Socialization: How to make your puppy bullet-proof

Getting a puppy is a big deal. There’s a lot of preparation involved. You have to puppy-proof the entire house, buy a bunch of stuff, and learn how those tiny fluffy things work.

But what happens when you actually go and get the fluff ball? Many things are going to happen, but one thing you have to make sure happens is training.

There are a lot of things that you need to do with a puppy to set them up for success and avoid a lot of headaches later on. Socialization is arguably the most important of them all. Click here to read the position statement on puppy socialization from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

What is socialization and why is it important?

Socialization isn’t something you do, but rather something that happens. It is a period during a puppy’s life that spans from around 8 to 16 weeks of age, varying between breeds and individual dogs.

That very short window is where the dog makes up most of its mind about the world it’s going to live in. What’s fun, what’s scary. Who’s a friend and who’s not.

If you leave that up to your puppy, you’re rolling the dice and hoping for the best. I’m all for a game of poker, but don’t gamble with your puppy’s well-being. What we recommend instead is to take a very controlled approach to socialization, making sure that your new family member not only experiences everything it needs to experience but that it does so gradually and pleasantly.

This guide will give you everything you need to go about socializing the right way.

What not to do

When you first read the definition of socialization, your idea might have been to just bring your dog everywhere, all the time: the dog park, a schoolyard, everywhere!

Don’t.

Most puppies learn that things are scary far more easily than they will learn they’re fun. You need to go about introducing new things with caution, especially if you have a breed that is more prone to developing fears. It if were as simple as just shoving your dog into situations, I wouldn’t be writing a guide about it.

Dog parks are terrible to introduce your puppy to others of its species. Many adult dogs dislike puppies, some people bring dogs that are outright aggressive to the park, and even the nice ones who want to play might be a little too enthusiastic about your new friend for its own good. You should wait until your dog is at least 6 months old and has had many good experiences with dogs.

Likewise, bringing your pup who’s never met a child to a birthday party and leaving it with the younglings unsupervised is a recipe for disaster. Your dog may not bite or growl at this age, but it can still quickly develop the fear that will lead to those issues later on.

How to properly go about socialization

We’ve established the time window (2 to 4 months of age) and what to avoid at all costs (forcing your dog into overwhelming situations), now let’s go over the process.

Step 1: Make a list

Here is the list that we created, to guide you in your puppy’s socialization.

If you want something specifically tailored for your puppy’s future life, you’ll find guidelines to make your own below.

Everyone’s list should include:

  • Common loud and scary sounds
    • Thunder, fireworks, emergency vehicles, construction work, children screaming, skateboards, dogs barking, sounds in front of your home (garbage trucks, snow removal)
  • People of all kinds
    • Children, Women, Men (especially with beards), people in uniform, people of other ethnicities than your own, seniors, people with walking aids or strollers, people with hats and other oddly shaped items (earphones, backpacks, grocery bags)
  • Dogs of all kinds
    • Puppies, dogs who want to play, dogs who don’t, senior dogs
  • The elements
    • Heat, cold, water (rain and swimming), snow
  • Different areas
    • Park, busy street, patio, bar, vet’s office, pet store

Depending on where you live and what your dog will be exposed to, you may also want to add:

  • other animals (cats, birds, horses, cattle, etc)
  • specific sounds (gunfire, train or plane passing by)
  • particular situations (being on a boat or a paddle board, taking the metro or the bus)
  • Anything else you can think of that you do often and want your dog to be a part of!

Now that your list is made, go over it and note the things your dog has already met or experienced: how did it go? Was it good, bad or neutral? The important thing here is to remember the things that are scary for your puppy.

Step 2: Train the most important stuff during the 8-16 week window

It sucks, but you might not have time to properly do everything on the list. The more ground you cover, though, the more likely your dog is to be okay even with the things you didn’t have time to train. We do, however, have a priority list:

Use food to make things fun

Some things will be very easy to make fun for your puppy, some much less so.

Using food, primarily your dog’s daily kibble allocation but also some higher-value treats will help make things that are scary or uncertain pleasant for your dog.

However, the order of events is extremely important: you want your dog to receive the food after the beginning of the event that you’re trying to make pleasant.

Here’s what it should and shouldn’t look like:

Good: Puppy sees a dog -> Happy noises -> Food
Bad: You see the dog -> Food -> puppy spots the dog

Good: Your dog steps on or approaches a metal plate -> Happy noises -> Food on the plate
Bad: You place food on the plate -> Your puppy has to fully step on the plate to get it (too hard)
Okay: You place the food on the edge of the plate -> your puppy has to approach the plate to get it

Good: Your puppy walks up to the person with an odd stick -> that person takes out a piece of liver to give to your dog
Bad: The scary stick person is holding food -> Your puppy approaches -> the person tries to pet the dog before giving it the food (too hard)
Okay: Holding out the food -> puppy approaches -> gets the food and back away after

Priority 1: Sounds

Sound phobias tend to be the hardest fears to train out of dogs once they get settled in, so we really want to prevent those early and quickly.
The good news is that it’s also one of the easiest things to “find”, thanks to our friend the internet.

You’ll want to warn your neighbors before you start doing this, as the noises will get loud and they should be made aware that this will only last a few minutes at a time!

