Puppy socialization involves strategically introducing your puppy to sights, sounds, people, and things they’ll encounter throughout their life. This sets the stage for their future and helps them become a confident, cooperative, and well-mannered dog who is unafraid of the world. Socializing a puppy can also prevent the development of behavioral problems, which are the number one cause of death in dogs younger than three due to relinquishment.1
There are key experiences you’ll want to socialize your puppy with while they’re still young — many of which you might not expect to have a lasting impact on their behavioral markup. We’ll go over these exposures in our puppy socialization checklist; save or print the PDF to track their progress over time.
We’ll also provide useful tips on how to socialize a puppy properly, so you can avoid making common mistakes and strengthen your dog’s ability to handle new environments with ease.
Here’s what we'll cover in our puppy socialization guide:
- Puppy Socialization Checklist
- What is the best age to socialize a puppy?
- What are the stages of puppy socialization?
- What is the best way to socialize a puppy?
- Key Takeaways
- Puppy Socialization: FAQs
Puppy Socialization Checklist
While you should never rush or overwhelm your puppy, you should try to expose them to as many types of items, people, sounds, and situations during the first three months of their life. The goal is to create positive experiences for your four-legged friend and avoid negative or neutral ones — so be sure to give them a treat or two in each new situation to reinforce a pleasant association.
The puppy socialization checklist below is broken down into categories for you to target when socializing a puppy.
Socializing a puppy with body handling
Socializing a puppy through touch and body handling is really important for owners who want their dog to grow into a good canine citizen, veterinary patient, and client at the dog-groomer.
- Checking inner and outer ears
- Examining mouth and teeth
- Carefully opening eyelids
- Poking the nose with a capped pen
- Lightly squeezing paws
- Touching the tail
- Handling and trimming nails
- Gently pinching skin
- Wiping body with a towel
- Putting on a harness
- Grabbing by the collar
- Hugging the puppy
- Picking the puppy up
- Holding in your arms
- Cradling on their back
Socializing a puppy with surfaces
Introducing different kinds of surfaces will help your puppy be more comfortable in new, unfamiliar environments.
- Tile floor
- Wood floor
- Artificial grass/turf
- Metal surfaces (sidewalk grates, vet scale, etc.)
- Stairs (carpet and concrete)
- Mud and dirt
- Wet grass
- Icy pavement and snow
- Rocky, uneven terrain
Socializing a puppy with objects
The more experiences your puppy has with objects they may perceive as fearful, the better equipped they’ll be to handle similar encounters in the future.
- Pots and pans
- Canes and crutches
- Blankets (being shaken)
- Bags blowing in the wind
- Sidewalk signs
Socializing a puppy with new places and environments
By socializing your puppy with unfamiliar environments and places, you lay the foundation for a confident and calm dog that can cope well with new surroundings.
- Car rides
- Vet office
- Pet store
- Dog groomer
- Crate or kennel
- Other people’s houses
- Busy sidewalks
- Crowded parks
- Beach or lake
- River or stream
- Shopping centers
- Parking lots
- Street markets
- Dog-friendly establishments
- Commercial buildings
- Retail stores
- Elevators and escalators
- Skate parks or bike paths
- Sporting events and practices
Socializing a puppy with sounds
To prevent noise phobias and dogs' fear of fireworks, thunderstorms, and the like, make sure to introduce sounds carefully and gradually. Consider using speakers for certain sounds so that you can control the volume.
- Sirens (ambulance, firetruck, police)
- Cars honking
- Wind, rain, and thunder
- Construction machinery
- Smoke detector
- Security alarm
- Opened garbage can lid
- Vacuum cleaning
- Dishwasher/laundry running
- TV/videogame noises
- Babies crying
- Toddlers laughing
- People cheering
- Sounds from other animals
Socializing a puppy with unfamiliar people
You want your puppy to meet and grow accustomed to as many different people as possible. Otherwise, they might grow into a "one-person dog" or become fearful of certain types of strangers.
- Tall men
- Men with beards
- Men with deep voices
- Infants (crawling)
- Toddlers (walking and squealing)
- Children (playing)
- Homeless people
- People of different ethnicities
- People wearing sunglasses
- People wearing hats
- People wearing costumes
- People in uniform
- People running or exercising
- People using a cane or walker
Socializing a puppy with other animals
Be sure to to reinforce the “stay” and “come” commands when socializing your puppy with dogs and other animals. Puppies are naturally curious and must be trained not to chase other animals.
