog’s degree of sociability is not set in stone at 4 months of age, this also means that you should not assume there will be no ill effects if you ever completely stop socializing him at some future time.  According to Dr. Lore Haug, DVM, some dogs seem to go through an "insecure or fearful phrase" between 6-12 months of age and continuing active socialization beyond this period is necessary to prevent them from becoming increasingly fearful or aggressive.  Likewise, Donaldson states there is a “use it or lose it” aspect to socialization because over time, an animal’s degree of sociability always moves naturally in the direction of greater fear-avoidance of things rarely encountered. 

Practice Makes Perfect—Socializing your puppy will help him form the internal attitudes that he needs to grow into a happy confident adult, but his social skills can become rusty unless he gets to practice them on a regular basis.


Donaldson, Jean. Culture Clash, James & Kenneth Publishers, 1996.

Donaldson, Jean. Dogs Are From Neptune, Lasar Multi Media Productions, Inc. 1998.

Miller, Pat B. Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog, Dogwise Publishing, 2004.

Miller, Pat. B. Your Dog, Tufts Media, March, 2004.

Dunbar, Ian. How To Teach A New Dog Old Tricks. James & Kenneth Publishers, 1981.

Haug, Lore. “Socialization In Puppies,” Texas A&M University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.


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