Socialization: The Keys To An Adaptable, Social, and Well-Mannered Dog

Having a dog in your life is an amazing experience.  They will bring you happiness, affection, and companionship. Our side of the bargain is to make sure we care for them, protect them and prepare them for the experiences they’ll have in the world. Socialization is a huge part of that!

How will your pup react to new people? New animals? New sounds and places? It’s our job to make sure they can interact with the world confidently. Socializing your dog means giving them the experiences to foster confidence and security. By exposing them to new things in a controlled way that they can handle, you’ll give them the foundation they need in life.

A well-socialized dog will react well to new sights, sounds, people and animals. You’re helping them live a happy and full life in the world around them!

In this guide, we’ll share with you common situations you and your pup will encounter and how to introduce them to your dog. By reading through this, you’re taking a huge step in being a loving and responsible caretaker for your pup.

What Is Socialization?

Socialization is the process of helping your dog become acclimated and comfortable around new and strange surroundings. It involves getting them used to strange smells, sounds, and sights as well as doing new things, such as riding in a car, watching a parade or playing in the park in a positive way. Socialization is important because it plays a major role in the overall health and wellness of your dog. An improperly socialized dog can pose a risk to himself and others around him. The socialization the dog gets at a young age plays a big part in what type of dog he is as an adult.

Not socializing your dog can have almost as many negative effects as socializing will have positive effects. Failure to properly socialize a dog can result in the dog being afraid of almost anything new and unfamiliar to him. Even the flapping of a window-blown curtain can send the un-socialized dog into a frenzy, and a frightened dog can easily become aggressive because he’s frightened. A dog that’s not socialized is going to be anxious and nervous about some of the most common situations (being groomed, listening to thunder or even getting into a car).

Benefits of Socialization

  • Stop fear before it starts – One of the most important reasons for socialization is to stop a dog’s fear before it starts. Almost any time a dog is fearful of something, it’s either because he was not properly introduced to it or because his previous experience with that situation resulted in something negative. Dogs have a very good memory, especially for negative things.
  • Good behavior – A well-socialized dog will behave in every situation and will not be an embarrassment to its owner. When the dog is brought into a situation in which he has been previously socialized and is familiar with, he’s going to react well and not have much of a reaction or change of behavior.
  • More predictable – When the dog has been well-socialized, his behavior is going to be more predictable with less surprising behavior if he does come upon something new and unfamiliar. Dogs that are well-socialized are generally calmer in nature.
  • Less chance of aggression – Many dogs labeled as aggressive are not aggressive dogs but are acting aggressively because they’re afraid of something. The more comfortable a dog is in his surroundings, the less aggressive the dog will be.

Types of Socialization

Although socializing a dog generally involves taking the dog to new and unfamiliar surroundings and introducing him to new and unfamiliar people, places and things, it actually goes much deeper than that. You’ll want to give your dog various types of socialization at as early of an age as possible. Simple socialization can begin when the pup is as young as a couple of weeks of age.

  • Handling the dog – Puppies are not born enjoying being pet and handled. It’s something they become accustomed to at an early age. The puppy should be touched and held as much as possible at a very young age. However, do more than just pet the dog. Touch every part of the dog’s body, including ears, mouth, nose, paws, and nails. The more the pup gets accustomed to this type of handling the more he’ll enjoy it and the better behaved he’ll be if or when he’s taken to a professional groomer.
  • Exposing to unfamiliar people – It’s easy for a dog to be familiar and happy around his human family, but it’s just as important to get him used to unfamiliar people. Dogs that were not socialized around unfamiliar people tend to be afraid of them and often bark every time they see someone new regardless of where they happen to be.
  • Exposing to other dogs – The earlier a puppy is introduced to other dogs, the quicker he’ll be comfortable around them. Although veterinarians often recommend not taking a puppy around other canines until they’ve completed all their shots, usually at 16 weeks, this is way past the window of when their socialization should begin. You can avoid dog parks until the pup has had its shots but take the pup to the homes of friends who have well-behaved dogs. Keep in mind that in every dog group, there will always be at least one dog that’s the alpha.
  • Exposing to other uncommon animals/pets (cats, birds, squirrels, bunnies, horses) – Even if a dog is the only pet you think you’ll ever have, you still want to socialize your dog to other animals. If your neighbor suddenly gets a pet rabbit or horse, you don’t want your dog going crazy barking nonstop or, worse yet, chasing it. In the beginning, just allow your dog to look at the other pet. Do not let him near the other animal until he really doesn’t seem to have that much interest in it anymore.
  • Exposing to weird or new surfaces (benches, chairs, rocky or wet surfaces) – You’d be surprised at how comfortable dogs get in their own surroundings – so comfy that they often believe there is no other world outside their home. They know what your kitchen chairs look like. You suddenly take the dog to a picnic area, and it’s afraid of the picnic table. I’ve seen little puppies bark nonstop at a new piece of furniture brought into the home. When they’re little, introduce them to all parts of the home and other homes as often as possible. If the puppy seems uncomfortable, don’t force the issue, but also don’t give up on that type of socialization.
  • Exposing to new and scary sounds – Some sounds, such as vacuums, thunder, doorbells, and babies, are a part of life and the dog should be exposed at a young age. When the dog or pup acts appropriately, which means not showing much of a reaction, praise the dog and give him a treat. Keep in mind that a dog may not ever like or stop being afraid of some sounds. It’s not at all uncommon for a dog to hate the sound of thunder or fireworks. Their hearing is much stronger than ours is. If the dog is crying and trying to climb on your lap, allowing it is only encouraging the behavior. Try distracting the dog with a chew toy or a treat.
  • Exposing the dog to other common objects (pots & pans, umbrella, broom, blowing trash outside) – One of the most important things, when your dog is scared or acting strangely due to seeing some object, is to not give the dog extra attention. Often, letting the dog smell the item will show him it’s nothing to fear, but continue doing what you were doing so the dog can see it’s nothing he or she needs to fear.
  • Exposing to things with wheels (bikes, cars skateboards) – Dogs have a tendency to enjoy chasing cars, bikes or anything with wheels that go around). This is usually because the dog wasn’t socialized around these things when they were young enough where they were not yet afraid of them. When you’re walking a puppy, and the pup sees a bike or skateboard, continue walking so the pup is focused on what he’s supposed to be doing rather than thinking about chasing or running away from the wheeled object. Bringing the dog close to your car or bike may also help the dog to realize it’s nothing unusual.
  • Exposing to a car – Most dogs love going for rides with its owner or human family. However, they probably didn’t always enjoy this. Getting in the car for the first couple of times and feeling the movement can be very scary for a young dog. Make sure the dog is confined in a position where he won’t slide around or fall off the seat. If it makes him more comfortable looking out the window, that’s fine as long as the window is not rolled down enough for him to stick his head out. If you plan to take the dog for a ride, do not feed him beforehand. If he gets carsick, it may stick in his mind (and yours) as an unpleasant experience.

