Social skills are just as important for your canine pal as they are for each of us. A well-mannered, well-adjusted dog who can adapt to a variety of situations with new people and other pets will be a happier dog and a better companion for you.
What defines a well-socialized dog?
Dogs that are comfortable meeting and being around a variety of people of all ages, other dogs, and even other types of pets – especially cats – are considered well socialized. Being relaxed and receptive to new people and pets isn’t something that comes naturally to every dog, any more than it does to every person. Some dogs are extroverts and others are timid. Some dogs are naturally comfortable with people, but take a bit more time getting used to another dog or cat.
Why is socializing a dog important?
If you socialize your dog in a variety of situations, especially those situations in which you often find yourself (households with lots of children or pets, dog parks with your other dogs, a busy city street, etc.), you’ll know how he is going to react and feel confident that your dog is going to be comfortable and well behaved in any situation.
If you’re not focusing on social skills from an early age, you’re basically always putting your dog into new and surprising situations. This can lead to fear, insecurity, and the negative behaviors that come with those emotions.
The Social Puppy Top 4 Tips
1. Start early. When your veterinarian gives you the go-ahead, make routine “social engagements” part of his life. These can be as simple as meeting neighbors or other neighborhood pets as you take walks. You can also find local playgroups or doggie daycare facilities (in the case of a puppy, be sure they have classes specializing in younger dogs–you don’t want a little tyke to be thrown in with the big dogs right away). Dog parks can also be a good possibility, but these require a bit more thought and research and aren’t a place for very young dogs; see our article on dog parks for more information. Also, always make sure that your dog is up to date on vaccines and preventatives that protect against parasites such as fleas and intestinal worms.
2. Mix it up. Make sure that you introduce your dog to a variety of situations. A dog who only meets puppies might not be at all comfortable the first time he bumps into an adult. Even spending time only with dogs of a particular gender, breed, or size can limit your dog’s comfort with future introductions to different dogs. If you think about it, the same applies to people. A dog that’s totally comfortable with adults can be completely freaked out by the well-intentioned toddler who comes running his way. Children have a very different kind of energy than adults and many dogs are very sensitive to that. It’s worth giving your dog some extra attention.
3. Be part of the social experience and pay attention to your dog’s reactions. Don’t just introduce your dog to his new human or animals friends and let him figure things out on his own, especially when he’s young or new to your household. Stay with your pet, observe his comfort level, and assess whether he’s happy, nervous, anxious, fearful, or crabby. If he’s having a positive reaction, provide lots of praise and encouragement. If he’s not as comfortable, make introductions to these situations brief, still provide encouragement when he engages positively and remove him from the situation if he exhibits a negative or fearful behavior using a verbal correction if necessary (no, don’t jump, down, etc.).
4. Accept your dog’s preferences and limitations. Some dogs are never going to love kids; however, every dog should be well mannered around kids. In this case, you want to understand that your dog is never going to be the dog who is in the back yard playing with your nieces and nephews, but he can be the dog who’ll be calm and trustworthy around kids, even if it requires some extra effort and training. Likewise, not every dog will want to play with other dogs. But you want to know that you can comfortably walk your dog on the street and he’ll be calm when passing another dog during your strolls. Sometimes, you might need help from a professional trainer to get your dog comfortable in these situations. Talk to your veterinarian for tons of tips and tricks.
The important thing to remember is that you want your dog’s world to be a happy and comfortable place. That doesn’t mean his life is free from anxiety any more than ours is. It does mean you can help your dog be prepared for a variety of situations, be confident regardless of what comes his way, and simply know when your dog is going to be the social butterfly and when your dog will be the wallflower!
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
How to Help A Dog That’s Missed Early Socialization
Published: February 27, 2019
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Missed the early socialization window? – There's still hope!
Considering or just adopted a timid older puppy or adult dog that clearly didn't have the best early life socialization? Or recently got a new puppy but were told to keep them locked away and not introduce them to any other dogs or bring them out and about until all of their puppy shots were done and you've now missed their early (3–4month old) socialization window? Sadly, these are scenarios that are (still) far too common. But all hope is not lost!
Yes, there’s no doubt or debate about it … proper early life socialization (i.e., before 16 weeks old) is very important for a dog’s wellbeing and development and, if you’ve missed their critical early “socialization window,” you’re definitely starting behind the proverbial "8-ball." But people have made some pretty impressive shots from behind 8-balls actually, and you can too!