- Adult male dogs
- Adult female dogs
- Senior dogs
- Farm animals
- Pocket pets (hamsters, guinea pigs, etc.)
Socializing a puppy with things that have wheels
It's not unusual for puppies to fear items with wheels. Introducing your dog to these scary things in a positive manner at an early age will help them grow into a calm adult.
- Baby strollers
- Shopping carts
What is the best age to socialize a puppy?
The most critical puppy socialization window is between 3-12 weeks of age but extends to 9-12 months old. This is the sweet spot in which a dog’s sociability outweighs fear, making it much easier to form positive associations during puppyhood than in maturity.
Puppies need daily socialization during this window of time to become truly acclimated and comfortable in life. As soon as you bring your new family member home, begin helping them build positive relationships with as many things on the puppy socialization checklist as possible, and as often as possible.
However, there are some constraints on when you can socialize a puppy, as they can’t completely immerse themselves in the world until they are fully vaccinated because their weak immune system is susceptible to infectious disease. Ask your veterinarian when your puppy can safely be out in public.
NOTE: Don’t wait until they get all of their puppy shots to expose them to new things, or you’ll miss out on the ideal time frame for cognitive and behavioral development. Rather, plan your puppy socialization schedule around their stage of development and vaccination status.
What are the stages of puppy socialization?
According to expert Pat Hastings, there are five puppy socialization stages:2
- Curiosity period (5 - 7 weeks). Once puppies are weaned, they’re ready to explore the world around them by crawling, climbing, and tasting. This is an ideal time for new experiences like venturing outside the house or grooming because they will bounce back quickly if they get scared by something new.
- Behavioral refinement (7 - 9 weeks). Everything your puppy learns during this age is permanent, which is why it is an ideal time to work on their training, forming good habits, and establishing rules and boundaries.
- Fear imprint (8 - 11 weeks). During this stage, puppies become a bit more cautious and even fearful of strangers, sudden movements, unknown sounds, and discipline from other humans or dogs. This is where your puppy will need lots of support and positive reinforcement to overcome their natural fear instinct for survival.
- Environmental awareness (9 - 12 weeks). In this phase, puppies continue to gain awareness of their environment and learn what to fear and what not to. Their behavior can be shaped depending on what the owner expects from the puppy.
- Seniority classification (13 - 16 weeks). At this point in their maturity, your puppy will start becoming more independent and test leadership and dominance. This is when critical learning occurs, so puppies that are allowed to bite or resist certain activities are not very likely to develop into well-behaved adult dogs.
As you work through the puppy socialization checklist, keep these stages in mind and work on experiences that best pair with the status of your little learner.
What is the best way to socialize a puppy?
The best way to socialize a puppy will differ depending on their stage in development and individual confidence level, as well as the situation you’re exposing them to. For example, how socializing a scared puppy with other dogs will be different than socializing an outgoing puppy with friends.
We’ll dive into how to socialize a puppy in each of these situations below, but here are five puppy socialization tips that apply across the board:
- Encourage your puppy to explore and be inquisitive. Remember that it’s a big world out there and they’re processing it all for the very first time, so patience is key.
- Never feed into their insecurities and let them learn without interference. By ignoring their initial fear reaction, they’ll be likelier to ignore the stimulus next time around, as well.
- Reinforce positive associations with new experiences by using training treats during each exposure. When possible, ask strangers in various settings to offer your pup a treat or two so they can learn how to build trust.
- Gradually increase or decrease the intensity of an environment as needed, and never rush a puppy into an overwhelming situation. You can do this by adjusting the distance or duration of the experience, i.e. seeing something from far away versus up-close, or a brief exposure vs extended immersion.
- Keep track of their reactions in the puppy socialization checklist and bank multiple “wins” before crossing it off your list entirely.
- Remember to designate time within your puppy's socialization schedule for your pet to play with their toys alone or nap in a safe place like a playpen, as these types of experiences teach them how to amuse themselves while preventing attachment problems later on.
How to socialize a puppy before vaccinations
It is very important not to wait to socialize a puppy until after they’re vaccinated. However, discuss the risks of “socializing puppies before they are fully vaccinated” (i.e. parvo in puppies and bordetella, the worst form of kennel cough).