Puppy Socialization

Socialization period and timeline – A puppy’s most effective socialization period is between 4 weeks and 16 weeks. During this time, they’re curious and want to experience as must about life as they can. They also have not yet developed deep-rooted fears that can be hard to overcome. Socializing your puppy isn’t just about introducing him to new people, places and things. It’s also about monitoring how he reacts to these things and if he’s reacting in a positive manner.

Importance of starting young – When puppies are young, they’re still more inquisitive than they are fearful, and it’s easy to introduce them to new things. The younger they are, the easier it is to get them accustomed to new people and new things. Let’s not forget their weight. A small puppy is going to be a lot easier to handle on or off leash than an older dog.

What has the breeder done already – If you got your puppy from a reputable, responsible breeder, your puppy has probably begun his socialization period already. Breeders usually begin handling the puppies when they’re only one or two weeks old. Even if their eyes aren’t open, they can still hear sounds and feel different touches. Handling puppies at a young age is usually what makes them calmer as adult dogs.

Fear stages and the importance of caution – Your puppy will display certain mannerisms to express his emotions. Pay attention to what he’s telling you. Never try to force your puppy to “get over it and accept it”. Give him time to become comfortable at his own pace. If you try to force the issue when the dog is afraid, you’re almost reinforcing the fear and letting the dog know it’s ok to behave that way. If, for instance, your puppy is acting afraid of a child, ask the child to just sit or stand there. There is a good chance the puppy will become curious and walk to the child on his own. Let it be the dog’s decision. Forcing a fearful dog to do something he’s afraid to do can cause unnecessary aggression and even more fear.

Importance of training classes & starting early – The importance of training classes cannot be emphasized enough. Training classes not only provide your puppy with the opportunity to be around new dogs and new people but also to learn basic obedience, which is extremely important in the socialization process.

Bring other pups into your home – It’s never too early to begin socializing your puppy with other puppies and dogs. Vets don’t recommend taking them out and around other dogs until they’ve received all their vaccinations, but this is not to say others can’t bring their puppies to your home. Short simple visits work best at first – enough to introduce them and allow for a little playtime.

Socializing a puppy is an important process that prepares them for what they will face later in life.

Socializing Older Dogs

Never too late even if they’re older – Socializing an older dog is going to be more challenging – no doubt about it. However, it is possible. Avoid taking him to dog parks in the beginning. You can take him there, but keep him on the outside just observing. You may want to use a muzzle the first couple of times if he appears to be showing signs of aggression. It may make you and others feel more comfortable. Take him for walks to allow him to see as much of the world around him as possible and to wear off excess energy. Introduce him to only one dog or person at a time to gauge his reaction. If he does act nervous or upset, try to ignore the behavior and keep moving. Calling his attention to negative behavior will only encourage it further. Feeding him treats may help relax him a bit.

Slowly reintroduce – Your older dog may have been introduced to many people and things at a young age, and it may just require reintroducing him to them again. Don’t force too much on him too soon. Let him become relaxed with one thing before reintroducing him to something else.