Here’s some information, tips, and resources to help you help your previously under- or unsocialized dog get more comfortable with the world. (And be sure to check out the encouraging and heartwarming video and story at the end to see just how far some of these dogs can come, even when getting some of the worst starts in life possible!)
Keys to Help An Unsocialized Dog
- All hope is not lost - most dogs with early socialization deficiencies are able to make noticeable and important progress
- Prepare that it will take more time and patience – work at your dog’s pace, whatever that may be … don’t force it
- Keep the end goals in mind … (1) to help your dog become more comfortable, less stressed and anxious, and safer in their everyday life, and, (2) to make your life with your dog as easy and low-stress as possible
- Figure out and use the reinforcement that matters most to your dog, but that isn't so distracting to take their mind off their environment
Set Realistic Expectations
Prepare yourself for the fact that you almost certainly will not have a dog that will be as comfortable around and accepting of all the people, animals, sights, sounds, and other things that they’re likely to encounter in their everyday life and environment as they would have been with proper early socialization. But that’s OK, that doesn’t have to be the goal. Every dog doesn’t have to love everything or everybody … they just have to be comfortable enough with enough “things” to feel safe, secure, and happy in their new world. You may not wind up with a “social butterfly,” but so long as you wind up with a happy and functional dog, that’s a win!
It Can Be a Small World . After All
This isn’t a nod to the Disney tune and ride, but rather a statement that your dog’s world … the world that you’re hoping for them to get comfortable with, can be as small as it needs to be to allow them to slowly, gradually, and safely get comfortable with a progressively larger world. Is your dog comfortable in your backyard, but freezes and gets tense anytime you take them in the front yard? Work with that! Stick with the backyard at first to do your introductory and socialization work there, let your dog start building their confidence in an area they’re already comfortable with before trying to expand and grow those areas. Don’t make the mistake of trying to get your dog comfortable with the whole wide world or “all the things” at once. Think baby steps and build upon successive “wins.”
See our 100 Things in 100 Days list of things that are good to socialize dogs to. This list was originally designed to help people socializing new puppies over the first 100 days of their life, but the people, sights, sounds, and objects on the list can still form a good list of goals for you to try to get your dog comfortable with. Just recognize that you may not ever get through the full "100" — but it's a good list of goals to start with, even when socialization is occurring later in life.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race (Not that socialization is a race)
They say that patience is a virtue and, when it comes to trying to help a previously under- or unsocialized dog, they couldn’t be more right! Pay attention to your dog’s comfort level and proceed at a pace that works for them. Don’t put an artificial timeline on your progress and don’t put too much pressure on your dog (or yourself). With the right guidance and plenty of patience and understanding, your dog will get there … wherever “there” happens to be for your dog (see above re: setting realistic expectations).
Make It Super Rewarding
Find out what your dog really loves, and use that to your (and their) advantage. Is your dog food motivated? And, if so, what are some of their most favorite treats? Those would be their “highest value” food rewards. (Just be careful of anything too fatty or rich, you don’t want to give your dog a case of pancreatitis !) Perhaps your dog is more motivated by play? In which case perhaps rewarding progress with a nice game of fetch or tug will help them find joy and associate something awesome with “expanding their horizons.” It’s not about bribing your dog, but rather rewarding them for making progress and conquering their fears. Just be sure that, whatever rewards and reinforcers you use, that they're not so distracting as to take their mind completely off their surroundings - as they do need to be aware of their surroundings, to some degree, to become more comfortable with them.
Keep Your Eye On the Prize
There will be setbacks and plateaus in your dog’s progress. That’s fine. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t get frustrated or give up. Take a breath and a pause. Maybe reevaluate your approach. Maybe increase the “value” of the rewards you’re providing. Maybe get professional help (which is always a good idea … see more about that below). Don’t forget … you’re doing this work for the long-term benefit of both you and your dog. Some short-term setbacks shouldn’t derail your long-term goals. Watch Coconut's amazing change from nervous "puppy mill" pup to loving life as a rescued dog.
