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Puppy Socialization

Canine socialization is a continuous training exercise in which breeders and puppy buyers teach the dog to accept and interact with a variety of people, animals and objects, in all types of situations, without becoming overly fearful or exhibiting aggressive behavior.  Socialization training requires that a puppy have repeated opportunities to become accustomed to unfamiliar people, places and things in a no-pressure, non-threatening environment.  This allows the dog to learn from his own experience that strange people or animals, loud or unusual noises and strange looking objects are not a threat.  With proper socialization, the dog learns to be a confident, out-going and friendly companion and this will make the dog a better family pet.  (Most of the following information will apply to socializing any age dog, although this is written specifically for puppies.)

When does my dog need to be "socialized"? 

Early socialization begins when the puppy is still nursing and within the litter.  The interaction of each puppy with its mother and siblings is where the puppy first learns that there are limits for its behavior.  For example, a puppy that insists on tugging Mom's ear or chewing on her tail will eventually be reprimanded.  Mom may "discipline" this pup by snapping, growling or just by knocking him over.  A pup also learns to "bite nice" (bite inhibition) when the pups play with each other.  If one pup is overly enthusiastic when play biting, the other pup involved will yelp to let it be known that the bite was too severe.  In some instances, the injured pup may also turn the tables and aggressively pursue (growling and snapping at) the offending pup  to impress that its behavior was unacceptable.  This is how puppies learn to play and interact in an acceptable manner.

The first few weeks of a puppy's life are also where a puppy learns that humans are a part of the dog's "pack" and where they will begin to learn how to interact and deal with humans.  Puppies will "learn" temperament from their mothers’ or other dogs' attitudes toward humans.  It’s imperative that young puppies NOT be exposed to ill-mannered, aggressive or overly-fearful dogs as they can "learn" to exhibit these same tendencies.   This is why it is so important that your puppy has parents with good temperaments.  (I believe early socialization training by well-mannered dams is one of the most important aspect of a puppy's socialization training!)  If your puppy's dam or other dogs in the breeder's household growl or snap at the breeder, children or strangers, then your puppy will have learned this behavior before you ever bring him home.  Overcoming this type of learned behavior is extremely difficult if not impossible. 

If you are investigating breeders and available puppies and visit a home where the parents or other adult dogs are out of control and show obvious signs of aggression, RUN, do not walk, back to your car and NO NOT BUY A PUPPY from this person!!  Bringing home a dog from this type of home is asking for serious temperament issues in your family's pet.  Do keep in mind however that many dogs, especially dams with young puppies, will bark or growl at strangers.  This is not necessarily a sign of "bad temperament" IF the dogs calm down when the owner tells them that the strangers are "OK".  (Many times a dam will be protective when in the whelping box, but will be fine when not confined with the puppies.)   However, if the dam, other adult dogs or the puppies in a home snap or growl at the owner or the owner's children, this is NEVER acceptable. 

While your puppy is learning proper "dog" etiquette from his dam and littermates, he will also be learning correct human etiquette from the breeder.  This will begin when the puppies are born and will last for as long as each puppy remains with the breeder.  A good breeder will work consistently to assure that each puppy will accept being handled by humans, is accustomed to different sights and sounds and is encouraged to exhibit appropriate behaviors towards humans and other animals.  This early training helps assure that each puppy will mature into a dog who can be trusted to meet and interact with a multitude of humans and that can be trusted to meet and play with other dogs.

Of course, a puppy's training while still with its dam, littermates and breeder is merely the foundation of an adult dog's training to accept and feel confident in new situations/surroundings.  New owners must continue to build upon this foundation and increase a dog's social skills by exposing their puppy to a variety of sights, sounds, textures, animals and humans.  Socialization should be a part of every puppy's daily routine. 

Your puppy's first socialization lessons in his new home should include gentle handling of the puppy by each member of his new family.  (This should be done with one or two people at a time so as not to overwhelm or intimidate the puppy.)  As your puppy grows, he should also learn to interact with other adults and children.  These lessons should include guests in your home and yard and strangers in different public locations.   (An easy place to start this is in your own neighborhood.  Take the puppy for walks and introduce him to the neighbors, being sure to bring treats for everyone to give him!)  You will also want to enroll your puppy in a puppy kindergarten class as soon as possible so that he can continue to have regular, safe, positive interaction with other dogs.  Young puppies must be enrolled and attend a puppy kindergarten class   Older puppies or adult dogs should be started in a regular obedience class after they arrive in their new home.

New owners will also need to teach their puppies not to chew on fingers and toes, not to eat their slippers and the kid's toys (lessons similar to what a mother dog would teach her puppies), and this training, in addition to a puppy kindergarten class, should provide most puppies with the necessary social skills to interact successfully with humans and animals.  Puppy kindergarten classes will also help build a strong bond with the puppy's new owner and will lay a solid foundation for teaching the dog to be a well-behaved pet.  Owners that follow up the puppy kindergarten class with a basic obedience course should have a well-socialized, nicely-behaved companion animal that is a pleasure to have around the house or out in public. 

A new puppy, whether he’s 8, 12 or 16 weeks old, will need to have limits set on what he can do during playful interaction with humans.   Just as a puppy’s mother and littermates let him know when he’s being too rough, a puppy’s new human pack-mates need to let the puppy know when he has passed acceptable limits.   To do this, owners must provide their puppy with sufficient playtime and opportunities to interact with their new family.   Puppies learn through play, so interaction with their owners is necessary to increase their physical coordination and social skills, and to learn appropriate limits on their behavior.   Conscientious owners must be sure their puppy receives adequate interactive playtime.  This is the first step in teaching your puppy his new position in your “pack”. 


You should make a point of socializing your puppy with a variety of people.  This may include people in wheelchairs, those with a cast or sling, workers, deliverymen or service personnel that wear uniforms, someone on crutches or using a cane.  It may also include people roller-blading in the park, riding a bike, pushing a stroller, riding a horse or walking a dog.  People wearing or using unusual items are also important learning experiences - people wearing sunglasses, eyeglasses, caps, hats or clothing that flaps in the wind.  People carrying umbrellas,  grocery bags, briefcases, babies and/or baby carriers are also good opportunities for socialization training. 

In addition to introducing your puppy to the humans and situations described above, you must get the puppy used to items in your area/neighborhood that move and/or make noise.  Depending on where you live, this may include cars, trucks, miscellaneous types of trailers, buses, motorcycles, street sweepers, trash trucks, 4 wheelers, airplanes and trains.  Other items that make noise and may need to be "introduced" to your puppy include lawnmowers, doorbells, knocking, babies crying, thunderstorms, vacuum cleaners, fireworks, leaf blowers, hair dryers and sirens or alarms.  Your puppy should also be exposed to places where there are lots of distractions and different noises - public gatherings, the veterinary clinic, the groomer's, locations where they make announcements over a loudspeaker, parks with children running and playing (neighborhood parks and/or schools or parks where students participate in baseball, soccer or other organized sports).

Owners should also provide a variety of treats and toys to stimulate the puppy and keep him motivated.  Treats can include a selection of store-bought goodies, home-made treats, pieces of fruits and vegetables or the occasional "special" treat of an appropriate meat bone or bite of fresh, raw hamburger or steak.   Different textures can also be introduced with a variety of  toys - hard, soft, those that talk, squeak, roll or bounce.

Last but not least, you must teach your puppy to walk around, in, on, over, under and through different types of obstacles, flooring and surfaces.   Obstacles can include such things as construction pylons or barriers, machinery, bridges, tunnels, stairs, elevators, railroad ties/crossings, boat docks, playground equipment or trash receptacles.  Different flooring and surfaces can include grass, carpet, snow, cement, water, tile, wooden decks, gravel, metal grills on the street, tarps laid on the ground, rubber mats, plastic or glass. 

What, where, when and how your puppy is socialized will depend largely on your life-style, place of residence and schedule.  Just remember that the more sights and sounds your puppy is exposed to, the more confident and well-adjusted he will be.  Always keep in mind, however, that socialization must be fun and non-threatening for your puppy and much of it should not be attempted until after he has received all of his puppy vaccines. 

If, at any time, your puppy should become overly aggressive with people or animals you should immediately seek help from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist.  The sooner this type of behavior is corrected, the easier it will be to stop.  If this behavior becomes a habit or is reinforced in any way, it could become a serious, long-term problem for you and your dog.


When introducing your puppy to new people or situations, let the dog approach at his own speed.  Allow him to investigate or retreat as he chooses.  As long as the dog is not being aggressive, don't force the issue, reprimand the dog or try to reassure him.  Maintain a calm, unhurried, casual attitude and ignore any behavior that is not confident or friendly.  Immediately and repeatedly praise and reward confident, friendly behavior.  Remember that unwanted behavior may be reinforced if you laugh at the dog, coddle or baby the dog or pet or hold it while it is exhibiting unwanted behavior

If the dog is growling or barking, you should reprimand the dog with a lead correction and a sharp verbal command of "No!".  If the dog continues to be aggressive, correct him again and then ask him to sit/stay or ask him to continue walking on a "heel" command.  Make the dog pay attention to you until he calms down.  Having a "job" to do may help the dog relax as he will be more confident when asked to perform a familiar task.  Again, do not reward unwanted behavior (growling, barking, cowering, etc.) by trying to reassure the dog.  

When introducing your puppy to things that make noise (like your grooming clippers), try to first allow the puppy to sniff and investigate the object without turning it on.  Reward and praise the dog for not being afraid.  Let the puppy get a little ways away from you and then turn on the item.  While holding or standing near the item, call your puppy and talk to him encouragingly.   When he approaches, praise and reward him.  Let the puppy sniff and investigate the item while you continue to pet and praise him for being so brave.  Repeat this exercise a number of times and the puppy will soon accept the noise from the object you are trying to get him used to.  For objects like your grooming clippers, this exercise will need to be extended to you gradually holding the clippers near the puppy's face and body and letting him get accustomed to having the item right up against him.  Again, reward and praise correct behavior and do not reward unwanted behavior.


If there are other pets in the home, gradually introduce them by initially keeping the two separate but within sight of each other.  If the existing pet is not exhibiting signs of aggression, gradually allow the animals to spend a bit of supervised time together.  (Be sure to spend some alone time with the older pet to reassure him that he is not being replaced!)  In most instances the pets will quickly learn to get along and will become friends.  Of course, it is up to the pet owners to supervise the time the animals spend together to be sure that neither abuses the other and that they learn to interact correctly. 

There are several things that owners can do to help animals settle in to a friendly relationship.   The first step is for owners to support the older pet's right to be the more dominant pack member.  This means the older animal should be fed first, should be petted first and should be allowed to "put the puppy in his place" if he is too obnoxious.    This also means the older pet is, to some extent, allowed to guard his possessions and to warn the pup away from his food and bed.  This does NOT mean the older pet is allowed to bite or attack the new dog.  It just means that the older pet has a right to make the new dog respect his place as an older, more dominant pack-member.  It also means that the older animal has the right to not be chewed on by the puppy, to not have his toys or treats stolen by the puppy and to not have the puppy constantly climbing on him.  Owners should spend time daily teaching a new puppy how to "play nice" with other pets.


New owners should continuously take their puppy for rides in the car.  If you are running to the pet store and the puppy has had all of his vaccines, take him along and let him pick out a new toy and meet other shoppers.  If you are going to the bank, take the puppy for a ride and a biscuit (most drive-up tellers keep dog treats as well as lollipops!).   Anytime you are going for a short trip, grab Fido and have some fun.  If you've got the dog along, consider stopping by the park on the way home for a quick walk and to visit with other park visitors; or stop by the groomer's for a biscuit and to make your next appointment.  

If the only time your puppy gets to ride in the car is to go someplace where he gets shots or a haircut and bath, it won't take long before he runs and hides under the bed when you ask if he wants to go for a ride!  Getting through the door of the vet's and groomer's may become a fight as well if the only time he visits is for "bad" things.  Instead of letting the dog become fearful of these regular activities, take him for car rides as often as possible and visit the vet's and groomer's occasionally just so they can give him a biscuit and some petting. 

Be sure when you travel with your dog that you let him ride in his crate or that you use a restraining harness.  This is for his safety and yours.  In an accident, an unrestrained dog is likely to be thrown around the inside of the vehicle and/or out of the vehicle and into traffic.  Needless to say, your dog may not survive even a minor traffic accident if he is not crated or restrained.  If you use your dog's crate in the car, secure it to the seat or another solid object with the seatbelt or some heavy duty bungee cords.  This will keep you from getting hit by the crate if you are in an accident and it will help prevent injury to your pet by keeping the crate from being thrown from the car.  Additionally, keeping the crate secured within the vehicle could prevent your dog from being lost if the crate were to be damaged in a collision.  

If your puppy is afraid of riding in the car, start his training by just sitting in the car and giving him praise and treats for not acting scared.  As he becomes more comfortable, let him explore the car and again give him praise and rewards when he exhibits confident behavior.   Next, sit in your car with the motor running and let your puppy get used to this.  (Remember to never reward unwanted behavior and don't coddle or try to reassure the dog if he's acting scared.  Just let him explore and get accustomed to the situation at his own pace.)  Once your dog is comfortable with being in the car and having the motor running, start taking him on short trips down the block.  As he becomes accustomed to this, gradually lengthen his car rides until he is comfortable going anywhere with you.

If your puppy suffers from motion sickness, try to start getting him used to car travel by taking him on short trips around the block.  As the puppy becomes conditioned to riding in the car, gradually lengthen your trips.  You might also withhold food and water for a few hours before going out in the car so the puppy doesn't have a full tummy.  Most puppies will outgrow problems with motion sickness.  Even if your puppy had a problem when you brought him home, he may be fine now that he is a little older.  If you've been putting off taking the puppy out and about because he got sick in the car when he was little, you might consider trying it again.


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Copyright © Sandcastle Kennels 2004

Last revised: January 09, 2006