Puppies and adolescent dogs have critical learning periods, also referred to as sensitive periods or fear periods. It is important that they are not just exposed to new things during this time, but that they are having positive or at least neutral experiences during their exposure.

Socialization is not just about having your puppy interact with all kinds of people and dogs. In fact, for most dogs, it is preferable for their socialization to be about being so confident and engaged with the human handler that they can see something without feeling the need to interact with it.

When your puppy is experiencing a new site, sound, surface, event, etc., it is important to read their body language. If they are fearful, give them enough distance from the new thing for them to be able to process the information comfortably. That means do a U-turn and coax your puppy away, even if they are stuck staring or barking in fear. If they are conflicted and moving back and forth towards the new thing, give them time to think about it. Reward them for whatever effort they put forward. Scary things can become un-scary when paired with food.

It’s nice for your puppy to make new human friends, but even just seeing all different kinds of people walk down the street is good socialization. If someone is meeting your puppy, make sure that they are not being overwhelming with their greeting. Ask the person to be calm, cool, and collected when saying hi. Sometimes it is helpful to just have them feed the dog a treat instead of petting them, since the average person tends to become over-excited about greeting puppies. Over-excited strangers can scare a puppy OR make the puppy develop a habit of being overly excited and out of control during greetings.

There is a huge amount of benefit to allowing your puppy to play with other dogs, from exercise and enrichment to learning good social skills and life lessons from animals that “speak their language.” Finding controlled settings for your puppy to meet other dogs, like organized puppy socials, private lessons with a trainer, or becoming buddies with other puppies in your neighborhood (particularly if you or they have a backyard!) is the way to go. Meeting dogs on-leash tends to create frustration, over-arousal, or fear; many dogs end up becoming “leash-reactive” largely due to meeting other dogs on leash. And taking a puppy to a dog park can easily lead to them being bullied by out-of-control dogs, traumatize them during their sensitive learning period, and /or cause them to develop behavioral problems. It is very important that you control your puppy’s environment (as much as possible) during while socializing them!

How to Socialize Your pup

Your puppy doesn't have to do anything to earn a reward when you are desensitizing something. She will get a treat and verbal praise simply by being in the presence of certain loud/fast/big/scary stimuli. This will teach her to actually enjoy the vacuum cleaner, for example, instead of fearing it. ("Hmm," she thinks. "The vacuum cleaner is kind of wonderful… I always get treats when it's around.”)

Freely give PUPPY tiny training treats when in the presence of children, men, funny hats, cats, bicycles, wheelchairs, other dogs, people in sunglasses, guys with beards, babies, guests to your home, thunder, fireworks, skateboards, boats, people dancing and/or moving erratically, etc. It is important for her to learn that new experiences equal Good Things for Dogs, so take the show on the road by bringing her around town with you. The more positive exposure your puppy has to the world now, the more desensitized she will be as an adult dog. If your puppy is not taking treats or seems hesitant in any way, increase the distance between your puppy and the stimuli to make her more comfortable. It’s all about baby steps!

Create lots of practice situations in your home to help your puppy with desensitization. For example, you might take a pan from the kitchen, rest it on the floor, and give her a treat. Then, drop the pan from a quarter-inch in the air and give her a treat. Then, drop the pan from a half-inch, then an inch, then two inches, etc, until you get to the point where you can drop the pan from waist-height, and your puppy does not show any signs of anxiety and is happily taking treats. (When doing exercises like this, be sure to work very gradually. Be sure to set your puppy up for success by making the experience fun instead of scary. If your puppy is not taking treats or showing any signs of anxiety (trembling, jumping away, startling, licking her lips, whining, barking, growling, etc), change the experience so that it is something she can easily handle. Then, very gradually, raise the bar.

Dogs are not very good at generalizing. So, though a dog may be completely desensitized to the sound of a pan clattering to the ground, she might be scared by something else falling to the ground, like a thick book or a bunch of keys. You can help your puppy to learn to generalize by working through many different desensitization scenarios. Here are examples of just a few things you can desensitize in and around your home…

  • things falling onto the ground

  • an umbrella opening

  • the sound of someone stomping around on another floor

  • sudden movements

  • billowing fabric

  • household appliances like a vacuum, hairdryer, and blender

  • bicycles and skateboards

  • door knocking

  • doorbells

  • funny hats and coats

  • balloons

  • a vibrating phone

  • clanking silverware

  • drawers banging shut

Remember that when your puppy is in the presence of one of these stimuli, she gets treats, but that as soon as the stimuli stops/goes away, all treats stop.

You can also purchase a CD of sound effects (or find a bunch of sound effects on YouTube), so that you can desensitize your puppy for sounds that she may not hear within the home (a baby crying, a siren, fireworks, thunder, a train, horns, etc). Play the sounds at a low volume, giving your puppy treats while each sound plays (and stopping when the sound stops!). Gradually increase the volume of these sounds.

The Most Important Thing to Teach a Puppy (That Dog Geek)

Before and After Getting your Puppy by Dr. Ian Dunbar
Puppy Start Right by Dr. Kenneth M. Martin
Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Puppy: A Pet Parenting Guide by Suzanne Hetts and Dr. Daniel Q. Estep