You Need Not — And Should Not — Go It Alone
The video above (and story below) bring up our next very important point . get help! Working with a dog that has missed their early life socialization can be a daunting task, even if you’ve previously had and helped such dogs before. Every dog, every situation is different. Seriously consider getting professional help early on, as you really want to do everything possible to start off this journey on the right foot. An experienced and good trainer* can be worth their weight in gold when formulating a plan to help with delayed socialization. There are also board-certified veterinary behaviorists that can help a ton, especially if anti-anxiety medications** are indicated (which they very often are, at least in the short-term).
*All trainers are not the same, and neither are all training methods. Even with “normal” dogs and in “normal” situations, dominance- or correction-based trainers aren’t really the best option. But this is even more so the case when it comes to helping previously under- or unsocialized dogs get more comfortable in the world. These situations, even more so than “normal” situations, are definitely not helped by dominating, forcing, or creating pain or increased anxiety in a dog … such methods will only make matters (WAY) worse! Only work with trainers whose methods are based in sound behavioral science, these are typically referred to as “rewards-based,” “R+,” or “force-free” trainers. You and your dog will be much happier using their services and approach. Find a trainer .
** Dogs that are stressed, anxious, or fearful have a hard time letting their guard down and learning new things. These dogs are operating “above threshold” — meaning that their brains are in more of a “fight or flight” mode, and that’s definitely not conducive to good, long-term learning. The proper use of appropriate anti-anxiety medications, supplements, or other aids can help to bring these dogs below threshold, allowing them to start learning and forming better, healthier, happier associations with the things you’re hoping to socialize and desensitize them to. Sometimes it takes a combination of different medications, supplements, and other aids and, because every dog and every situation is different, there can be some trial and error and some fine-tuning needed. This is why, if you’ve got one locally and you are able to do so, engaging the help and guidance of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, and doing so early on, can greatly increase your chances of success with your new dog and also greatly decrease the setbacks and frustrations that may be encountered along the way. You can search for a board certified veterinary behaviorist or ask your veterinarian for a recommendation of one.
Before you go, check out our review of the heartwarming movie, "The Champions." This great documentary about the successful rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogfighting dogs is a great testament to the successful work that can be done to rehabilitate and help dogs that have had poor early life socialization.
Socializing your dog
Socializing your dog through puppyhood and adolescence is one of the best ways to ensure that they become a friendly and confident adult.
The greatest window of learning in a dog’s life starts around 3 weeks of age and closes between 16 and 20 weeks. This period allows puppies to be exposed to a wide variety of sights, sounds, smells, and sensations without becoming fearful. Puppies who miss out on these experiences may never learn to be comfortable around unfamiliar things, paving the way for anxiety, fear, and aggression later on in life. Follow these steps to give your puppy the best start possible:
Young puppies should be cuddled and handled daily by as many different people as possible. Keep the contact gentle and pleasant for the puppy. Hold the puppy in different positions, gently finger her feet, rub her muzzle, stroke her back and sides, look in her ears.
Acclimate your puppy to lots of different sounds, being careful not to overwhelm him with too much noise too fast. Expose him to kitchen sounds, telephones ringing, children playing, sportscasters yelling on TV, radios playing, buses moving by, and so on.
Food bowl exercises
Teach your puppy to enjoy having people approach her bowl while she’s eating. This will help to prevent resource guarding, which occurs when dogs feel anxious about others approaching their own valued resources. Walk up to your puppy while she's eating her food, drop an even tastier treat into her dish, and walk away. Repeat once or twice during each meal until your puppy is visibly excited about your approach. Then walk up, physically pick up her dish, put in a treat, give the dish back, and walk away.
Teach your puppy to be alone
Puppies should learn to tolerate being completely separate from other people and animals every day to avoid developing separation anxiety. Learn more about preventing separation anxiety in puppies.
There's no need to show the dog who’s boss or try to dominate him. Confrontational approaches like pinning your dog down or scruffing him frequently backfire and create the aggression dog owners seek to avoid. Focus on rewarding correct behavior and preventing undesirable behavior to teach your puppy human rules and build a trusting relationship.
Introduce your puppy to new people
Introduce your puppy to several new people every day, keeping the interactions pleasant and unthreatening. Focus especially on setting up pleasant encounters with unfamiliar men and well-behaved children.
