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Socializing your dog: What pet parents need to know

Two socialized dogs

As a pet parent, you want to help your dog become acclimated to all types of sights, sounds, and smells in a positive manner. Here’s everything you need to know about socializing your dog so they enjoy interactions and are comfortable and confident canine good citizens.

Table of contents

What is dog socialization?

If you have a dog of any age, you are likely familiar with the term “socialization.” Socialization is widely considered a crucial component of caring for and training your dog. The American Veterinary Medical Association defines socialization as the process of preparing a pet to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places, and activities. This can take place on walks, meet-ups with strangers and other dogs, running errands, or any experience where your dog is exposed to new situations.

Why should you socialize your dog?

Socializing your dog teaches them that new experiences, people, and other animals are positive. In helping your dog be more comfortable and confident, socialization is good for both of you—your dog will be a happier pup, and you will have peace of mind knowing your dog is relaxed and able to handle any situation.

The benefits of having a well-adjusted dog can even go as far as saving their life. A potential consequence of not properly socializing your dog is fear and stress, which can cause your dog to run away or become aggressive with other animals.

Without adequate socialization, dogs can exhibit discomfort and fear around other animals, people, or in certain situations like riding in a car or walking down a crowded street. This fear and stress can be either general or acute and situational and can lead to reactivity and aggression. For example, dogs may develop generalized stress associated with a busy household or following neglect or abuse, which is common in shelter dogs. If not properly socialized, dogs can also develop situational stress triggered by loud noises, separation, or anything novel. Socialization is key to ensuring your dog is happy, comfortable, and safe.

When should you socialize your dog?

While socialization can and should take place throughout your dog’s life, there is a sweet spot for when socialization experiences are most effective. According to Rover, your dog’s developmental stage between three and 12 weeks is pivotal for socialization.

Here’s a breakdown of your puppy’s developmental stages and how their age impacts socialization:

5-7 weeks

Dogs this young are curious and virtually fearless, ready to explore the world around them. It is important to take advantage of this time to introduce them to new things like baths and trips outside of the house, as they can bounce back quickly if they are ever frightened by something new.

7-9 weeks

Around the time that most puppies are leaving their mothers to be adopted into their forever homes, they experience some behavioral refinement. They are now capable of permanent learning, so this is a great time to start training commands and manners!

8-12 weeks

Towards the end of this behavioral refinement period, around 8 weeks, puppies tend to become more aware of their surroundings, cautious, and even fearful. Don’t be surprised if your curious little dog is suddenly scared of loud noises, strangers, or other dogs. However, avoiding these negative experiences and instead developing positive associations with as much as possible during this time is essential. Use positive reinforcement with high value treats and or praise to help your dog build these pleasant associations. It is possible that anything associated with fear at this age will be a source of fear and stress throughout the dog’s life without extensive desensitization.

13-16 weeks

At three months old, a dog may begin to test dominance and leadership. With a basic understanding of their world, puppies are feeling a little more independent and can start classifying dogs and humans around them by seniority. It is important for them to be exposed to other dogs and humans at this time to learn basic social skills and build confidence.

Is it too late to socialize your adult dog?

Dogs may have missed out on some or all of puppyhood socialization for a variety of reasons. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic meant many families added a puppy to their lives but were unable to find socialization opportunities during social distancing. Dogs adopted from shelters often have unknown histories or come from difficult backgrounds that have caused stress.

Socialization after four months of age can be more challenging, as dogs have already undergone their critical development. Helping your dog be more comfortable and confident in new environments is not impossible, however! Old dogs can still learn new tricks.

How can ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA help stressed dogs?

Unfortunately, an unsocialized dog is often a stressed and fearful dog. Whether it’s daily, generalized stress or acute, situational stress, ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA can be a saving grace for pets and their people. By calming without sedating, CBD + CBDA helps dogs safely handle stressful situations, reduce their stress response over time, and support their overall well-being.

Dogs are unable to process or learn that a situation is positive if they are so stressed that they are in fight-or-flight mode. First calming them with ElleVet and then using positive reinforcement such as a high value treat can together help your dog learn that the new situation is not something to be feared. 

How can you socialize your dog?

