Plan ahead to socialize your puppy early!


Recently, I witnessed an older couple struggling to carry a crate into a puppy kindergarten class. Once inside, they opened the crate and a large and beautiful Poodle puppy emerged – a pup who was not particularly young, nor disabled in any way. When asked about the puppy and why they carried her inside the training center inside a crate, the couple said she was 14 weeks old, and had received three “puppy” vaccinations so far, but that their veterinarian had told them that the puppy shouldn’t be taken anywhere until she had received her last puppy vaccination at 16 weeks. They looked a little guilty, as if they expected to be admonished for bringing her to a puppy kindergarten class before the last “shot.”

It’s 2019! Why are veterinarians still telling this nonsense to dog owners?!!

The owners were reassured they had absolutely done the right thing to bring the puppy to class, and encouraged to allow her to walk into and out of the training center on her own four legs, and given assistance to show the very able puppy how to get back into her owners’ car after class without them having to struggle to lift her in a crate into the back seat. And I vowed to write this post, which I seem to recall writing every few years for the past 22 years!

Don’t Keep That Puppy in a Bubble

Folks, please tell your friends and relatives: The risk of dogs developing serious behavior problems (and subsequent relinquishment and/or euthanasia) due to inadequate early socialization and minimal exposure to the outside world is far, far higher than the risk of contracting a fatal disease before the pup has become fully immunized. While parvovirus and distemper certainly still exist in the world, and are still quite problematic in pockets of certain communities, there are many steps one can take to prevent a puppy from becoming exposed to disease while taking the very important steps to carefully and positively expose the pup to novel places, people, and other animals.

Puppies should absolutely be taken out into the world before the age of 12 weeks, and ideally, would be attending a well-run puppy play/puppy kindergarten training class as early as 8 weeks old! They certainly should not spend this incredibly critical period of development wrapped in cotton wool in their new owners’ homes!

Don’t believe me? That’s fine. Take it from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB): “Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals, and experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”

AVSAB’s position statement on puppy socialization also says, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated [our emphasis].”

What Do Veterinarians Say?

Strong words from the veterinary behaviorists… Do “regular” veterinarians agree? Here is a quote from a literature review from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): “By 8-9 weeks of age most dogs are sufficiently neurologically developed that they are ready to start exploring unfamiliar social and physical environments. Data show that if they are prohibited from doing so until after 14 weeks of age they lose such flexibility and may be forever fearful in these situations. Such dogs may function well within extremely restricted social situations but will be fearful and reactive among unfamiliar people, pets or in environments outside of the house.”

The AVMA paper goes on to explain how one should ideally socialize and expose puppies safely, as well as how to provide remedial socialization to puppies or dogs who were not given these opportunities. No, all is not lost when owners fail to properly plan ahead and sign up for a class well before they procure their puppy. But as any trainer or good breeder can tell you, there is usually an astounding difference in the amount of confidence displayed in a puppy who has had well-managed, positive exposures to many different persons, places, and things – and especially opportunities to meet and play with other puppies and dogs of appropriate size and play styles – and one who has only begun to interact with the world in a meaningful way after the age of 16 weeks (or older!).

It takes forethought and planning, however, and many families don’t even think about training and socializing until the puppy is four months old or so. Then they look for a trainer and try to book the next class and find out that the next available spot is for a class some six or eight weeks hence. It’s not “too late” to socialize or train them at that stage, but it’s somewhat akin to signing up a third- or fourth-grade kid for kindergarten. It’s great that their education will finally get underway, but what they could have been already had they started their education on time!

So, how should it be done?