Provide appropriate toys to redirect your puppy's biting. When your puppy bites too hard during play, making a sudden noise (“Ow!”) and end the game to help him learn to use his mouth gently. Never squeeze your puppy's mouth shut, yell at him, or hold him down. This will frighten him and likely make biting worse. Note that while puppies under five months tend to explore the world with their mouths, dogs past this age are considered adolescents and should no longer be play biting.
Though a dog’s sensitive period of socialization typically ends around 4-5 months old, we recommend continuing to socialize your dog for at least the first year of their life.
Keep introducing your dog to new people
Dogs only remain social when continually exposed to unfamiliar people. Continued pleasant exposure to new people keeps the idea that strangers are good news in the forefront of your dog’s mind.
Keep introducing your dog to other dogs
There are lots of ways to do this: dog parks, play groups, play dates with friends’ dogs, and simple leash walks can all help accomplish this. Without this experience, dogs can lose their ability to know how to behave appropriately around other dogs.
Vary your walks
Try to avoid taking the same walking route every day. Let your dog experience a variety of environments, from sidewalks to dirt roads. This will provide your growing dog with much-needed mental stimulation.
Teach your dog to be alone
Scheduling daily alone time with neither people nor other pets nearby is critical to preventing separation anxiety. Use a baby gate or crates to prevent your dog from shadowing you constantly when you're home. Ask a friend to pet sit for an hour regularly.
Don't punish fear
Most displays of aggression are the result of fear. Many owners are caught off guard when their normally easygoing pup reacts fearfully to a new dog or person. However, this change often coincides with the end of the sensitive period of socialization. Starting around 5 months old, your dog may start to interpret anything unfamiliar as a threat and will typically either flee or confront what frightens him. Punishing this reaction will only confirm his fear, so instead remove your dog from the situation and ask for a different behavior (like “sit”).
Continue handling your dog
Make sure your dog is comfortable with different parts of his body being handled. This will ensure that if he must be handled in an emergency he will be less likely to bite. Be on the watch for a stiff body, whites of the eyes showing, a closed mouth, and escape attempts. If you see these signs, stop handling your dog.
“I need to socialize my three-year-old dog. How do I do that?” We hear this question frequently because owners want to give their dogs the fullest life possible, which many assume includes play with other dogs. In reality, adult dogs can lead perfectly happy lives without visits to the dog park or off-leash play.
Play in puppies vs. adult dogs
Off-leash play is beneficial to puppies learning behavior cues, but the same practice can have detrimental effects on adult dogs. While there are exceptions, when dogs reach social maturity between ages one and three, they often no longer enjoy playing with large groups of unfamiliar dogs. They may either attempt to avoid the dogs, stand close to their human family, or even growl and snap at boisterous young dogs that come too close to them. This behavior is often misidentified as abnormal, when in fact it is quite common.
Setting up playtime for your adult dog
If your heart is set on social time with other dogs, start by introducing your dog to one dog at a time. Invite a friend to bring her gentle, easygoing dog on a walk with you and your dog. Allow a polite distance between dogs while they get accustomed to each other. If both dogs appear relaxed throughout the walk, allow them to sniff each other briefly. Keep leashes loose and each interaction short. If either dog appears to be tensing up, call the dogs apart with pleasant, relaxed voices. If both dogs’ bodies appear loose and tails are wagging, consider an off-leash session in one of your fenced yards with leashes dragging, using the same short sessions and reinforcement for relaxed behavior.
Dealing with leash aggression in your adult dog
If your dog lunges, pulls toward or barks at other dogs on walks, you know how stressful and embarrassing it can be. Learn more about the causes and prevention of leash aggression.
Socializing Your Puppy – (How to Do it Properly)
Socializing your puppy is vital to the safety of both your dog and other dogs and people with whom they come into contact. A properly socialized dog is a happy dog, and a joy to be around for both humans and animals.
Why Socializing Your Puppy Is Important
A poorly socialized dog, or one with no socialization at all, is a danger to other animals, other people and even their own family.
Socializing your puppy is best done when they are as young as possible The socialization lessons a young puppy learns are difficult to undo.
It is important to remember that the socialization skills the puppy learns will affect their behavior for the rest of their life.
A dog that is properly socialized will be neither frightened of nor aggressive towards either animals or humans. A properly socialized dog will take each new experience and stimulus in stride, and not become fearful or aggressive.
