How to Socialize a Puppy

How to Socialize a Puppy

Training Your Puppy to Socialize

Birth through 3rd week (1 – 21 days): 

Puppy needs mother and littermates.  They can’t regulate their own temperatures very well, so they must have a warm place to sleep.  Training is not effective at this stage.  They have yet to open their eyes and ears and do much besides crawl around.  Their instinct is to cry when separated from the warmth of the litter (so that mommy will save them).  Do not handle more than necessary. 

Fourth Week (21 days to 28 days): 

Eyes and ears should be open by this time.  

Ability to form an attachment to humans is forming at this time, so gentle handling is recommended.  All handling should be supervised, and children should not be allowed to pick up the puppies.  

DO NOT remove the puppies from the litter.  Do not wean at this age.  If complications with the mother dog require early removal from the litter, do it BEFORE 21 days or AFTER 28 days.  

Do not allow negative events to take place during this period.  This could result in shyness or other unwanted qualities in a puppy. 

Fifth through Seventh Week (28 – 49 days): 

The mother will be in the process of weaning the puppies.  It is important that you let her do her job.  If you abruptly remove the puppies from the mother, and begin feeding them puppy food, they will have missed out on a VERY IMPORTANT life lesson.  By allowing the mother to wean the pups, gradually, they learn that RESOURCES ARE NOT ALWAYS AVAILABLE.  Sometimes the resource (mommy) is there, but is not available to the puppy (she’s not in the mood to feed them).  You should supplement her feeding with moistened puppy food, during this time.  But, if you go directly from mom providing food on demand to YOU providing food on demand, the puppies will get a distorted view of reality (they’ll be “spoiled”), and will not easily accept the disappointment of limited access later in life. 

Give daily individual attention to each puppy, getting him or her used to positive human interaction. 

Puppies at this age can begin to learn potty training, and will try to “hold it” until they can go on an absorbent material, away from their sleeping area.  If you provide them with such, housebreaking will be a breeze. 

DO NOT remove puppies from the litter.  Wait until after 7 weeks of age to let the new homes take the puppies.  While it is important that the puppies get time separate from the litter on a daily basis, if you remove them entirely, they will lose out on more IMPORTANT LIFE LESSONS.  Puppies learn to inhibit their bites by biting their littermates.  When they bite too hard, the littermate will squeal, and either bite back in retaliation, or ostracize the bully, and refuse to play with him.  This teaches the pups not to be too rough, and while they’ll still play fight and wrestle, they will bite down softly, not injuring the other puppies.    A dog that does not learn this lesson could cause serious harm to a person or child later in life.  When they bite, they don’t inhibit, and an uninhibited bite will require stitches.  A dog can do a lot of damage with its mouth, and it is important that it remain with the litter to get this “weapons safety course” from its brothers and sisters.  This training takes place between the ages of 6 and 7 weeks, so if the puppies are adopted before then, they are an accident waiting to happen. 

The puppy is also learning other very crucial skills at this age.  He’s learning to speak “dog.”  He’s learning the social skills that will enable him to interpret unspoken messages from other dogs and give appropriate replies.  Things like calming signals (a kind of a friendly, submissive gesture) are learned at this time, and this will help your dog to communicate with other dogs all through his life.  If he is removed from the litter, unequipped with this vital information, he could possibly get “picked on” or attacked frequently by other dogs when they don’t receive the information they need from him.  If he doesn’t “speak the language”, it will be hard for him to express himself.  He could also become a “bully” himself, because he won’t understand the signals to “back off” that the other dogs are giving him.  This could also lead to a nasty fight.  The worst case scenario is that the puppy would not understand that it is a dog, and would fear all other dogs (as if they were aliens or something, which basically they would be for him).  

Eighth through 12th  Week (49 – 84 days): 

At this age, you will take over the role of being the “mother” to your new puppy.  The puppy will cry when separated from the only caretaker he has known for his entire life.  This is only natural.  Especially when you consider that we as humans are a far cry from his doting canine mother.  When he cries, she is usually there in a heartbeat, to see what is wrong.  Humans on the other hand, tend to bring home a puppy and just stuff him in a crate or in the garage the first night, and then wonder why the poor baby is screaming inconsolably non-stop. 