  1. Plan ahead: Find a good positive trainer early, before you ever get a puppy. Find out about his or her schedule and get signed up for a class that will start when your puppy-to-be will be 8 or 9 or 10 weeks old.
  2. Plan ahead: Find a veterinarian who will administer your puppy’s vaccinations on a schedule that will facilitate the pup’s timely admission to puppy kindergarten – and who can speak to the importance of your puppy’s behavioral health and support your efforts to build a behaviorally confident puppy through a well-run puppy class. (If you can, interview vets before you procure your puppy. Younger, more recently educated veterinarians tend to be more aware of the AVMA’s and ASVAB’s recommendations.)
  3. Do as much thoughtful, structured socializing as possible with the puppy at your home, and/or in the homes of friends or family members who have no dogs or healthy, vaccinated, reliably dog-friendly dogs who can be trusted to not scare or harm the puppy. Here are some past articles in WDJ on this topic:

    The Complete Puppy Socialization Guide

    The 10 Most Important Things to Teach a Puppy

    Puppies in Public – Risk Factors

    Puppy Socialization Schedule

  4. Educate yourself about puppy diseases and how to keep your puppy safe without sequestering him or her. Here are some past articles that have been published in WDJ on this topic.

    Why Your Puppy Needs So Many Shots

    The Deal With Puppy Shots

    Time to Vaccinate the Dog


    • Go slow but continue to habituate him to other dogs from distance. Train him to a head halter ideally and bring him to a dog park, but stay in the parking lot near your car. Play get out and get into the car. Feed him for getting into the car. If he starts to react send him back into the car. You can also bring a sheet and hold up the sheet to block his view if he starts to react, and lower the sheet when he is quiet. You want him to learn some self control, that he won’t get to go far from the car unless he shows calm self controlled behaviors. Only expose him to other dogs in places where the other dogs are leashed and you can maintain the distance that he needs. Don’t worry, older dogs do improve greatly , you just have to give them the time and space and safely that they need to not worry about other dogs. You want them to learn not to be surprised by the fact that other dogs are out there, and also not to worry that they might need to interact. Dogs don’t need to be playing together or sniffing butts for them to be socializing.

      • If your rescue is overwhelmed by the number of dogs in the dog park, try to find a place where there are fewer dogs (maybe a pet supply store and dogs are on leash and you start off in the parking lot). Keep at a distance where he doesn’t react and decide what you want him to do instead of the aggressive behavior he’s currently displaying. Teach him to do that (perhaps you want him to sit and look at you–teach him “sit” and “watch me”–make sure he can do this reliably with no distractions and then with non-threatening distractions before trying to ask him to do it around scary things–set him up for success). Use high value treats and try to keep him under threshold at all times. You need to change his current emotional response to other dogs. To do this, set up the situation so that the presence of other dogs makes really yummy treats rain from the sky. Other dogs make good and great things happen–yummy treats and “mom” telling him what a wonderful boy he is and “making over” him. If he won’t eat the treats, you’re too close. If you can’t see the dogs, bring a barrier so he can’t see them but can smell/hear them. Go at your dog’s pace (which may be much slower or much faster than your pace).

  1. I’m not so sure on this I have read both sides to the story. What exactly is “socialization”? Being put into an enclosed room with a bunch of other rowdy puppies, possible getting even more fearful? Some of this is also genetic. Out one female would pee on me when I took her out and about (carried when unvaccinated) and someone would approach.
    There are some that would disagree with this wide open idea of “socialization”. I think in many cases it needs to be slow and careful. One bad experience could ruin a puppy for a long time, and all those puppies in a puppy class are an unknown.

    • I will certainly not argue against the necessity of early socialization! It is absolutely essential. But SKF is completely right! Genetics plays a role–maybe a bigger role than we’d like to admit. The last puppy I had, I did all the “right” things and socialized him to all kinds of things. He was fabulous with people (all kinds of people, including children). He was fabulous with birds, snakes, lizards, ferrets, cats, and small dogs. What he wasn’t fabulous with was larger dogs (and he was an Irish Wolfhound). So it wasn’t dogs that were larger than he was (there weren’t any). No matter how hard we tried, he always displayed aggression toward dogs that weighed more than 15 or 20 pounds. We ended up having to rehome him (talk about being heartbroken) because he started fighting with the dogs already in our home (two Great Danes and one other Irish Wolfhound and serious injuries were resulting–including a serious injury to me because I tried to break up a fight and we had an elderly Great Dane and he almost killed her). He ended up going to the most fabulous home. He shared his home with a cat (but no other dogs) and the couple’s grandchild who would come to stay with the people after school until her parents got off work. He was so much happier there than he ever was in our home (because he was always absolutely terrified at our home, and I did something I absolutely never thought I’d do–I rehomed one of “my” dogs). We all believe it was either something that happened at the breeders before we got him or genetics. I later found out that his mother was fearful of other dogs and often fought with other dogs (had I known this, I wouldn’t have gotten him). So, yes, genetics certainly plays a role.