Dogs that are not properly socialized often bite because of fear, and such a dog can become a hazard and a liability to the family who owns it.
Improperly socialized dogs are also unable to adapt to new situations.
A routine matter like a trip to the vet or to a friends house can quickly stress the dog out and lead to all sorts of problems.
Socializing your puppy is best done when the puppy is very young, perhaps around 12 weeks of age.
Even after 12 weeks, however, it is important that the puppy continues its socialization in order to refine the all important social skills.
It is possible to socialize an older puppy, but it is very difficult to achieve after the all important 12 week period has passed.
There are some definite do’s and don'ts when it comes to properly socializing your puppy. Let’s start with what to do. Later in this article we will explore what to avoid.
Make each of the socialization events as pleasant and non-threatening for the puppy as possible.
If a puppy’s first experience with any new experience is an unpleasant one, it will be very difficult to undo that in the puppy’s mind.
In some cases, an early trauma can morph into a phobia that can last for a lifetime. When socializing your puppy it is better to take things slow and avoid having the puppy become frightened or injured.
Try inviting your friends over to meet the new puppy.
It is important to include as many different people as possible in the puppy’s circle of acquaintances, including men, women, children, adults, as well as people of many diverse ethnic backgrounds and ages.
Also invite friendly and healthy dogs and puppies over to meet your puppy.
It is important for the puppy to meet a wide variety of other animals, including cats, hamsters, rabbits and other animals they are likely to meet.
It is of course important to make sure that all animals the puppy comes into contact with have received all necessary vaccinations.
Take the puppy to many different places, including shopping centers, pet stores, parks, school playgrounds and on walks around the neighborhood.
While socializing your puppy try to expose them to places where there will be crowds of people and lots of diverse activities going on.
Take the puppy for frequent short rides in the car. During these rides, be sure to stop the car once in a while and let the puppy look out the window at the world outside.
Introduce your puppy to a variety of items that may be unfamiliar. The puppy should be exposed to common items like bags, boxes, vacuum cleaners, umbrellas, hats, etc. that may be frightening to them.
Allow and encourage the puppy to explore these items and see that they have nothing to fear from them.
Get the puppy used to a variety of objects by rearranging familiar ones. Simply placing a chair upside down, or placing a table on its side, creates an object that your puppy will perceive as totally new.
Get the puppy used to common procedures like being brushed, bathed, having the nails clipped, teeth cleaned, ears cleaned, etc. Your groomer and your veterinarian with thank you for this.
Introduce the puppy to common things around the house, such as stairs. Also introduce the puppy to the collar and leash, so they will be comfortable with these items.
There are of course some things to avoid when socializing your puppy.
These socialization don'ts include:
Do not place the puppy on the ground when strange animals are present. An attack, or even a surprise inspection, by an unknown animal could traumatize the puppy and hurt their socialization.
Do not inadvertently reward fear based behavior. When the puppy shows fear, it is normal to try to sooth it, but this could reinforce the fear based behavior and make it worse.
Since biting is often a fear based behavior, reinforcing fear can create problems with biting.
Do not force or rush the process of socializing your puppy. It is important to allow the puppy to socialize at their own pace.
Do not try to do too much too soon. Young puppies have short attention spans, and continuing lessons after that attention span has passed will be a waste of your time and your puppy’s.
Do not wait too long to begin socializing your puppy. There is a short window in which to begin the socialization process.
A young puppy is a blank slate, and it is important to fill that slate with positive socialization skills as early as possible.
Now that you know the do's and don'ts of socializing your puppy it is now up to you to put them into practice. Happy training!
When should I begin dog socialization training?
Dogs are at their most receptive when they’re puppies, aged between 3 and 14 weeks. During this period, they’re quick to form attachments with others and are particularly sensitive to their environment. Your veterinarian can provide the best advice regarding when your puppy is ready for socialization (based on their age and vaccinations).
While these early encounters play a huge role in a dog’s future emotional balance, dog socialization doesn’t end at 14 weeks. They will keep learning throughout their life and their reactions to familiar situations may change – a young dog may be comfortable being in a car at first but a negative experience may make them anxious later on.
Likewise, adult dogs who were under-socialized as puppies can learn new behaviors and become comfortable in previously stressful situations. However, it does require a different approach to socializing puppies.