To make the first few nights easier on your new puppy, I recommend allowing the puppy to be VERY near to you.  I don’t care what your future “hard-nosed rules” are going to be for the puppy, or even if he is going to remain an outdoor dog, separated from the family he will learn to love.  Those first few nights should hold as little trauma as absolutely possible.  If you lock up your puppy away from you when you get home with him, he’s going to assume he’s been LOST or abandoned, and will cry to be rescued.  You merely have to assure him that he simply has a new home, with a human parent, and that you can be just as loving and comforting as his real mother (almost).  

By VERY NEAR, I mean body contact.  The choices are:

  • Put your puppy in a crate or pen with open lid right next to your bed, with your arm dangling down into the pen to cuddle your puppy to sleep, where he can see, hear and feel you.
  • Put your puppy in bed with you – (NOT RECOMMENDED)  This is difficult for multiple reasons:   The puppy is not yet housebroken

   The puppy could fall off the bed and injure himself

   The puppy could chew up your bedding

   The puppy could start to think that the bed is HIS bed if you continue this past a few nights

            (however, it is still preferable to listening to him squall, or terrifying him by abandonment)

  • Put your puppy’s crate right in the bed with you (this prevents accidents, chewing, or falling, and gets the puppy used to his crate.  You can still open the door and stroke or cuddle the puppy.   

Once your puppy realizes that he merely has a new address, and that he has NOT been doomed to be locked up in a cold dungeon with no human contact for the rest of his life (what a dismal existence that would be!), he will not need to sleep on the bed with you, and his crate can be moved to another part of the house where it is more convenient for you. 

The puppy is going to spend a great deal of his time in the crate, until he’s old enough to be allowed full access to the house, unsupervised.  So, you should put the crate where he can see you throughout the day as you move about the house.  If, for some reason you are foolish enough to let the sweet little furniture-eating, carpet-soiling, electrical cord-chewing puppy loose to wreak havoc in the house, because you didn’t think you needed a crate, then don’t you dare be upset at HIM when the little cutie raids the garbage, shreds your possessions, craps on everything, and TP’s your house.  The crate also acts as his personal playpen, keeping him from injuring himself doing things that little puppies have no business doing.  Mothers can’t watch babies or puppies ALL the time, that’s why they gave us playpens (crates) to keep them contained out of harm’s way.  Tossing the puppy outside is NOT the solution.  Why did you get him in the first place?  Even if you plan for him to be an “outdoor” dog, it is a good idea to socialize your puppy to being indoors, and potty train him, if later on in life he moves up in the world. 

This is the start of the socialization period where puppies need to meet as many kinds of new “nouns” (people, places, and things) as possible.  This means more than just the company you might have over, or the immediate back yard.  You must expose your puppy to all kinds of things in the world so that he will not fear them as an adult.  The rule of Sevens says that you should introduce your puppy to AT LEAST seven new kinds of surfaces, seven new kinds of people, seven new kinds of foods, seven new kinds of sounds, and seven new places by the time he is 12 weeks old.  All new situations should be introduced in a neutral or positive way—nothing frightening or hurtful.  

The puppy is experiencing his FEAR IMPRINT PERIOD between 8 and 9 weeks of age, and any traumatic encounters will stay with the puppy for his whole lifetime, if you allow them to occur.  You may think about postponing ear-cropping surgery or other traumatic events until after the ninth week.  You should introduce your puppy to safe, calm children, and supervise the interaction carefully.  Do not let the child hurt or frighten the puppy.  The best way not to let a child accidentally drop a puppy is to not let them pick it up in the first place.  They don’t mean to drop it, but try to explain that to the poor puppy who is scarred for life, and now runs from children. 

Do not isolate the puppy from humans at this age.  To do so will create a dog that is maladjusted for life, and one who is not a good candidate for the bond with humans which is a necessary part of training, and life in general with your dog. 

Now is the perfect time to reinforce the puppy’s natural desire to be clean in the house.  The use of a crate, scheduled mealtimes, and a reward-based training regime will maintain the clean habits your puppy has already started to develop while with the litter.  If you allow the puppy full access to the house, and do not supervise him, or do not make it beneficial for him to eliminate outside, you will cause the puppy to start to be confused about where to “go.”  So many people complain that they just can’t get their puppy housetrained.  But, after playing foster mom to several litters of young puppies, I have come to realize that the puppies have themselves potty-trained before they leave the litter.  It’s when they get into their new homes that the new owners confuse the puppies about where they should go potty.  The new owners often take a perfectly clean puppy and teach him to soil the house by doing everything all wrong. 

