Puppies go through a “critical period of socialization” or a “sensitive period” when they’re about 3-16 weeks old. This is where puppy socialization is key. At this time, the brains of young puppies are sponges, absorbing information about what’s safe and good in the world. They’re far less likely to have fearful responses to new experiences while they’re this age.
As they leave the critical socialization period, dogs naturally become more “neophobic,” or afraid of new experiences. This is completely normal, but can pose a problem for puppy owners: how do you take advantage of your puppy’s socialization period without overwhelming your puppy or exposing them to dangerous pathogens?
The trouble is, puppies in their critical socialization period are not fully vaccinated. This means we must take care to protect their health while also capitalizing on a developmental period that sets the stage for their comfort and wellness through the rest of their lives. Dr. Jennifer Summerfield points out that if you take your puppy to places that are unlikely to be full of dog poop from unvaccinated dogs, your socialization plan is broadly safe. She suggests hardware stores, public parks (not dog parks), dog-friendly stores, and other public places for socialization outings.
Generally speaking, the goal of socialization for your puppy is gentle, positive exposure to the comings and goings of the world. This will look different for each puppy. A boisterous and confident lab puppy may need to practice disengaging from other dogs and people, whereas a shy shepherd will do best learning that people approaching them will respect their space and offer tasty morsels of chicken. My border collie puppy had to learn that cars aren’t to be chased and that construction is a normal part of city life.
Planning Puppy Socialization
You can use Sophia Yin’s socialization checklist or the Puppy Passport to plan your puppy’s socialization. What I love about these resources is that they help you categorize your puppy’s reaction to a given stimulus, rather than just checking off exposure. That’s important because simply exposing your puppy to something scary in the name of socialization can be harmful. Exposure is not the same as socialization.
Again, the goal of socialization is to capitalize on brain development to help your puppy learn that the world is fun and safe. With my puppy Niffler, I strived to take him somewhere new almost every day. As we wandered Cabela’s or downtown Missoula or a suburban park, I noticed what he noticed. If he looked up at me, I gave him food. If he seemed hesitant about something, I let him hang back and observe from a safe distance. Most of the time, he eventually approached it on his own and then he got more treats for his bravery!
You can see an example of this in the videos below. One shows Niffler learning about horses and the other centers on his fears of children. Notice that he doesn’t have any worries about the horses yet, so my approach is slightly different from the children; he’s afraid of kids so I take that training slower.
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