AKC Canine Good Citizen Training/Test – This program is a great way to begin the training process for your dog and can act as a foundation for any further training you may want your dog to have. You can join and participate in an AKC Canine Good Citizen training group or train the dog on your own. If you train your dog, you’ll have to bring him to an authorized AKC evaluator and tester. To earn the award, the dog must pass ten tests.

  1. Allow a stranger to approach and talk to you
  2. Allow a stranger to pet him while with you
  3. Allow someone to check his paws and ears as a groomer would
  4. Will walk on a loose leash with you
  5. Will walk calmly through a small crowd of at least three people
  6. Will do sit, down and stay on command
  7. Will come when called
  8. Will behave appropriately around another dog
  9. Will not be negatively affected by distractions
  10. Will stay with the evaluator for three minutes while you leave

Tips for Safe and Successful Socialization With Other Puppies and Dogs

  • Avoid on-leash introductions – Introducing your dog to another dog while on a leash should be avoided because the dog is naturally going to be more anxious and excited and will lunge and pull on the leash. You’ll pull back and it can become a struggle and one that the other dog reads as aggression on your dog’s part.
  • Make the first introductions at home – Before you begin introducing your puppy to the outside world, introduce him to people and other dogs in his own home first. This is your dog’s comfort zone, and he’ll be much more relaxed. When this all goes well, you can begin introducing him to the outside world.
  • Avoid stray and unknown dogs while out walking – Regardless of how calm and nice a random dog may appear, you don’t know anything about him, and you don’t know how the two dogs will react to each other in a strange environment.
  • Pay attention to your dog’s cues – It can’t be emphasized enough to pay attention to your dog’s cues and listen to what your dog is trying to tell you. Although many people will tell you that you are the boss, and your dog needs to listen to you, this does not apply when you’re introducing your dog to something or someone new. Forcing a pup to do something he is not ready to do can cause lasting damage. There is a very old but true saying: If your dog doesn’t like someone, listen to your dog.
  • Make it fun – Whether it’s at the beginning or the end of the socialization period for your dog, always make it as fun as possible. Bring along lots of treats and don’t be afraid to be generous with them when your dog behaves appropriately. The best way to get your pup to become comfortable with socializing is to make it as relaxing and enjoyable for him as possible.

Many new dog owners underestimate the importance of proper and adequate socialization until they are forced to take their dog outside of its home. They’re often surprised and annoyed at the dog’s behavior. A common statement is often, “I don’t know what’s wrong. He’s never acted this way.” The dog never acted that way because he was never forced in that situation. Socialization is not just important for your dog. It’s almost as important for your dog’s overall health as food and water.

Socialization Checklist

We’ve put together an 80+ Point Socialization Checklist to help guide you through the process. In it, you’ll get ideas on experiences and situations to expose your puppy or dog to so they’re better prepared for their life ahead. Take a look below or download it here.

Type of SocializationActivityNeeds WorkWent GoodDate Tested
Handling the DogCheck their ears
Check their mouth, gums, and teeth
Open their eyelids
Touch and squeeze their paws and legs
Touch their toenails
Tug on their fur and skin
Touch and poke their nose
Cradle them in your arms
Cradle them in your arms on their back
Hold them on their back for a while
Hold them in your lap
Give a belly rub while they’re on their back
Hug them
Tug on their collar
Wipe their body, face, and feet with a towel

 

Type of SocializationActivityNeeds WorkWent GoodDate Tested
Unfamiliar PeopleWomen
Tall men
Loud men
Men with hats
Men with facial hair
Elderly people
People wearing hats
People wearing boots
People wearing hoodies
People with backpacks or bags
People wearing sunglasses
People with canes, walking, or walkers
Children playing
Toddlers
Crawling babies
Crying babies
People running
Other DogsDogs who play well, are very active
Dogs who play well, are more even keel
Dogs who will put them in their place appropriately with force if they get carried away
Dogs that are larger than them
Dogs that are smaller than them
Pets and Other AnimalsCats
Birds
Bunnies
Squirrels
Livestock and horses (if possible)

 

Type of SocializationActivityNeeds WorkWent GoodDate Tested
Different SurfacesDifferent flooring surfaces (concrete, wood, tile)
Slippery surfaces
Park benches
Metal surfaces (truck bed or sewer cover)
Wobbly or uneven surfaces (board with a ball underneath)
Mud, dirt, mulch
Stairs (wood, metal, carpet)
Wet and dry grass
Icy, snowy, or rainy surfaces (if applicable)
Different SoundsHeavy rain
Thunder
Doorbell
Car alarm
Alarm clock
Vacuum
Car starting
Emergency vehicles
Dogs barking
Tornado siren (if applicable)
Things With WheelsCars
Rollerblades
Skateboards
Scooters
Strollers
Shopping carts
Bicycles
Wagons

 

Type of SocializationActivityNeeds WorkWent GoodDate Tested
Other ObjectsUmbrellas
Brooms
Things blowing in the wind (trash, flags, signs)
Car doors opening
Sliding doors
Different EnvironmentsBusy parking lot
Dog-friendly stores
Vets office
Noisy park
Big buildings
Busy streets
Parking garage

If you’d like, you can also download the checklist here.