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How to Socialize Your Dog (with Other Dogs & Humans)

Here’s the deal with socialization. During what’s called the “sensitive period” of very early life, puppies learn about what’s normal in the world. They’re not immune to fear or even trauma, but in general they accept whatever they have a pleasant encounter with. It’s almost as if they develop a catalog of sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that fall under the heading of “safe.” As a special bonus, if the range of pleasant early experiences is wide and varied, the puppy also seems to learn that “new” does not necessarily mean “scary.”

The catch about socialization is that it’s a window of opportunity and when it shuts, it slams shut. Different experts will give you different closing dates, ranging from 12 to 16 weeks old. Individual puppies will vary, too. I urge you to play it safe–socialize diligently from the minute you get your puppy home. Without good socialization, your puppy will likely be shy and skittish as he grows up. And with experience, he may learn that going on the offensive can drive away the things that frighten him. Enter those many clients with their lunging, snapping young dogs.


Here’s what to do. Take your puppy places–by car, in your arms, or in a child’s wagon if she’s too heavy to carry. Take her to a mall, to a hardware store, to the bus station, to a train station, on a train if possible. Take her to a gas station, auto body shop, florist. Step into the vet’s waiting room and out again. Visit a park, farm, construction site, police station. Encourage her to scramble among rocks and logs. Let her experience many surfaces underfoot, from grass to concrete to leaves to metal gratings. Teach her to use stairs, starting from the lowest step and working your way up till she can navigate a whole staircase comfortably, up and down.


The idea behind socialization is helping your puppy become acclimated to all types of sights, sounds, and smells in a positive manner. Proper socialization can prevent a dog from being always fearful of children, for example, or of riding in a car, and it will help him develop into a well-mannered, happy companion.

Also, having a dog who is well-adjusted and confident can even go as far as to save his life one day. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, improper socialization can lead to behavior problems later in life. Also, the organization’s position statement on socialization reads: “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” If your dog becomes lost, the fact that he’s easily able to accept new places and people can better ensure he’ll be cared for until you locate him. And if something happens to you, he’ll have an easier time adjusting to a new caregiver or home.

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