NOW is when you should begin training your puppy.  DO NOT wait until the dog is 6 months old.  The puppy is a learning “SPONGE” at this age, and to not give it structured training is to allow it to learn BAD habits.  Puppies have a full adult brain at 49 days of age.  There is absolutely no reason to wait longer than that to teach the puppy proper behavior.  It is much easier to install correct behaviors than to let the puppy grow up like a wild savage and then try to “untrain” the bad behaviors later! 

In the past, I think people recommended that the training did not start until 6 months because many training classes used “punishment” methods to teach obedience.  Now, we realize that positive methods are so much more effective.  Even a tiny puppy can learn the basics of sit, down, stay, come and heel without even putting on a collar or leash!  The dog no longer needs to be 6 months old to withstand the harsh corrections given out in the name of “training.”  If you find a training class and discover that they use corrections to train, RUN AWAY!  If they tell you that they use a “praise” method, also be very skeptical.  Praise alone is meaningless for a puppy that does not speak English, and without pairing it with something positive (like food), it is worthless.  Many punishment trainers use “praise” alone as a positive reinforcement.  In this context, the praise takes on the meaning of a “no punishment” marker.  It’s not really a positive reinforcement at all.  It just means, “You’re not going to get jerked right now.”  So the dog is still working to avoid aversives.  With positive methods, the dog is rewarded with something he actually wants, as his reward (imagine that!).  He will work very hard to receive this reinforcement and will soon be doing exactly what you ask (gleefully).  No punishment required.  For more information on positive training methods, see other articles on this web site. 

Keep on socializing your puppy up to 16 weeks of age.  You should also continue to socialize your dog after that time, but it is never more important than the time period of between 8 to 12 weeks.  You have a very brief window in which to get your dog acclimated to the big wide wonderful world.  Don’t let the grass grow under your feet!  Get that puppy out!  Not just to the puppy class once per week, either.  I mean really make an effort to introduce your puppy to as many positive situations as possible.  Here’s a list: 

  • Take your puppy to the Vet when he doesn’t need a shot.  Just hang out and feed cookies and have fun!
  • Take your puppy to pet shops (most of them allow pets).  You’ll meet a lot of dog-loving people who will be happy to introduce themselves to your pup.  The puppy can possibly also meet other puppies and animals there.  (Don’t take your puppy close to any “for sale” dogs at a pet shop—they come from puppy mills, and they are often very sick.  They could transmit something to your puppy.)
  • Take your puppy to a park (not a dog park—you don’t know what manner of germy, psychopathic dogs with inattentive owners are running out of control at a dog park).
  • Take your puppy to a training class, or puppy playgroup.
  • Take your puppy to daytime outdoor sporting events (for short periods)
  • Take your puppy anywhere and everywhere that the proprietors will let him come in.  

The important thing is that the puppy needs to get out for more than just a walk in the woods (or around the block).  He needs to meet new people, sights, sounds, smells and environments every day. 

You have to be particularly diligent about this if you have another dog in the house, or if you have adopted two young puppies at the same time.  The puppies each need to spend time with you, separate from one another, so that bonding can occur.  If they bond to each other, what do they need YOU for?  

Sixteen weeks and beyond... 

As I mentioned, you should continue to get your dog out to socialize with other dogs and people on a regular basis his whole life long.  You don’t want him to forget important social skills and proper greeting behaviors.  But you can never make up for a lack of socialization during that critical age of puppyhood (between 8 and 16 weeks).  That’s why they call it critical.  

You may find your dog enjoys regular romps with some of his doggie buddies.  Or, maybe he’d like to join a flyball team and become an athlete!  He might enjoy a trip to dog camp with you.  At the very LEAST, he’ll want to accompany you on vacation.  If you socialize and train him well, this should not be a problem.  Socialization is the KEY to a well-adjusted, calm and happy dog.  Training is great, too, but contrary to the old “wives tale,” you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.  You can’t, however, give an old dog the socialization he should have had as a puppy. 