Socializing your dog is a big responsibility. And because there are so many novel experiences for them to have, it can be a time-consuming task. While dog owners should make concerted efforts to socialize their dog, you don’t always have to go out of your way to expose your dog to new things. Here are some easy, everyday tips for socializing your puppy:

  • Daily walks – Walks around the neighborhood may not seem exciting to you, but these quick trips are full of possibilities for your dog to encounter something new. Daily walks will expose your puppy to cars, mailmen, joggers, bikes, strangers, and other dogs both on the sidewalk and behind fences. You can also change things up with different routes or different times of day.
  • Meet and greets – It is in everyone’s best interest for your dog to be comfortable around a wide variety of people. Try to arrange fun meetings with children, men, women, large groups—the more diverse your dog’s experience, the better.
  • Classes – Socialization and training classes are a great way to expose your puppy to other dogs and people in a safe environment. Because there are many dogs filtering through these facilities, many classes require your dog to have all of their vaccines before participating.
  • Running errands – Going to the hardware store or meeting a friend for coffee? Bring your dog along! Running errands to pet-friendly places gets your dog practice riding in the car, encountering strangers, and staying relaxed in new environments.
  • Dog parks – It is important for your dog to have experience in high dog traffic areas like dog parks or pet stores. If your dog isn’t fully vaccinated or isn’t quite ready to play with the big dogs, simply walking around the dog park will provide ample opportunities to safely interact with dogs and their humans.

It is important to emphasize that exposure is only half of the story when it comes to socialization. New experiences should be pleasant so that your dog creates positive associations and gains confidence. Be sure to use high value treats, give praise, and reward your dog throughout socialization and avoid any situation that might turn negative.

What if your dog is unvaccinated?

Pet parents are often confused about how to balance their puppy’s need for socialization with their vaccine schedule. Dog experts far and wide emphasize the importance of early socialization, but how can you socialize your dog if they do not have all their vaccines and could be susceptible to dangerous illnesses?

Because of the puppy’s risk of contracting an infectious disease such as canine parvovirus, some veterinarians advise owners to hold off taking their puppies out in public before 16 weeks of age and only after they’ve completed a full course of vaccinations. However, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes puppies should receive socialization before they are fully vaccinated. Talk to your vet about when it’s okay to take your puppy out into the world. The key is to socialize safely.

  • Invite friends over – Have people you know over to your house to meet your new puppy in the safety of your own home.
  • Have doggie playdates – While you should avoid bringing your unvaccinated puppy to dog parks and areas where lots of dogs roam, meeting individual dogs in controlled environments is generally safe. Ask a couple of fellow dog parents to bring their friendly, vaccinated dogs to a playdate in a clean, outdoor location.
  • Visit friends – Take your puppy with you to visit friends at their houses, so your dog can experience new environments in a safe way.
  • Let your dog ride – Rather than walking on public sidewalks or at the park, consider using a doggie stroller or wagon for trips around the neighborhood. This way, your dog still gets to experience the world without getting germs on their paws or in their mouth.
  • Keep your dog clean – Avoid letting your puppy walk where other dogs go potty.

Socialization don’ts

There are many ways to provide your dog with meaningful, positive socialization. But because socialization is so important to your dog’s health and happiness, and because pups can be sensitive, there are some important things to consider in order to ensure socialization success.

  • Monitor body language – It is important for pet parents to be able to recognize their dog’s signs of stress and intervene when situations become uncomfortable or dangerous. Let your dog set the pace for new encounters and new experiences—slow is better than too fast. Negative experiences can be very harmful to your dog’s stress and confidence.
  • Socialization is forever – Just because your puppy has grown out of their critical development stage or they seem calm, cool, and collected, does not mean that you should stop socializing them. Your dog’s comfort around other dogs, strangers, and in various environments is like a muscle and should be exercised to keep them “in shape.” There are always new experiences for your dog to have, so keep at it!

Take home message

Socializing your dog by exposing them to positive new experiences, people, other animals, and environments is crucial to ensuring your dog is a comfortable and confident canine good citizen. Puppies’ critical development window is pretty small, but there are plenty of ways to safely socialize your dog from a young age—and it’s never too late for adult dogs! Use positive reinforcement to help your dog build pleasant associations with new things, and be sure to monitor their body language for signs of stress to set you and your dog up for long-term success.

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