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How To Socialize A Dog

Written by FOTP Team

Updated

Labrador puppy and golden retriever

How To Socialize A Dog

If you’re ready to welcome a pup to your household, you’ve probably read that they need to be ‘socialized’. What does this mean, how do you start, and why is socialization necessary? 

What Is Socialization?

Socialization is the process of helping your dog to learn canine etiquette. Socialization should start when your dog is a pup, and continue throughout their early months. 

As humans, we spend our toddler years learning how to interact with people. We learn that smiles produce smiles, and pulling Dad’s hair is bad. Once we can walk and jump, we learn about physical boundaries – all the things we can and can’t do. Maybe we tussle with our siblings and discover the difference between a playful pinch and a violent punch.

Pushing our best friend over in the yard? That’s a big no. Squeezing Dad’s legs or jumping on top of Mom? They’re probably okay.

For dogs, this learning slope is very similar. They will play with humans and other dogs to learn about the strength of their teeth and paws – stopping when the person or dog exclaims. 

They will often mimic another dog’s body language, learning how to say “hello” and how much sniffing is okay.

At home they will learn how to get affection from their owner, and how to remind them that it’s dinner time.

And once they go outdoors, your dog learns loads more about life – like which hydrant is good for sniffing, which fence has a hole in it, and where the burgers usually fall on BBQ day. 

Yep. Dogs store a lot of knowledge inside those cute skulls. Socialization is where you help them to accumulate it.

Why is Socialization Training Important For Dogs?

Socialization is the best way to train your dog in becoming a polite and relaxed member of society – both human and canine. 

It’s important for dogs to learn manners, which includes greeting other dogs and people, as well as venturing over different terrain – and not freaking out when they see (for example) a discarded shopping bag blowing in the wind. (Yes, we know a dog who does this.)

Socialization training helps dogs to get along with other dogs. There are dozens of subtle body signals that they transmit to one another; watch out for some of them on your next walk. One day your puppy will meet a grumpy female dog who might raise her lip and snarl, and the next day they’ll be greeted by a bouncy Aussie Shepherd who lowers his front legs into a “bow”. Your pup has to learn about all these signals to avoid unnecessary confrontation – and make a few pals!

Socialization will also help your dog to get along with humans. Once they’re socialized they’ll be unfazed by a visit to the vet or a stroll on a busy sidewalk, and they’ll learn to stay low around babies and children. 

Through all this you’ll be at their side, guiding their behavior and helping them to become a brilliant, friendly and well-loved dog. 

What if a dog hasn’t been through this process?

Signs of a poorly socialized or unsocialized dog include:

1: Be afraid of new things. Socialization training isn’t just about meeting other dogs: your dog will learn that new things can be treated with caution, and will pick up on signals from you to see how they should react. But an unsocialized dog might be afraid of new things, and will be afraid of a toothbrush, swinging door, or another dog. This can result in defensive or fearful behavior. 

2: Be unsure around other dogs. An unsocialized dog is more likely to be unsure how to behave around other dogs, especially if they approach for a greeting. They’re more likely to bite inappropriately due to fear or ignorance. They just won’t recognize the other dog’s signals and can think they are being threatened.

3: Be nervous of people or places. An unsocialized dog has not had enough exposure to new people or places and might react with fear when they encounter someone “different” – maybe a person wearing a baby in a sling. An unsocialized dog might also be nervous about going in the car or to a new place like the beach. Introducing these things at a young age helps you to rear a curious and happy dog. 

How To Socialize Your Dog (or Puppy)

We have good news! Unlike regular obedience training (which you should totally do too!), socializing your dog is really easy. When your pup is around 7-14 weeks, they should be exposed to as many situations and people as possible. But socialization continues for a few more months, as your pup will keep learning a lot about the world. 

  • Start gently. Don’t go out to a busy place as soon as your pup has been vaccinated. Start with short adventures around the block at a quiet time. Bring in people one by one and don’t overwhelm the puppy with people gathering around for a cuddle. 
  • Walk in different places. When your puppy is able to walk, take them to a variety of places. You want to get your puppy accustomed to seeing lots of different things, like buses, skateboards, tall trees, lapping waves, and (eventually) lots of legs. You’re equipping your pup with the confidence to approach new things cautiously and calmly. There’s an added bonus – you get to explore lots of different territories in your nearby area!
  • Introducing other household pets? It should be cautious and gradual. Start this in a controlled environment, with another person (or a crate) to hold the puppy while you calmly bring in your cat (for example). Don’t make a fuss, and reward the puppy for staying calm or use treats as a distraction. Your puppy will probably want to investigate, but it’s best if they get used to being in a room together. You should never let the puppy charge up to another pet – give the first pet a safe space while you train the pup, and keep them on a leash or behind a mesh/crate door until you feel confident.
  • Arrange a playdate. Visit a friend who has a dog that you know. Your pup will be able to greet the dog and start to learn how to interact with others. They might even start playing. Ask your local vet if they know of any puppy parties nearby, these used to be incredibly popular post Covid and are starting to crop up again. 
  • Attend an obedience class. Obedience class is helpful for teaching your pup the basic commands. But it’s also a safe place where pups can mingle (usually on leashes) and develop their social skills. It will be a new environment for your puppy, where they are expected to stay on leash and pay attention – mimicking other dogs will help them to pick up commands.  
  • Visit a dog park. Later, when your puppy is a confident walker and has mastered recall, visit a dog park. Your puppy will learn about greeting lots of different dogs and acceptable ways of playing. 
  • ... But be wary of warning signs. As the owner, you can support successful socialization by keeping your pup out of dangerous situations. What does this look like? If you see a dog approaching on their leash, it’s wise to restrain your pup too. Likewise, if a dog makes a confident beeline for your pup, be wary. Standing rigid and tall is a signal that the dog may become aggressive. When your pup approaches another dog, watch both for signs of discomfort and be prepared to call your puppy off. Not every dog will want to be friends with a puppy – and if they’re old, stiff, or in pain, they might be grumpy.
  • Don’t worry. Most socialized dogs will understand how to interact with your puppy. Your pup might push the limits by tugging ears or barking at them – but an older dog will growl or reprimand them without becoming aggressive. Don’t panic, because your pup will pick up on that. Instead wait and see what your pup does. By instinct, they should move away from the older dog and stop harassing them! This is how wolves and dogs communicate with one another. Your pup needs to learn about all these social signals, so try not to communicate anxiety while they learn. 
  • Visit the store or the vet. If you want to take your puppy in the car, get them used to a crate from an early age – choose short trips. You could also consider short and non-stressful trips to the vet or pet store, at which your puppy won’t be prodded or jabbed. The aim is always to introduce ideas to your pup in a calm and unintimidating way. 

Carry treats! Using positive training techniques, you will want to reward your pup when they display the correct behavior. So when they walk by your side, return when you call their name, or greet a child nicely, you can be ready to reward them with a treat. This can also be a welcome distraction if you’re at the park and your pup has decided to befriend another dog who doesn’t want the attention!