4 Ways to Successfully Socialize a Puppy

Active, positive socialization is one of the most critical factors in preparing your new puppy for a joyful life together. What should this process look like?

Mar 13, 2024By Chelsea Pinkham
ways to socialize puppy

So, you’ve acquired a new puppy. Congratulations! Between three and 14 weeks of age is considered the “critical socialization period” for young puppies. Half of that time has already been spent with the breeder or rescue group you acquired your puppy from, which is why selecting a reputable rescue, or an ethical breeder is so important in the first place.

Now, the job falls on you. That’s a whole lot of pressure! But don’t throw in the towel just yet. Here are some tips!

1. Expand Your Puppy’s Comfort Zone

confident saint bernard puppy
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You’ve heard the advice from just about everyone: take your puppy everywhere, expose them to everything, there’s no such thing as “too much” socialization. That idea is only partially true. Shoving your puppy into the arms of every willing stranger you meet can actually do more harm than good.

A good trainer and caregiver should work very hard to never force a dog out of his or her comfort zone. Instead of pushing a puppy beyond their comfort zone and creating traumatic experiences, you can work to actively expand the comfort zone.

This is where a practice called “counterconditioning” will become your top resource. Counterconditioning is the process of taking environmental stimuli and pairing them with positive stimuli to change the subject’s emotions around it. Ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? In the famous psychology study, hungry pups learned to associate the sound of a dinner bell with a tasty meal, and soon began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone; no treats needed.

You Can Use Counterconditioning for Socialization

golden retriever tug
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To use counterconditioning, you’ll need high-value treats and a “marker” word or sound. A marker can be a clicker, a verbal cue like “yes,” or just about anything consistent in pitch and tone. Once your puppy is familiar with the marker (this typically takes just a few repetitions and under five minutes), you can start slowly exposing them to new sights and sounds.

Always mark, reward, and praise a puppy profusely for choosing to interact with or even just looking toward new stimuli. Never force an animal to move toward something frightening. As humans, we often want to “conquer our fears,” but we can’t explain this idea to our dogs.

You can boost a puppy’s confidence by showing them that you respect their desire to feel safe. The more positive experiences your puppy has, the more his confidence is going to improve, and the more likely he will be to investigate “scary” things on his own. Trick training and healthy, interactive play with toys (such as tug) can also boost a puppy’s overall confidence.

2. Learn Your Puppy’s Language

fear in dogs
Image Credit: Dr. Sophia Yin

If there is an opposite of active, positive socialization, it’s flooding. “Flooding” is a term that means starting fast and heavily exposing a dog to frightening triggers without any prior counterconditioning work. If you were petrified of snakes, do you think that being lowered into a pit of giant snakes would cure your fear, or traumatize you further?

Forced interactions with other dogs at high-volume doggy daycares or busy dog parks can teach dogs that large, drastic responses are necessary to protect their bodies. The same can apply to exposing our puppies to new people. By carefully observing your puppy’s body language, you can gauge their comfort level and determine when to advance your training.

Dogs Rely on Body Language to Convey Emotion

playful terrier puppies
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Sadly, many dog owners do not know how to read complex canine body language. Without this crucial knowledge, well-meaning dog guardians can unintentionally use flooding on their puppies. Learning dog body language is the first step to adopting or buying a dog and should be researched thoroughly before bringing a dog home.

For example, whale eye (overly visible whites in the eyes), hard mouth (a tense jaw), furrowed eyebrows, rapid lip licking, and even excessive yawning can all be fear or stress signals. A puppy’s body language should always be loose, relaxed, wiggly, and confident when training and socializing. If your puppy is frightened, it’s time to take a break and evaluate what happened.

3. Create a Socialization Checklist

bernese mountain dogs meet toddler
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Now that you’ve mastered counterconditioning, it’s time to slowly bring the puppy out into the world. Dogs are notoriously poor at generalizing, which means that they need to process as many sights, sounds, people, and animals as they can comfortably handle. A dog can live with men but still be petrified of men outside of the home. This doesn’t necessarily mean the dog was abused by a man; just that they haven’t been thoroughly socialized with a diversity of men.

adorable mutt puppy
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Create designated times to expose puppies to people of all ages, ethnicities, body types, clothing styles, and any other forms of diversity you can think of. People in wheelchairs, people with tattoos, people with hats, people with excessive makeup; all of these factors can spook a dog who hasn’t been exposed to them. The Pet Professional Guild has an excellent starter checklist for puppy socialization. Creating a physical checklist can help you keep track of where you are in terms of socializing.

4. Arrange for Doggy Socialization with a Trainer

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A puppy socialization class with a positive reinforcement-based trainer will help speed up exposing young puppies to the world. While most dog owners seek professional training only after some common behavioral issues have arisen, getting your puppy started with a reputable trainer at a young age will help set them up for a lifetime of success.

Socialization Should Start Early

lakenois and mastiff pups in car
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Far too often, caregivers make the mistake of beginning the socialization process once a puppy is fully vaccinated. By this time, a puppy is nearly done or beyond their critical socialization period. There’s no time to lose when it comes to this window. Luckily, socialization doesn’t only happen out on walks. In fact, it should start shortly after your pup comes home.

Here’s where counterconditioning comes. Start with low-level audio of traffic noises, dogs barking, people talking, music-–anything that might be new to your puppy. Mark, reward. Given that the pup’s body language is relaxed, gradually increase the audio, continuing to mark and reward. With some patience and positive reinforcement, you can prepare your puppy for the exciting journey ahead!

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!