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Bringing Home Puppy: Socialization

On Training Tuesday, the importance of proper socialization for the new agility (or any!) puppy.


by Jamie McKay, CPDT KSA

An adult dog's behavior is influenced both by genetics and the experiences they have during their first four months of life. Proper socialization during this critical period helps puppies develop into friendly confident resilient adults that are comfortable in a variety of situations. The so called "socialization window" exists from approximately three weeks of age to 16 weeks. During this formative period, puppies experience the greatest amount of brain growth and are more accepting of new experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important developmental phase can lead to dogs that tend to be fearful of unfamiliar people, dogs, sounds, objects or environments.

Yet, many veterinarians continue to advise clients against taking puppies anywhere prior to 16 weeks of age (the completion of inoculations). However, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has come out with a position statement that promotes the benefits of early socialization during the pre-inoculation period.

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Position Statement on Puppy Socialization

Socialization is accomplished by exposing our puppies to the widest variety of experiences possible while ensuring that these experiences are positive for them. Variety is important, but it's equally important to create good associations with new people and experiences, so avoid forcing a puppy to remain in the proximity of something he is uncomfortable with.  

Observe how your pup acts when he encounters new people or things. Does he readily approach with head up, tail wagging softly and a relaxed facial expression? If your pup turns away, freezes, ducks behind you, tucks his tail between his legs, or offers avoidance behaviors like sniffing or yawning, these are signs he is uncomfortable and needs to proceed at a slower pace. Learn to read your puppy's body language so you can accurately gauge his experience and adjust accordingly. Occasionally, pups will piddle a little in a new situation. This can be an indication of insecurity or stress, although sometimes it's simply excitement. Don't make a big deal about it.

Where you live will partially determine what things your new puppy will get a chance to be exposed to. Puppies raised in a rural setting will be exposed to things that puppies raised in an urban area will not and visa versa. Invite people over to meet your new pup. Bring him for car rides to a friend's home or to run errands. Bring treats and a toy with you. Many stores allow dogs inside. There is a reason they call them puppy magnets, so you will encounter many people who want to meet your puppy. Avoid places where puppies are sold and as much as possible areas where dogs eliminate. 

Strive to have your puppy meet people of all ages, genders, varied ethnicities and appearances such as wearing hats, hoods, glasses, beards, uniforms and carrying umbrellas, walkers, suitcases and canes so that these differences are not novel to the dog when he is older and less willing to accept what he hasn't previously experienced. Encourage new people to gently pet the pup on the chest below the chin, avoiding the top of the head. Hand them a treat to offer to your pup but ask them to do so when your pup's paws are on the floor (i.e. sitting or standing not jumping).

If your pup appears anxious when meeting strangers, have them avoid direct eye contact and largely ignore the pup at first. They might try turning sideways, getting down low and tossing a treat under hand to the puppy. Be sure your pup is far enough away from the person that he feels secure. 

Children must always be supervised when interacting with a dog of any age especially puppies. Most children need guidance on how to properly greet a puppy. Teach them to calmly approach and let the pup sniff their hand. Have them avoid reaching over or patting the pup on the head. Do not allow them to hug or pick the pup up. If the child runs, screams, flails their arms or causes the puppy to chase, nip or become frightened, end the interaction. 

Expose your puppy to surfaces such as tile flooring, carpet, wet and dry grass, sand, mats, gravel , metal (can use a tray) and sidewalk. Provide them with things to climb on and things that move. Filling a children's wading pool with empty plastic bottles is a fun and inexpensive way to introduce puppies to a new surface that moves under their little paws. Take them out in rain and snow weather permitting.

Introduce them to things that make noise. Musical instruments, ceiling or window fans, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners and flags flapping in the wind are all novel objects to your puppy. If traffic or train noises frighten your pup when walking, let the puppy slowly get used to the sights and sounds. Take him to a quieter area with less traffic for short periods of time and offer him a treat anytime a vehicle passes. 

Have your puppy eat out of different bowls and provide a variety of toys to play with and chew on. Occasionally drop an extra special tasty morsel into the bowl while he is eating to help establish a good association when people approach his bowl. 

If you have friends with older, well-mannered, well-socialized dogs, allow your pup to meet them. As you did when allowing your pup to meet strangers, watch for signs of comfort or distress. Play bows, wiggles, and playful running indicate he is probably enticing the other dog to play. Respect the owner who tells you his dog doesn't like puppies, even if your pup is eager to interact. Seek out play dates with friends who have puppies of a size and age similar to your own. Puppy classes also provide opportunities for your puppy to meet other pups. If you are unsure that the class will be the right fit for and your pup, inquire about observing a class prior to enrolling.


Normal puppy play often consists of chase games and wrestling. If it looks like one of the puppies is intimidated by their playmate, gently interrupt the interaction. If available introduce your puppy to other species like a dog-friendly cat. Don't let your puppy harass the other animal by being overly rambunctious! Give your pup a treat for behaving calmly.

Remember, keep your puppy safe and secure while exposing them to the world.

Enjoy those short lived puppy days and have fun watching your dog experience and learn from new people, animals, places and things as they develop into loving adult pets! 

Jamie McKay, CPDT-KSA and her husband Stephen McKay, CPDT-KSA own McKay9 Dog Training LLC in Harrison, N.Y. Jamie gained her early experience at the Humane Society of Westchester at New Rochelle providing training to enhance the adoptability of shelter dogs while teaching safe handling skills to volunteers. She has competed in agility and rally obedience. Jamie and Stephen are loved and owned by Shetland Sheepdog Derby and Border Collie Scorch, both of who compete in USDAA agility with Stephen and have recently welcomed Shetland Sheepdog puppy Tease into the family. Jamie can be reached at jamiemckay@optonline.net.

Photo credits: All puppy pictures by Jamie McKay, except Sheltie pups with baby are by Darlene Branchard.

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