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Puppy Socialization: The Most Important Training for Preventing Fear and Aggression

Updated: Apr 29, 2023



Lesson Learned


There are thousands of dog trainers in the world with many different methods of training, but one thing virtually all trainers agree on is the importance of puppy socialization. Good socialization is the most important training you could ever do for your puppy. Not only does it make your dog easier to handle, it could save their life! Puppy socialization is a subject that is dear to my heart because I have experienced first-hand what it's like to live with a dog who was not properly socialized as a puppy.


When I met my dog for the first time, it was love at first sight…for me. She was a 6-month-old female Border Collie Akita mix her owners called Buckles. She was irresistibly cute, with soft black and white fur, a curly tail, big paws, and ears way too big for her head. But she was also very insecure.


When my family and I arrived at the property to meet her, we were greeted by a number of dogs with their tails wagging. Buckles was not one of them. She sat a distance away, watching us warily. I approached her and patted her head while she just sat there, tense and awkward. She clearly didn’t know what to do with me or the new people that were with me. During that visit I also learned that she had not been exposed to anything outside of the property. I also noticed that the other dogs and kids who lived with her teased and picked on her.


After I brought her home, she continued to be fearful and anxious with new things. It was only a few months before Buckle’s harmless puppy insecurity turned into a lifelong habit of wariness, nipping people, picking fights with dogs, and chasing other animals. These dangerous behaviors could have been greatly reduced with good socialization.



This post explains why puppy socialization is so important and what good socialization entails.



 

Nature Vs. Nurture: How Genetics, Personality, and Socialization Work Together


It’s true that not all dogs who lack good puppy socialization become aggressive. There are remarkable cases of dogs who were raised in abusive situations that are still quite friendly, which suggests that there are a number of factors that play into a dog’s adult disposition and behavior. Genetics are one of those factors. Friendly confident parents are more likely to produce friendly confident puppies, which is why choosing a reputable breeder is important.


Some breeds (often those bred for guarding) are more prone to aggression while other breeds tend to be more friendly. However, no matter the breed, every puppy has its own in-born disposition. Some puppies are naturally more outgoing and others more timid. Even within a litter of puppies who have the same parents, there will be varying levels of sociability.


Still, a puppy’s genes and in-born personality are only part of the picture. Socialization, especially during puppyhood, has a life-long impact on a dog’s behavior and temperament. Undersocialized, anxious, and fearful dogs are more likely to bite. Dogs that bite are more at risk of being rehomed or euthanized. The more fearful your puppy is, the more careful socialization they will need. If your puppy is already friendly and confident, socializing is essential for helping them stay that way into adulthood.



How To Socialize Your Puppy Properly


Socializing means training the puppy not to overreact to things they will come across in everyday life. Many situations that we as humans don’t think twice about can excite or scare a dog. It is our responsibility to teach them how to be calm when they encounter different situations and environments. This is done by exposing the puppy to many new situations and helping create a positive association with whatever that new situation involves. Click here for a socialization checklist.


One of the best ways to do this is to make nothing of it. Stay calm and cheerful when encountering new things and your puppy will pick up on how you are feeling.

You can give your puppy treats or a favorite toy when you encounter a new stimulus to build positive associations. It is important to expose your puppy to a variety of situations again and again so they are completely comfortable with them.


Take care not to overwhelm the puppy by forcing him into situations he is extremely fearful of. This will backfire. If the puppy is very fearful, move him far enough away from stimulus that he can calm down. Then gradually move closer as the puppy remains comfortable.


One of the worst things you can do when a puppy is fearful is pick them up and coddle them. When you pick up and soothe a fearful puppy, you are telling them “You are right! Good job for being scared. This is something to be fearful of!” When the puppy is scared, don’t praise or reward them. Instead, give them time and space to gather up their own courage and approach the new stimulus when they’re ready.



Critical Socialization Window


Although how you socialize your puppy is very important, when you socialize is critical. Puppies start learning essential social skills from 3 - 8 weeks of age. They learn from their mothers and littermates how to play nicely with other dogs. Good breeders will handle the puppies and introduce them to stimuli that they will encounter in the home environment. These are vital skills for very young puppies to learn and will help prevent fear and biting when they are adults. This is why it is generally a good idea to let the puppy live with its littermates until it is at least 8 weeks old.


During 8-16 weeks of age (2-4 months), puppies are at the most impressionable stage in their lives. This is the critical socialization window. They are more open to bonding with people and other animals. This is when it is absolutely essential to introduce them to as many new people and dogs as they can handle. Puppies are extremely sensitive to positive and negative experiences during this stage, so it is important to create as many positive experiences as possible. What puppies learn about the world during this stage will likely stay with them into adulthood.


At 8 weeks, puppies also enter a fear period which makes them even more sensitive or fearful of different stimuli. This means you will just need to be extra patient and careful as you continue to socialize. Another thing to note is that young puppies’ immune systems are still developing and they are at greater risk of picking up diseases from other dogs. Before the puppy is fully vaccinated, avoid areas where unknown dogs have used the bathroom. Only allow them to play with other dogs who are friendly, healthy, and vaccinated.


While 8-16 weeks is considered the critical socialization window, puppies still adapt well to new situations until they are about 6 months old. At 6 months through 12 months, puppies are in the adolescent stage and are more interested in figuring out their role in the pack and testing boundaries. This is why it is generally recommended that puppies meet 100 different people and 100 different dogs before they are 6 months old.


Adolescent dogs still need regular socialization to keep their social skills honed, but at this age it’s more of a time to put the skills they learned during puppyhood to the test. Dogs also go through another fear period between 6-14 months where they become fearful of things they had previously been socialized to. This is normal and is often related to growth spurts. You will just need to repeat the socializing exercises you practiced with them when they were younger. Most dogs reach adulthood around 12-15 months and at that time, their adult temperament is pretty well established.



Missed Critical Socialization Window... What Now?


I had unfortunately missed the critical socialization window for Buckles, but with patience, diligent pack leadership, training, and socialization we made tremendous progress. It has taken many hours and years of hard work, but she did learn to love riding in the car and visiting new places. She can walk with me through crowds and has even visited schools with me to do tricks for kids quite happily. Still, I have always had to be very careful when introducing her to new people. She has never enjoyed meeting strangers or being touched by them, but she has learned to be more tolerant. She has also never learned to play with other dogs, but with slow introductions she can tolerate them being near her.


If you have missed the critical puppy socialization window with your dog or you are adopting an older puppy, socialization should begin as soon as possible. The process of rehabilitating a dog who is fearful, reactive, or aggressive because they were not properly socialized during puppyhood takes time and consistent effort. But many dogs, like Buckles, can still learn how to be a safe member of society. And If you have a puppy under six months or plan to get a puppy soon, don’t chance it. Save yourself a lot of grief and work down the road by taking the time to socialize now.



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