Do the following for about 5 minutes at a time, a few times a day:
  • Without your puppy present, go on Youtube and find appropriate sounds for each item on your list
  • Grab your dog’s meal and have it ready on a nearby table
  • Connect a Bluetooth speaker or sound system to a device that can play things from Youtube
  • Call your puppy and have it far from the source of the sound
  • Put the volume at 0%, then slowly raise it until your puppy notices the sound
  • When your puppy tilts its head or reacts in any way to the sound, EXPLODE from joy and start feeding it one kibble at a time
  • Feed your dog non-stop while it hears the sound for a little while, then randomly stop the sound and then stop the food
  • Raise the volume and repeat until the sound is very loud and your puppy does not care

Remember to go at your dog’s pace. If your puppy seems nervous or stops eating, you’ve raised the volume too loud! If some sounds are especially troublesome for your puppy, use some higher value food such as liver treats instead.

You’re done with this training when you can put the volume really high from the start and your dog doesn’t care at all. Better yet, it runs to you happily expecting food!

Priority 2: Strangers

Next on the list of “this problem can make your life miserable” is fear of people, be it a specific demographic or just any stranger. Some breeds, such as those made for protection, have a very easy time disliking strangers. We’ll want to put in some extra effort for those.

The best way to do this is with people you know

We’ll use children as an example, but you can do the exact same thing for any kind of person you want to get your puppy happy about.

  1. Ask friends who have older children, around 12 years old, if they can come over (or you can go visit) to help socialize your puppy.
  2. When your dog first sees the child, check how it feels about it. Is it happy-go-lucky or apprehensive?
    • If your puppy seems unsure about that new friend, don’t force it to move forward. Simply let it investigate at its own pace and heavily reward any act of bravery such as taking a few steps forward. If your pup wants to fall back to safety, let it do so. If it seems like it’s becoming too much but your dog isn’t moving, encourage it to move!
    • If there doesn’t seem to be any issue, move on to the next step!
  3. Before your dog goes and says hi, hand some food to the child and tell them to give the puppy some, piece by piece. If they aren’t already aware of basic dog-interaction rules, make sure they know that picking up, hugging, cornering or hitting the dog is no way to play with them.
  4. If the pup happily takes food, you can ask the pre-teen to move around a bit, make some noise, play with the dog, etc. Always making sure that if your dog starts to feel unsure you slow things down and create some positive associations before moving forward.
  5. Repeat with younger and younger children.

The reality, though, is that not everyone has access to a bunch of strangers, young and old, at their disposal

Most of the time, you’ll have to go about it a little more “abruptly” than we would like, skipping the pre-teens in favor of the only child we have in our close friends who happens to be two or going next to a playground to find some children to introduce our puppy to.

The process is more or less the same, but with one caveat: be careful. Strangers tend to care much less about how your dog feels and making sure things go well, which means you need to be ready to protect the young furball if, say, a stranger tries to pick them up.

Here are a few places you can seek out specific demographics:

  • Seniors: in retirement homes (call ahead!)
  • People with mobility aids: in front of hospitals and retirement homes
  • Children: end of school or playgrounds (only with the parent present and willing)
  • People in uniform: your local fire department or a construction site

Priority 3: Dogs

Last on the list of “usually unavoidable” are other dogs. Even if you don’t plan on going to dog parks and don’t have family and friends who own dogs, you’ll come across them on your walks pretty often. Having your dog go insane when it spots one isn’t fun for anyone.

Once again, we must stress: do not do this in dog parks.

You want your dog to learn many different things when it comes to interacting with its species:
  • There is no need to be afraid of dogs no matter their size or shape
    • Much like we did with strangers, if your puppy is afraid of a particular type of dog (or all of them!) proceed very gradually!
  • Not all dogs like to play, and some only like to play in certain ways
    • You’ll need to brush up on canine body language for this. When your puppy doesn’t listen to another dog’s request for a break or space, simply remove it from the situation for about 30 seconds. Reward profusely when your dog takes a break or listens by itself!
  • Seeing a dog doesn’t always mean we go say hi
    • When you see a dog walking by on another street, let your puppy spot it, then encourage it to let go and move forward. Reward when they do!
  • Saying hi doesn’t always mean it’s time to play
    • When meeting a dog during walks, let them say hi (if you feel like it’s safe) for about 5-10 seconds, then encourage your puppy to move on and, once again, reward when they do. Be wary of letting dogs play on leash. You want your dog to understand that walks are for walking!

A good puppy class will give you plenty of opportunity for the “playing and interacting” part, but you’ll still want to work on sidewalk interactions. Perhaps you can make friends with the other new-puppy owners to work on this! Otherwise, friends and family with dogs you know are suited for the job are another great option.

Priority 4: Everything else

When it comes to locations, weather, time of day and other situations, you’ll usually get a lot of it done by virtue of just going places with your puppy. You should still make a point to seek out a few things, even if the current season doesn’t normally offer you the opportunity. At this stage, it’s time to whip out your list and check as many boxes as you can!

  • Teach your dog to like being in water and taking baths. Start with a sliver of water in a wading pool, then add a little bit at a time as they get more comfortable.
  • Prepare your dog for snow by crushing some ice to make a cold surface it can walk over.
  • Make a point of going out at night and in the rain, but do so gradually if the actual thing is too much!

What if my puppy is still afraid after the 16-week deadline?

Depending on how old your dog is at the time of reading this, it’s quite likely you won’t have time to make everything fun by the time their socialization window closes. It’s also possible that, due to a very bad experience, your puppy hasn’t fully recovered yet.

All of the advice above can still be used to help your dog feel more confident around whatever makes it nervous.

The urgency to keep working on that issue varies based on what your dog fears. If your puppy isn’t comfortable in water, simply not bringing it swimming is relatively easy to do. If it barks at strangers, though, you’ll likely want to fix that soon for many reasons.

Do you feel like things are getting worse? You would best be served by getting some professional help.

Got questions? Get in touch with us!

written by Stephen Fiset, dog trainer

Mis à jour le January 1, 2024