Welcome home, puppy! You’re in for a big adventure, but to ensure you grow up happy, healthy, and confident, Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital wants to equip your owner with the skills and knowledge necessary for successful socialization.  

What is socialization and why is it important for puppies?

Socialization is the systematic introduction of a puppy to new stimuli (e.g., strangers, objects, sounds, textures) through controlled exposures, to create a confident, well-adjusted adult dog. Socialization exposes puppies to various “unknowns” during their formative stages, to create positive experiences with new things. Under socialized dogs often overreact to unfamiliar things or people with excessive fear and aggression—putting themselves and others at risk.

When is the best time to begin socializing a puppy?

According to the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior (AVSAB), socialization should begin as soon as seven days after your puppy’s first vaccine (i.e., DHPP). They no longer advise waiting until your puppy is fully vaccinated, as behavior issues are the primary reason dogs are surrendered to shelters, and the number one cause of death (i.e., euthanasia) in dogs under 3 years old—significantly outweighing risk of contagious disease. Simply put, socialization saves lives.

Five secrets to successful puppy socialization

While you may be tempted to immediately show off your new puppy and take them everywhere, you should let socialization occur naturally. If not, you will overwhelm your puppy, who may become an anxious, fearful adult dog. Rather than leaving your puppy’s experience—and impressions—up to chance, follow our five secrets to socialization success:

  • Start off on the right paw by planning your puppy’s experience — Socialization experiences must be carefully planned, to prioritize your puppy’s health, safety, and confidence. Because socialization is about cultivating positive and controllable interactions, avoid anything that may frighten, intimidate, or endanger your puppy. Avoid areas with lots of dog traffic, such as dog parks, to protect your puppy from parasites and disease.

Whether your socialization will take place at home or “on the road,” plan what you want your puppy to see and experience—this helps you manage your puppy effectively and anticipate potential problems.

  • Show that new things equal big rewards —When your puppy encounters something new, they should feel happy and curious, not alarmed and reluctant. Fortunately, you can show your puppy that “new” is always fun by pairing new things with food rewards, praise, and play.

Pairing is a simple process—when your puppy notices an unfamiliar person, object, or sound, begin feeding treats. When the event ends, stop the rewards. It’s that simple. The puppy will quickly learn that new things predict yummy treats and play.

If your puppy stops eating the treats, they are letting you know they are uncomfortable, and probably too close to the unfamiliar stimulus. Stay upbeat, and retreat to a safe distance where your puppy can resume eating. With time and careful exposure, the distance can be reduced. 

At Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital, we practice a variety of Fear Free handling techniques, so your puppy learns that veterinary visits are not scary, but mean lots of attention and yummy rewards. Check out our Fear Free blog page, where you can find tips and tricks to help ease your puppy into new experiences.

  • Go beyond the meet-and-greet with new experiences Owners often become laser-focused on their puppy meeting 100 people or men with hats, beards, sunglasses, neckties—you name it. However, socialization is more than people, and includes anything and everything your puppy may encounter during their lifetime, such as:
    • Textures — Walk them on different substrates, such as mulch, artificial turf, sand, tarps, wood, and rugs.
    • Moving surfaces and objects — Walk them over an air mattress, sway bridge, or inflatable balance disc, and give them motion-activated toys that sing and dance.
    • Handling — Gently restrain them while handling all body parts, including feet, face, and tail.
    • Grooming — Teach acceptance of brushing, ear cleaning, nail trimming, and tooth brushing.
    • Sounds — If you live in a quiet area, consider using  puppy habituation soundtracks.
  • Build a support system by finding a good puppy class — Well-run puppy classes taught by knowledgeable instructors are an incredible resource for puppy owners. While you learn how to train your puppy and solve basic puppy issues (e.g., teething, housebreaking), puppies learn “how to learn.” Selecting a positive reinforcement-based class is important, because positive reinforcement encourages puppies to think for themselves, develop confidence, and become motivated learners. 

Harsh verbal or physical corrections (e.g., choke, prong, or electronic collars) have no place in puppy training. Puppies should never be forced on their backs, shaken by the scruff, or set up to fail to be “corrected.”

  • Always advocate for and protect your puppy — All puppies experience fear or uncertainty, and you must know how to respond, to ensure your puppy isn’t permanently affected. When you’re socializing, stay focused on your puppy, and remember the following:
    • Observe their body language — Watch for fear or stress signs.
    • Leave the situation — If things aren’t going well, pick up your puppy, and leave. Staying in a frightening situation does not teach your puppy to “get over it.”
    • Know how to say “No” — Protect your puppy from people who may frighten them, unfamiliar dogs, large groups of children, and anyone or anything that troubles your puppy.

Your puppy’s early stages are over before you know it, and you have only a narrow window of time to show them that the world is a fun and safe place. Set your puppy up for success by always prioritizing safety, confidence, and fun, and carefully managing their experience. Check out our puppy blog page for more information that will help you during your new puppy’s first year. For additional questions about socialization, or for puppy class recommendations, contact Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital.