3 Things Everyone Should Understand About Puppies
How the socialization of young puppies affects later behavior.
Posted September 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Puppies have a sensitive period for socialization until 12-14 weeks
- Good socialization makes a difference in the dog’s behavior as an adult
- Most people don’t do enough to socialize their puppy.
Puppies have a sensitive period for socialization, which means that in the time up until 12-14 weeks of age you need to ensure that your puppy has a wide range of positive experiences. Now, thanks to canine science, we know more about puppies than ever before—and it all points to the value of better socialization practices.
If you haven’t had a puppy in a while, maybe you don’t know how things have changed. Here are three things to know about socializing puppies.
1. You have to make the most of socialization opportunities.
We don’t know the exact timing of the sensitive period—and it may be different for different breeds. This means you have to really concentrate on socialization as soon as the puppy comes to live with you, which is typically at 8 weeks.
When scientists compared three breeds of puppy (Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Yorkshire Terriers, and German Shepherds) they found that the sensitive period seemed to start earlier for Yorkshire Terriers and GSDs, and likely goes on later for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (Morrow et al 2015). Because the sensitive period includes both time at the breeder’s and time in the pup’s new home with you, these results show the importance of asking what the breeder is doing about socialization.
A good breeder, shelter, or rescue will have a socialization program that means the puppy is already learning about the world they will live in from before they go to their new home. (For tips on avoiding puppy mills and scammers, click here.)
Of course, it’s really important for you to continue to build on that socialization, which brings me to the next point.
2. Most people don’t socialize their puppy enough.
Those early weeks are so important, but unfortunately most people do not making the most of them. Although we don’t know exactly how much socialization is "enough," scientists have found that almost a third of puppies are not getting enough by way of socialization (Cutler et al 2017). But people who go to puppy class do a much better job: They expose their puppy to more other people, other dogs, and a wider range of stimuli than people who don’t take their pup to class.
Remember that this exposure needs to be a positive experience for the puppy, and it should be gradual. Encourage your pup, but don’t force them to interact, and let shy puppies hide if they need to.
Common gaps in puppy class, according to this study, include opportunities for puppies to play, gradual exposure to loud noises, and body handling (to get your pup used to grooming needs and going to the vet). So those are all things to look for in a puppy class.
3. Even more socialization is better.
When the Guide Dogs National Breeding Centre in the UK decided to test out some changes to its already excellent socialization program, they found that it made a difference (Vaterlaws-Whiteside and Hartmann, 2017). They gave puppies additional socialization, including interactions with people and stimulation for different senses (sight, sound, and touch) up until they were 6 weeks old, making sure it was all fun for the puppy. When they got to 8 months of age, these puppies did better on several behavioral measures than pups who'd had the standard program.
This study looked at very young pups and underscores the importance of socialization by the breeder. But it is likely that increased socialization when a puppy is in their new home is only going to be a good thing.
Unfortunately, lack of socialization can cause later behavior problems. Because of this, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior says that puppies should attend puppy class even though they haven’t yet had their full set of vaccinations:
“In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.”
These three points (and the scientific studies that back them up) show just how much responsibility it is to have a new puppy. But all those fun, positive, and gradually-structured socialization experiences will help your puppy be more confident and friendly as an adult dog. So get your puppy from a responsible breeder with a great socialization program, and then make sure you provide lots of positive socialization experiences, too.
Cutler, J. H., Coe, J. B., & Niel, L. (2017). Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 251(12), 1415-1423. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.251.12.1415
Morrow, M., Ottobre, J., Ottobre, A., Neville, P., St-Pierre, N., Dreschel, N., & Pate, J. (2015). Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002
Vaterlaws-Whiteside, H., & Hartmann, A. (2017). Improving puppy behavior using a new standardized socialization program. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 55-61. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159117302320#!