Knowing what you now know about socialization, it should be clear that it would be optimal to adopt a puppy who has had proper early socialization.  If the puppy’s past is unknown, as is often the case when you adopt a pup from a pet shop or a shelter, it’s a gamble.  You could get lucky end up with a very confident dog, or you could get one who has many sensitivities (through no fault of its own).   I’m not saying that shelter dogs are all automatically going to be liabilities.  I’m just trying to emphasize the important role that early socialization plays.  Please don’t misunderstand me… I’ve gotten “hate mail” over this.  I’m just trying to share information that will help you choose a dog that will have the best chance to do well living with a human family.  I would be remiss if I did not share this material with you.  If you have already adopted a puppy with an unknown past, and are having good luck with it, good for you!  If you didn’t have this information, and ended up with a dog that has many sensitivities, your life with this dog may be a little more challenging.  I’m not telling you to give up on the dog. 

I’m not necessarily promoting professional breeders, either.  I don’t breed, and the last two dogs I adopted were mixes.  But, sometimes breeders take special care to give their puppies the best socialization possible.  Some breeders (not all) understand the importance of keeping the litter together until 7 weeks of age so that they learn bite inhibition and same-species socialization.  Not all breeders are responsible breeders.  You don’t have to have any knowledge or training to breed a dog (unfortunately).  Many people do not know the information contained in this article.  If they did not see to the proper raising of the pups (up until 8 weeks of age), then you could be worse off than if you got a puppy with unknown early socialization history.  My new bundle of joy is 13 weeks old as I write this.  The breeder she came from raised the puppies outside.  My guess is that food was given to the mother once a day, and that the puppies were not handled and cuddled much, or spoken to one-on-one by humans.  While I don’t have to worry about her bite inhibition, because she stayed with the litter long enough to learn doggie social skills, I am going to have to work very hard to get her to pay attention to me, because I believe that she formed the early opinion that people are inconsequential and their words are meaningless.

When students enroll in my obedience training classes, I require certain information on the intake form.  One question I ask is, “what age was your puppy removed from the litter, and what age did you acquire your puppy?”  If the answer is that the puppy was removed prior to 7 weeks of age, I automatically “red flag” that dog’s behavior profile.  Chances are, that dog will end up biting someone, and when they do, it will not be an inhibited bite.  I do not handle people’s dogs that have been removed from the litter too early.  

I also “red flag” any dog that was acquired after the age of 16 weeks, when the owner doesn’t know where and how the puppy spent his critical socialization period.  For all we know, the pup could have been in a cage at a pet shop or puppy mill during much if not all of that period, being isolated from human contact except at feeding time.  This is definitely not an optimal situation.  People need to know this.  Insurance companies need to know this.  Instead of giving certain particular breeds of dog a bad rap for having a tendency to bite, people should face the fact that any fearful dog will bite.  And the less socialized, the more fearful the dog will be.  Instead of banning Pit Bulls and Rottweillers, for homeowner’s coverage, people should get a discount on their insurance coverage if they can determine that their dog was properly socialized!

What do you do if you’ve ended up with one of those dogs who lacked the socialization he needed as a puppy?  All is not lost.  This article was meant to drive home the critical importance of early socialization, but I don’t want to alienate people who may already have a dog with a “social setback.”  I would be remiss if I did not try to help you rehabilitate and resocialize your dog, but I’ll do that in another article.  I just want to say this:  Don’t give up on your dog!  My favorite dog (an adorable Cattle Dog/Border Collie cross) in the whole world (next to my own dogs, of course), is such a dog.  He was a raging monster.  He “went off” when ever another dog came within 50 feet of him.  His owner was beside herself.  She enrolled him in my friend Brenda Aloff’s “Re-Socialization” class.  The progress he has made brings tears to my eyes.  Just this past weekend, I ran into them at an obedience trial, where he sat amongst hordes of dogs comfortably.  He continues to go to resocialization class, and is the subject in many of the photos in Brenda Aloff’s new book, Aggression in Dogs (available at our online store).  His owner continues to stay on top of things, and always carefully manages the dog’s environment.  He has come an awfully long way.  I never thought I’d see him sitting calmly at ringside at a dog obedience trial.  My advice to you if you love such a dog is to seek the help of a knowledgeable, behavior consultant who uses positive reinforcement to rehabilitate dogs.

Article submitted by: © Dog Scouts of America (Biography & Additional Information)