Here’s what you can do:
- Carry your puppy in public places (assuming they’re light enough to do so). Bringing your puppy to pick the kids up from school or along for some errands is a great way to introduce them to many different people. Plus, it helps socialize them to different sounds and surroundings.
- Push your puppy in a shopping cart wrapped up in a blanket from home.
- Use the puppy socialization checklist to work on experiences they can have at home.
How to socialize a puppy with other people
According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the foremost authority on adolescent canine behavior, puppies should be hugged, handled, handfed, and held by 100 people before eight weeks of age — especially by strangers, children, and men — then an additional 100 people during the first month in their new home.
While 200 people in 12 weeks might be a stretch, the clear goal is for your pup to interact with as many people as possible to build up their social skills during this critical period. Diversifying your pet’s social calendar is important to prevent them from growing wary of anyone who isn’t you.
Here’s some advice for socializing a puppy with other people for the first time:
- Invite as many people as you can to meet your puppy.
- Request that they introduce themselves by lowering down to the ground (rather than leaning over the puppy) and gently extending the outer palm of their hand for your puppy to smell.
- With a warm and encouraging voice, they should greet your pup and invite him or her over to say hello, rewarding them with a treat if they do. If your pup isn’t comfortable taking it from their hand, try dropping it on the floor so they can inspect it.
- Remind people to pet your puppy where their hands can remain seen, like on their chest or chin.
As your puppy gets to know the closest people in your life, ask your friends and family members to participate in training your puppy and handle them with socialization from the checklist. This helps prevent them from becoming a “one-person dog”.
Mistakes To Avoid:
- Many people are excited to socialize puppies out in the world, but fail to bring other living beings into their house. Puppies need to learn how to politely welcome visitors so they don’t become territorial in their own homes over time.
- Don’t allow people who are unfamiliar with dogs to pet or hold your puppy incorrectly. For example, a hand reaching around the neck of a fearful puppy might incite feelings of vulnerability. Or, allowing his legs to dangle without supporting his bottom might make them feel unstable and unsafe.
How to socialize a nervous puppy
While it is understandable that puppies would be nervous or scared of people or other dogs, this can become a serious issue as they get older, creating the potential of fear aggression when they’re adult dogs.
Some signs that indicate your puppy is frightened include a tucked tail, lowered head, ears pinned back, and refusal to take a treat. Here are some tips that will help you socialize a skittish puppy:
- When socializing a nervous puppy, plan the first exposure to take place in the safety of your home.
- If your puppy seems scared and won’t take treats, lessen the intensity of the experience.
- Think about where you can go to see things that scare your puppy in a controlled way. For instance, if your pet is scared of children, consider standing to watch children coming out of school without your dog being approached.
- Make the experience positive by giving your puppy’s favorite treats or playing their favorite game every time they get scared. If you do this consistently, your puppy will start to associate the scary thing with getting the thing they love the most and, after a while, it won’t be frightening anymore.
Keep in mind that puppy socialization cannot change temperament, though it can play a significant role in behavior modification. Research by canine behaviorists shows that 65% of a dog’s behavioral markup is due to socialization, health care, nutrition, training, and management. The other 35% is genetic, meaning your pup might always be a little shyer, or a little less patient, than others — and that’s perfectly fine! Meet them wherever they are.
How to socialize a puppy with other dogs
Once your puppy has been dewormed and received their initial vaccines, it’s a good time to start introducing some new doggy friends. Here are some tips to help your puppy socialize with other dogs:
- If you have a friend with a puppy or a friendly adult dog, ask to meet in a neutral place.
- Don’t bring any toys, which could lead to displays of possessive aggression.
- Search for “puppy socialization classes near me”.
- Reward your dog anytime they have a successful interaction with another dog.
- Let your puppy have a lap around the park or join you at the pet store.
- Ensure that the other dog is friendly before facilitating a meet and sniff.
How to socialize a scared puppy with other dogs
Fear is a deep-seated, emotional response, so helping your puppy overcome it can be tricky. Counterconditioning and desensitization are the best options to achieve this. Here’s how it works:
- Make sure you’re in a controlled environment, like a small park with one other dog on a leash, versus a busy dog park with lots of pets running around everywhere.
- Identify how close your puppy can get to an unfamiliar dog before they begin displaying signs of fear and make sure to never allow your puppy to get any closer than that at the beginning of your training.
- Change your puppy’s opinion about other dogs by offering treats every time a dog appears.
