Telling Tails

Puppy Socialization Part 1: People, Places, and Things

Socialization is a bit more complicated than it sounds.  It is more than merely introducing your puppy to different people, dogs, places and things.  It is ensuring that your puppy is having a purely positive experience in every situation and then able to practice good manners appropriate to each situation.  For example, Tarzan would happily join us for a cup of coffee but would he know to sit in a chair or would he be swinging from the chandelier?  Would he know to shake our hand when we extend it or would he put us in a bear hug?  Nobody wants a Tarzan.

So how to do we prevent our puppy from being Tarzan?  We will be using a combination of classical conditioning, desensitization, and operant conditioning.  I know, I got a little science geek on you but just stick with me.

The classical conditioning– making sure the puppy feels good in the situation, the most common way to do this is by pairing the new experience with something we know the puppy loves- food!  However, a puppy can become blinded by food so we are going to allow the puppy to observe and adapt to the new setting.  Then when they become relaxed and otherwise lose interest in the distraction we can praise them and interact via petting and play. And move on to operant conditioning.

Desensitization– this means that we are exposing puppy at a slower pace and from a greater distance and then gradually move closer as they become comfortable and happy.  We observe a busy playground from a distance then as puppy becomes more relaxed and disinterested we can move closer.

The operant conditioning– here is where that manners training comes in, once the puppy has made a positive connection with the experience we can then begin working their focus activities- name game, watch me and sit!  Keep in mind at how distracting the environment is, is it busy?  Sometimes we need to go back to our desensitization process to work this step as well.  If you try a sit at the playground while kids run rapid and puppy can’t focus move away and try again.

puppy socializationpuppy socialization

How to apply it:
  1. Make a list of all the places, things and situations you want your puppy to be able to handle when they are adults, from here on I will refer to the items on this list as “distractions.”
  2. Look at your schedule for the next week and mark down one distraction for each day, be sure to give yourself plenty of time for this activity. Is it a social situation like meeting friends for coffee or taking your kids to the playground?  Don’t plan to meet up with anyone on the first visit as you may become distracted and less focused on your puppy.  Plan to spend all your focus on working with your pup. Otherwise, they will find other things to focus on.
  3. Bring the essentials- plenty of treats I suggest a mix of 3 (regular food, and two different types of treats), poop bags, water and a water bowl, and 1 or 2 of their favorite toys.
  4. Remember to start at a distance from the distraction.
  5. Allow the puppy to notice the distraction (skateboard, busy playground, a jogger on a path) remain quiet as they observe. *If the puppy seems nervous and afraid and is unable to relax after several moments move further away, stop and try again.
  6. When puppy becomes less interested in the distraction engage them with praise, pets, and play. Once they are more interested in then you can begin working their focus activities and/or play with their toy. *Remember you can use toy play and food play as a reward for their focus!
  7. Now you can move closer, but not all the way. I suggest moving a few steps a time, then repeat steps 4-7!  *Puppies who are nervous or afraid may need multiple periods of short exposure, and that is okay!

puppy socializationOther tips:

  1. Be sure to keep your puppy’s vaccine history in mind and avoid places with heavy dog traffic until they have completed their vaccines- you could, however, visit these areas and practice observing from the car.
  2. Just because your puppy has one excellent experience in a new environment does not mean they are set for life, be sure to visit this place regularly for the first two years of their life and always set them up for success by being prepared to work with them.
  3. Avoiding places during the prime time of their socialization period (up to 20 weeks of age) can lead to other behavior struggles further down the road (fear or overexcitement) so make it a priority now.
Puppies and Strangers

It’s okay to say no!  Do I want your puppy to meet people? Yes.  Do I want your puppy to like people? Yes.  Do I want your puppy to be comfortable in environments full of people? Yes.  Do I want your puppy to be able to walk through a crowd of people? Yes.  Do I want this all to happen at the expense of your puppies comfort and happiness? No!

Everybody loves puppies; they love to “ooh and ah” over them.  Squish their little faces and smell that puppy breath.  Strangers are great at training puppies to respond to “Oh, look at that puppy, how adorable!” and usually they are already reaching for them before the request to interact leaves their mouth.

Take caution, what your puppy may be learning in these situations could be detrimental to how they will respond to strangers in the future.  You are the one who will be spending the next 10+ years of your life with your dog, 15 seconds of a strangers happiness is not your responsibility.  Your dog’s well-being is.  Some puppies are shy by nature, and others love the attention.  Let’s find some middle ground to make sure they feel safe and aren’t practicing bad habits.

For shy puppies:

  1. As soon as you hear the stranger verbally acknowledge the existence of your puppy- hold your hand up like a stop sign and ask them to “stop.” Then quickly explain “my puppy is shy and needs you to go slow.”
  2. Ask them to crouch down to the puppy’s level, without moving closer, and to remain still. You may explain “We will let (puppy’s name) come up to you at his/her pace, even if they don’t go all the way to you this experience is beneficial” you may praise your puppy for any interaction towards the stranger (looking at, sniffing).  Continue to talk to the stranger calmly “it will help if you focus on talking to me calmly while he/she investigates and not making any sudden movements, we are long ways from being able to pet him/her, but you are helping, thank you!”
  3. Be sure to calmly, yet happily, praise your puppy throughout the entire process.
  4. Move your puppy away before the stranger stands up and be sure to thank them one more time for helping your puppy.
  5. Congratulations! You’ve just successfully trained one human to demonstrate good manners towards an unfamiliar dog!

For the overly excited puppies:puppy socilaization

  1. As soon as you hear the stranger verbally acknowledge the existence of your puppy- hold your hand up like a stop sign and ask them to “stop.” Then quickly explain “my puppy loves strangers but we need to work on manners would you help us?”
  2. Ask them to crouch down to the puppy’s level, without moving closer, and to remain still. You may explain “we will come to you, practicing some skills along the way.”
  3. Using a food lure if needed, move the puppy closer one step and reward. Repeat this until you get to the stranger, you may add in sitting only if you think the puppy will be successful.
  4. Once you make it to the stranger hold on to the side strap of your puppies harness just in case, they try to jump. You are not applying any pressure to their harness, even then you are only preventing them from being able to move upward.
  5. Praise puppy while they interact with the stranger.
  6. Move your puppy away from the stranger and give them a treat before the stranger leaves.
  7. Be sure to thank them for their help!
  8. Congratulations! You’ve just successfully trained one human to demonstrate good manners towards an unfamiliar dog!

Amber Todd, CPDT-KA, UW-AAB

Need further socialization guidance?  Check out our puppy training page or or to find a trainer near you!