    • SKF, Your question, “What exactly is socialization?” is the key to the answer. “Being put into an enclosed room with a bunch of other rowdy puppies,” or “wide open socialization” is not what is being advocated for in this article. Socialization needs to be done thoughtfully and carefully, making sure that exposure to new things/experiences is always pleasant for the puppy, and if the pup is apparently NOT enjoying it (and you need to be able to read body language to know), then get them out of the situation immediately. And puppy playgroups should always be supervised by a knowledgeable trainer who will keep things under control and pleasant for everyone. It should not be a free for all.
      If you read the other articles that are linked to, there is a lot of good info on how to do it right, and it makes it very clear that “wide open socialization” is not safe or helpful.

  2. I work in a huge retail greenhouse which is animal friendly – we have 2 resident rescue cats. Customers are encouraged to bring their dogs. As a result we have old dogs, carefully loaded into the cart because they simply can’t do the walk anymore, middle age dogs loving the space, and young pups who are just getting to know the world. It has become a great place for dogs. Most are very well behaved – it’s our cats who cause problems. One cat in particular will tease (torment) the dogs by staying just up and out of reach. One dog was loosely restrained, the owner talking with a clerk and the cat knew it. Yes, the dog chased the cat. The customer was embarrassed but we enjoyed the little dust up. No harm done to anything. So new dog owners, think outside the box as to where your animal can go for socialization training. Doesn’t just have to be the pet store. But do think about how busy the place will be. Since May is prime planting time, the place is usually packed and everyone – customer and staff – are a little crazy. Maybe not a good time for a dog visit. Come see us any other time though.

  3. My 12 year old Maltese is great except next time I will be sure to familiarize a young puppy with airports, since we do a lot of air travel. He didn’t fly until he was 9 months old, and he still is “not a fan”. (of course, who is?)

  4. Holistic vets offer a safe alternative to Western Vet Meds and practices. This article is right on the money as fear of socialization is instilled by vets / and public opinion as soon as you receive your dog. Just another example of how vets set themselves up to be your go-to answer to most any pet problem when so much can be done on your own. It’s only after you have spent $200-300 that you realize that you went to the vet because you were fearful not because the dog needed to go.

    • I think vets are finally beginning to recognize the importance of using force-free and low stress handling. Many are now using fear-free methods. Not all vets, of course, but many are beginning to recognize the importance of keeping fear out of the vet’s office, as much as humanly possible. My vet certainly uses fear-free methods and I wouldn’t go to a vet that didn’t. If I thought my vet was just in it for the money (yes, they do have to charge you–they have bills to pay, just like you do, they can’t give away their services, although I know a few of them who would if they could), I’d quickly find a different vet. If my vet didn’t care about how frightened he or she was making my pets, I’d quickly find a different vet. If my vet said ugly things about me or my animals, I’d quickly find another vet (and I don’t mean that vets can’t make a note if a dog bites–they should; my vet is well aware of our puppy mill survivor’s behavioral quirks and she keeps extensive notes on how she reacts to different procedures, handling methods and people–and even what treats she likes best–not to say ugly things about her, but to help her be more at ease during visits, and yes, that does include medication before vet visits).