How to socialize a puppy with an older dog
Older dogs are sometimes known to be less tolerant of puppies With a bit of preparation and planning, you can safely introduce your puppy to other dogs that already live in your household. Here’s how:
- Let your current dog smell a piece of cloth that has been rubbed on the puppy before you bring the puppy home in order to get them ready for the new family member coming their way.
- Put the puppy in a crate in the living room or front yard so that your older dog can get to know the new puppy’s sounds and scents.
- It’s a good idea to introduce dogs to one another in a completely neutral area, like a park.
- Going for a walk together can help reduce anxiety, fear, and tension in dogs.
- Don’t be alarmed by corrections; this is a normal thing for mothers to do in litters.
How to socialize a puppy with cats
Introducing a puppy into a household with a cat takes some planning and lots of patience. Here are a few tips that will help you make the transition smooth for all involved.
- When you first bring your new puppy home, separate the cat from the puppy by placing them in adjacent rooms separated by a door. This way, they’ll both be able to get used to smelling and hearing one another without the risk of direct interactions.
- Place a towel or blanket with your puppy’s scent in the room with your cat to help ease the transition. You can also place a towel or a blanket with your cat’s scent in the room with your new puppy.
- Make sure the puppy and the cat are always supervised until you’re sure everyone is safe and comfortable.
Effective puppy socialization in the first year of life can dramatically decrease the likelihood of behavioral problems as adults, including fearfulness and aggression.
The more your puppy experiences, the more accepting they become. While socialization lasts the entire life, the first 16 weeks of your puppy’s life are critical.
Remember that puppy socialization is only one part of your dog’s future success; quality veterinary care, a nutritious diet, and regular exercise are also key to keeping pets happy and healthy.
Puppy Socialization: FAQs
When is the best time to socialize a puppy?
The best time to socialize puppies is now. It’s never too early to start. Puppies need daily socialization between the ages of three and 12 weeks old. Exposure to new experiences in public should happen regularly until nine to 12 months old when the puppy socialization window begins to close. It’s not impossible to socialize an older dog, but it is substantially more difficult.
Try introducing your puppy to new people and other animals after they’ve played with you for a bit and released some of their energy, but aren’t entirely exhausted. The best time of day to socialize puppies falls in that sweet spot between hyper and tired. Also, pick a time in your schedule after they’ve eaten so their mind isn’t fixated on food in survival mode during an interaction, as they may feel more threatened or defensive.
Can a puppy socialize after the first vaccination?
Yes, it’s generally safe to let your puppy socialize after the first vaccination. However, do not take them to public places where they can interact with unvaccinated dogs until your vet confirms they are fully protected.
When can puppies socialize with other dogs?
Puppies can socialize with other dogs and handle new experiences best between three and 12 weeks old and after receiving their first round of shots.
How do you socialize a puppy in quarantine?
The social distancing required during the pandemic can make it more challenging to provide small puppies with the socialization they need. Here are some things that can help with socializing your puppy in quarantine:
- Sitting with your puppy outside to watch the neighbors do activities
- Exposing your puppy to different things that you might have in your shed or garage, such as bikes, skateboards, rakes, shovels, etc
- Letting your puppy walk over, around, and under different things in your house in order to experience different textures
- Letting your puppy explore different areas of your home where they might not ordinarily be allowed
Can you over-socialize a puppy?
Generally, puppies can’t have enough socialization; that being said, overstimulation can place a puppy under stress — in which case, it’s your job to help them out of trouble to avoid a negative experience.
Pay attention to their body language. If your puppy is clinging to you, yawning, or turning its head away when socializing with other people, it means they’re stressed. Forcing any type of interaction will only make it worse and create a negative association with the experience.
Frequent, short sessions are the best way to socialize a puppy, so remember that sometimes less can mean more. An overly enthusiastic socialization program could actually backfire and result in negative associations with certain experiences.
How to best socialize a puppy
- Socialization is all about teaching your puppy that the world is a safe place where dogs and humans are friendly and new experiences don’t need to be frightening. It is accomplished by handling your puppy the right way during their first crucial three months of life.
- A puppy’s first 12 weeks shape its future but socialization should be regarded as a lifelong process. If your puppy’s lessons are not continued through the later life stages, there can be significant regression.
- If your dog is older, you might want to consider speaking with a professional dog behaviorist for the best advice, especially if your pet shows signs of fear or aggression. Depending on the plan, a pet insurance policy may be able to reimburse the cost of behavioral training.