The importance of socializing your dog

It’s one of the most overlooked aspects of dog training, but socializing your dog may be the single most important thing you can do to help her live a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life.

What does it mean to “socialize” your dog, and why is it so important? What it boils down to is the difference between a well-socialized dog and a poorly socialized dog.

Well-socialized dogs

There’s no guarantee that socialization will solve every puppy behavior challenge, but well-socialized dogs are more likely to be calm and confident. They adapt to changes like a household move with greater resilience, and they’re enthusiastic about visiting new places and meeting new people.

Compared to dogs that have been poorly socialized or not socialized at all, they get along well with other dogs, are more patient with children, and are capable of walking down noisy streets and through dense crowds without stress or fearful behavior.

Poorly socialized dogs

A poorly socialized dog may be well-behaved at home and in familiar company, but is fearful in new environments and may be a danger to themselves or others. They may act shy or skittish when meeting new people, or they may bark, growl, or bite when introduced to strangers–either people or other dogs. They may fall apart if their family moves to a new home, and will often make themselves sick with anxiety in a kennel or boarding home. They may chew destructively out of boredom, endangering themselves or damaging your property.

It’s not that a poorly socialized dog is a bad dog. It’s simply that a pup who has rarely been exposed to new things doesn’t trust that new noises, people, or environments are friendly–or trust their owner to keep them safe the same way that a well-socialized dog does.

Socializing a puppy in her formative weeks

Socializing your dog is just as important as any other part of her training–and like a healthy diet, it will have the most impact if you do it consistently and from a young age. Backyard play simply isn’t enough because it can’t replace leash walks in new environments and off-leash play time with other dogs.

According to dog psychology experts, puppies form their understanding of the world around them in their first three to four months of life. That means it’s key to get your dog out to new places as a baby so she will have as many experiences as possible.

When veterinarian advice contradicts trainer advice

Many veterinarians recommend keeping puppies away from other dogs until they’ve been fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, the last round of puppy shots isn’t administered until well after the crucial mental development window for socialization has closed! Puppies need to learn how to behave around other dogs when they are 8 to 12 weeks old, and vaccination isn’t completed until somewhere around 16 weeks.

The good news is, there are precautions you can take to mitigate the risk of infection while you socialize your 8- to 12-week-old puppy. The first is to introduce your pup to dogs and older puppies that have already been vaccinated, so there will be almost zero chance of infection. Avoid risky spots like off-leash parks until your dog is older.

You can also focus on other types of socialization by exposing your young puppy to friendly cats, human adults and children, city noise, and strange environments like subways, elevators, and hardware stores, all of which are important for your pup to encounter during her first few months of life.

Never too late

If you’ve adopted an adult rescue dog or you didn’t learn about socializing your puppy until she was already fully grown, it’s never too late! You can still introduce your dog to new people, dogs, sights, smells, and sounds, but you’ll need to do it very gradually and make sure that all of her new experiences are brief, controlled, and positive.

It can take years to socialize an adult dog who missed the 8- to 12-week puppy socialization window, but rest assured that you can still teach an old dog new tricks that will enrich her life.