  5. We adopted our Border Collie mix in 2006 from a well-known shelter. Everyone cautioned us about taking her anywhere “until all vaccines were given”. Not having had a dog for a number of years, we figured they knew best although that’s not how I raised my dogs as a kid. Well. At 8 months old, she was in puppy kindergarten and hid behind my knees for the duration of class. She concentrated on us during training and learned her lessons. But to this day, she is not comfortable around many dogs and absolutely detests being in the car. Not wanting to repeat that situation, we brought our Jack Russell to kindergarten class the same week we got him. He was shy and not interested in the other puppies but very interested in the children and other people in the room. He didn’t play with toys and no amount of “high value treats” will alleviate his fear of other dogs, thunder or loud noises. We’ve gone though every possible management and training technique out there for 11 years to no avail. So he’s not forced into situations that are scary for him. He happily walks up to people, is the most gentle around babies, and gets upset if we don’t allow him to say hello to every person working at the vet’s office. His half-sister was in puppy kindergarten 3 days after we got her. Unlike her half brother, her confidence is amazing. She loves learning tricks, scent training and lure coursing. She uses proper caution around new dogs and people she meets and ignores cats, birds, and other critters. An amazing feat for a Jack Russell! Thinking through the whole socialization experience over the past 13 years, we’re reminded dogs shouldn’t be forced to like everything. Just like people, as long as they’re not behaving inappropriately or trying to bite anyone, it’s fine with us.

  6. It’s a wonderful idea, but… I socialized my little puppy carefully here in Midcoast Maine and 3 days before his last shot, parvo. A week (at the vets and emergency vets) later he survived but it was touch and go for 3 or 4 days. It’s a huge personal, financial and puppy risk to take.

  7. Claire, I agree. I too know of more than one unvaccinated pup becoming ill because of “socialization” in public places. Even if you could trust others to properly vaccinate their animals, vaccinated animals can still carry diseases and many diseases reside on surfaces for a certain period of time as well. Vets make these types of recommendations because they deal with the consequences of owners who don’t listen. In some parts of country certain diseases are a real problem and the problem is growing due to a more mobile society, an increase in rescue pups coming from different parts of the country and the world and unvaccinated animals, etc. Why risk it?

    • Socializing a young puppy is a calculated risk. But it can be done with the least amount of risk. Look for puppy socialization classes where all dogs who enter the facility must have proof of vaccinations (including the puppies in the puppy class). Keep the puppy away from dog parks and other places where other dogs whose vaccination history you don’t know may congregate (until the 12-week mark of the okay from your vet). Introduce your puppy only to other dogs you know are healthy and have been vaccinated. Why risk it? Because dogs that are not properly socialized can be fearful of many things in thier every day environment. We ask our dogs to do many “unnatural” things (things that are not natural for dogs as a species). We ask them to walk on a leash (nicely). When they are unsocialized and meet something that frightens them, they cannot escape (because they are on a leash) and often a very well-meaning owner is encouraging the puppy to “face its fear” and approach the scary thing. Aggression is a very useful and natural reaction in this case (if I am forced to go up to and play nice with someone who is holding a gun on me, I’m not going to be very happy about it and I may act aggressively to get the gun away from that person–I have no desire to be shot; that person may be very nice and not want to shoot me at all, but I perceive the person holding a gun on me as a threat). The puppy soon learns that when faced with something scary, aggressive behavior typically makes the scary thing go away (either the scary thing is removed or the puppy is removed from the scary situation). I work with so many dogs that behave in aggressive ways simply because they were not socialized well and are now frightened of some things. It can take a long time (not to mention a lot of money) to get these dogs to overcome their fears. I’ve worked with dogs that when I walk into their home, they greet me with wagging tail, lolling tongue, and absolute delight to get some attention and a treat or two. Then we go out and they see that “scary” thing and that happily wagging, lolling-tongued, wiggly all over with delight dog is now a lunging snarling, snapping, growling, barking bundle of big teeth. I’ve worked with several dogs that have bite histories (and one more bite is it over–euthanasia is the next step). All because the dog wasn’t properly socialized. Yes, I firmly believe that socialization is well worth the risk, just be careful about where that socialization occurs and look out for your puppy’s health–physical and mental. A study found that at a well-run puppy socialization class (where all dogs coming to the facility had proof of vaccinations), no puppies came down with so much as a case of the “itchies”. No puppies became ill. So socialize, but do so wisely.

