Without a doubt, socialisation is the most important period in your puppy’s life. If you’ve never had a puppy before, (and maybe even if you have) you might think that socialisation means the same as socialising. It’s not, but, meeting new people and pets is part of the process. So what is puppy socialisation, when does it happen, and why is it so important?
Puppy socialisation is a period in your dog’s early life where they learn how to interact with the world around them positively and safely. It’s the most important stage of your puppy’s development because it shapes how they see the world for the rest of their life.
Socialisation provides your pup with the experience and skills they need to be happy and confident with everyday events and encounters whilst learning what is safe and what’s not. A socialised pup should grow up to be a steady dog who knows how to stand on their own four paws and doesn’t find new things frightening.
Socialisation is more than just socialising with other people and dogs, it is all about introducing your puppy to everything they will meet in their life, from cats to cars, birds to bikes, hoovers, and even the TV.
Puppy socialisation makes life better for dogs and their owners. A confident pooch has a better quality of life because they are less likely to be fearful, while socialisation also helps to prevent canine behavioural issues which will make life as an owner easier. Plus, it strengthens your bond together.
Puppy socialisation takes place between a puppy being 10 days and 14 weeks old.
Some breeds like German Shepherds end their socialisation period earlier.
Your puppy learns life skills about what situations are safe and what could be dangerous.
Socialisation is when a puppy should encounter everything they will face in life. EG: Children, hoovers, cats, cars, TVs, fireworks, grooming, car trips, time alone, etc.
Give your puppy plenty of time to investigate! Socialisation must not be rushed and it may take a few days of gradual exposure before your puppy is confident around the new stimulus.
Go at your puppy’s pace and let them lead the exploration. Give them more space away from something if they seem worried or over-excited.
Reward your puppy whenever they encounter something new. All socialisation should be positive so all new situations are seen as positive experiences by your pup.
Be proactive and prevent your puppy from becoming stressed or overwhelmed.
Ensure your pup doesn’t experience negative encounters. One bad experience could create long-term fear.
Until your puppy is vaccinated, they cannot be walked. Instead, carry your puppy on a walk so they can encounter new environments and scenarios safely. (Like roads and traffic.)
Your puppy will continue to learn even after the socialisation period, but much slower and with wariness.
‘Oversocialisation’ is possible (your puppy thinks they can interact with every person or dog they encounter!) and a problem leading to behavioural issues, lack of focus, etc.
The key puppy socialisation period is between 10 days old and 14 weeks old. This is the crucial stage in your puppies development when the brain literally doubles in size and makes millions of new connections as they learn. These new connections are formed from exposure to new stimuli, whether that is a novel sound, taste, smell, sight, or texture.
Beyond 14 weeks, brain development slows and the opportunity to make these new connections disappears, and puppies become warier of new things. However, socialisation must continue beyond 14 weeks and is most important in your puppy’s first year.
Half of your puppies socialisation period will take place with the breeder, so you need to make sure you check what your puppy has been introduced to so far.
From birth, puppies will be with their mother and littermates and should be able to smell and hear different people.
Once the puppy is 2-3 weeks old they should be introduced to new experiences, sights, smells, and noises that they will hear in their everyday life. EG: the TV, hoover, cars, etc. They will also need to be gently introduced to routines and situations you need to carry out throughout their life.
Ideally, breeders should start handling a puppy’s paws and ears and introducing grooming tools. These are all routine things you’re going to need to do with your dog as an adult. Introducing them as a puppy means these situations become positive and stress-free in the future for you and the dog.
In the period from 8 to 10 weeks old, your puppy may become nervous and develop a fear of new things. This is perfectly natural and is meant as a defence mechanism to stop them from wandering into danger, but they should still be curious and open to exploring new things with you.
The crucial thing is to continue socialising with patience and empathy and keep introducing your dog to new situations that need to become every day. This includes getting them used to time alone, riding in a car, and even wearing a collar and lead.
You should design encounters for your dog to meet new people, pets, and animals. Once your puppy is fully vaccinated at about 10-12 weeks, they can safely go for walkies and have more freedom to explore and meet other dogs.
Think outside the box and try to discover things anew with your puppy. It could be a noisy school, outside a shop, skateboards, prams, train stations, being in a car... Whatever is everyday for you needs to one day become everyday for your dog, so introduce them gently to your puppy now so they seem normal later.
Socialisation is a vital stage for puppies but it comes at a critical time in their health development.
Your puppy should have a health check from your vet a few days after you bring them home, which is both to check their condition and get them used to visiting the vet. They should have their vaccinations between 8 and 12 weeks old, but some puppies are vaccinated earlier.
It’s important your puppy doesn’t meet other dogs or explores spaces where dogs have been before they are fully vaccinated because they may come into contact with parasites or diseases which are fatal to puppies. Their bodies are not developed enough to combat serious illness, and they have not developed antibodies, leaving them vulnerable to disease.
If you already own another dog, they should be vaccinated and pose little risk to your puppy.
You can discuss with your vet the possibility of your puppy meeting other animals while waiting for vaccination. For example, they might mix with other puppies because they are also not allowed outside and shouldn’t pose a risk.
Just because your dog can’t go for walkies yet doesn’t mean they can’t explore the world. You can carry your dog for walks so they can safely encounter the sights, smells, and sounds of the world where you live.
Socialisation helps a puppy to grow into a calm, confident, and well-rounded pet. Their brain is typically more developed, they are less likely to react fearfully to new things, they focus and learn better, and it prevents many behavioural issues like reactivity, aggression, nervousness, phobias, over socialisation, and separation anxiety.
Socialisation definitely reduces fearfulness in dogs and it can also be an opportunity to prevent future phobias.
For example, many dogs are scared of storms or fireworks. However, dogs who experience these sounds during socialisation can then grow up to be less fearful of them.
You can’t guarantee your dog will experience everything in the short socialisation period but you can buy CDs with socialisation sounds on, or find videos on youtube, so you can gradually engage their sight and sound in a safe environment. Just remember to start the video very quietly and increase the noise with gradual exposure.
Over socialisation is just as bad as being under socialised. An over socialised dog will not pay attention to another dog or human’s body language and will have poor impulse control. These dogs are difficult to control and have lapsing focus.
For example, an over socialised dog will lunge on the lead to say hello to anyone, or run away and ignore recall to see a dog on the other side of the park. We've got a full guide on how to properly introduce your dog to other dogs here, so check that out to make sure everything runs as smooth as possible.
This is a problem for other people and pets who, quite fairly, don’t want to have a strange dog charging at them because it is scary. Especially because over socialised dogs ignore other dog’s body language and invade their personal space, which can cause even a well-socialised dog to react nervously or aggressively.
It is definitely possible but more difficult. If a dog encounters anything new they have not experienced during socialisation, they are usually very nervous about approaching it. But with patience and positive reinforcement, you can introduce any dog to new things and increase their confidence, it will just take more time and patience.