  8. You overlooked the best solution of all: locating a breeder who begins to socialize the whole litter at an early age. My pups went to the bank; the carwash; a class of kindergarteners and third graders; to the local creek and to the local hiking trails. I invited neighbors to come and handle them, an adult in a wheelchair, and the bratty kids down the street as well as my three young (perfectly behaved) grandchildren. The puppies played on mini agility equipment like a teeter and a small tunnel. I know my program worked: I kept one of the pups and she is the happiest, most confident dog I’ve ever had, good with dogs and people of all ages. “A stitch in time saves nine.”

  9. Being one owner of a Great Dane puppy that happened to socialize him at an early age and regret it fully! He ended up getting parvo. I was up to date on all of his shots and had 2 sets to go. I had to leave my poor Great Dane puppy with its doctor for a week on IV’s and $1500 later he was saved. Be careful what and how you suggest taking puppies out. These animals cost a fair amount of money not to mention the cost to save them. If you do take your dog out check with your local pet hospital to see what problems are arising for animals in your area.

  10. THANK YOU!!
    I know you keep letting people know about the importance of this, but I’m so glad you did it again. It’s a struggle, unfortunately, for us in the know to spread the word and convince people of everything you stated. With far too many pet care professionals still adhering to out dated recommendations, here’s hoping this article’s modern and factual advice will land and become the norm now. Sharing this article everywhere right away!

  11. Well, we have an 8 year old chihuahua. We got him at around 9 months old . We had never had a small dog, and were assured by the breeder we got him from that he was socialized as she viewed all her dogs as pets first, even if they were also in shows and breeding. He had been shown and was just adorable. The only things I was concerned about was that shortly after we got him, he got away from me and did not hesitate to take on our 2 livestock guardian dogs. Fortunately, we avoided A bad ending that time. The other thing was that if he was asleep next to me watching tv or whatever and I moved at all he would growl and react. The reaction was so quick and intense, he looked like he was in another “zone”. I won’t go into all the correction that has gone on over time. But as time has gone on he has become more and more fearful and aggressive and very reactive- to me, to other people . I have gotten bitten numerous times. We’ve now started him on Prozac to see if it will help. It’s like dealing with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have had many dogs over the last 45 years and I can honestly say that I’ve never had the problems with any dog nor felt like such a failure as a dog mom as I’ve have with this little guy. I love him but I do think there is a genetic component involved in what we’re dealing with. This is not the life I was looking forward to for any of us when we got him and if I’m being truthful I wish I could rehome him but I’ve been told that’s not an option since he has a history of biting and I’m not going to dump him at a shelter. So, we’ll continue to love him and give him the best home we cam. But…this is hard.

  12. I recently started work for a clinic and am blown away with the advice given by the vets. Everything from isolate the puppy till 16 weeks, to “growl” and yell “No” at the dog when you want to teach him how to drop his toy!!! I have been a positive reinforcement/science based trainer for 5 years (not long in the grand scheme). Jaw dropping, I have been trying to see puppy parents after their consult and send explain the need for good positive socialization after first round of vaccines. ahahahahahah such a disconnect between all of us in the animal industry 🙁

  13. Hey Nancy, you really have an instructional article about everything. It’s great to see someone so dedicated. I have a dog who is very anxious. she’s leash aggressive but she plays fine with dogs at daycare. If we meet a dog while on a walk, sometimes she’s good. Sometimes if it’s the same dog but a few days go by. she gets aggressive. Do you have any idea as to how can I recover it?.

  14. hello,
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  15. How do you socialize during a pandemic? I just got a 8 week old boxer puppy and I’m so worried she’s going to not be socialized well enough because of social distancing right now and every park and public land is closed. 😭 I already had her picked out when covid-19 appeared on the scene. Trainor and vet picked out, plans made. Now its on hold while we figure out this crisis, except the puppy is here and she’s growing up fast! Lol