How to socialize your puppy

December 21, 2021 - 6 min read

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illustration of a pile of puppies on blue background

You should start working on your puppy’s social skills between the age of six and eight weeks, up to 16 weeks. This period is critical in developing your pet’s future confidence. It’s when they discover new experiences and learn what’s safe and what isn’t.

Puppies that aren’t appropriately socialized during this time risk moving into adulthood, fearing certain people or situations. This can be a challenge for new adult dog owners.

Don’t worry; we’re here to guide you through the right way to socialize your puppy or older dog.

And if you're experiencing problems like fear or aggression while trying to socialize your dog, see your vet. There may be an underlying medical reason, or they might refer you to a behavioral expert.

Usually, puppies stay with their moms until they’re around eight weeks old, but this doesn’t mean the socialization period can’t begin. They’ll learn how to interact with their littermates and surroundings through play.

But from the moment you take them home, it’s up to you to introduce your puppy to lots of new experiences.

Don't be tempted to think that your dog's breed doesn't need socialization. Even famously sociable dogs like Labrador Retrievers need socialization to help them develop the confidence and disposition they're known for.

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Introduce Your Puppy to Children and Adults

If you own a puppy, you should introduce them to plenty of new people as early as possible.

But you need to do this in a way that creates positive associations. Don’t hand your puppy to them. Instead, let your puppy go over to them in their own time. They need to feel comfortable enough to do this, and they should be able to retreat if they want to.

If your pup shows any signs of anxiety, remove them from the situation and try again later. They’ll show they're anxious by holding their tail down, ears back, and staying away.

If you’re socializing an adult dog, then again, you need to allow them to approach adults and children in their own time, and you should aim to introduce new people once a week, so they don’t become overwhelmed.

If they run and hide, then try doing something you know they feel positive about, like preparing their dinner. Don’t force them to return — just let them come to you.

The most important thing is to ignore any undesirable behavior and reward good behavior. You don’t want to accidentally reinforce their fears by lavishing attention on them in an attempt to comfort them.

It's particularly important to introduce pets and children in a positive way so that they can interact safely and happily.

Introduce Your Puppy to an Older Dog

It’s important to introduce your puppy to a range of dogs so that they learn valuable social skills from them and know that they have nothing to fear.

The problem with this is that it’s unlikely your puppy will have completed their full course of core vaccinations until they’re around 12 weeks old, so they’re at risk of catching diseases from other dogs. To overcome this, you can let them meet friends’ dogs you know are fully up to date on their vaccines.

It’s best to do this in a private setting — like your yard — where you know there haven’t been any unvaccinated dogs.

You should also avoid areas where there's likely to be dog waste in case they attempt to eat it. This could result in ingesting parasites, which can make your dog sick.

Once your puppy is vaccinated, you can take them to classes to meet some younger playmates. You may find your puppy is a little too excited when meeting new dogs. But if an older dog doesn’t want to play, they’ll usually let your pup know.

Socializing Older Dogs

If you have a rescue dog or an older dog that’s missing a few social skills, it’s never too late to start putting things right. But older dogs can be territorial, so you need to proceed with caution.

When you introduce your dog to another dog, make sure both dogs or on a leash. Meet in an open space, such as a park, not in the yard or home of one of the dogs.

Don’t let the dogs touch or sniff each other at this stage. The initial meeting is very important, and there will be a lot of tension in the air. If they attack each other, this will establish the grounds of their relationship.

Instead, go for a walk with both dogs, with one dog in front of the other. This will focus their energies on the walk rather than on each other.

As you’re walking, allow them to sniff each other’s behinds, which is normal dog behavior.

And if one of the dogs has a poop, you should allow the other dog to sniff it. This actually a common behavior that helps to establish bonding.

Once you’ve finished your walk, the dogs should be a little more comfortable around each other.

If you find the dogs get along well from the very beginning, you may not need to follow these steps so closely. Just make sure they don’t begin to show aggression toward each other. And if they do, separate them, and try again later.

Dogs Meeting in the Home

Dogs are very territorial, so initial introductions should be away from the home. Once the two dogs are more comfortable with each other, you can introduce the new dog to your home.

If you have a yard, try allowing the dogs to meet there first. The next steps would involve the "in-home" introduction. Keep the existing dog in the yard while the new dog enters your home. Then bring the existing dog in.

Don’t let the dogs spend too much time together, just allow them enough time to say hello and be comfortable with each other. If either dog shows signs of aggression, then separate them.

Before you start introductions, you might want to take steps to child-proof and pet-proof your home with barriers and stair gates to keep everyone safe.

Don’t forget to remove any of the original dog’s toys or bowl items from around the home or yard to avoid any conflict over them between the new and existing dog.

Bringing a New Puppy Home When you Have an Older Dog

You should introduce the puppy to the older dog on neutral ground, like at a park, to avoid territorial behavior. The process is the same as with introducing older dogs to one another.

Once they’re more accustomed to each other, you can begin the home introductions. which are also similar to those for older dogs.

Puppies are very boisterous and don’t understand adult dog communication methods. They’ll jump on your older dog and try to get their attention. Your older dog may tell your puppy off by growling, baring teeth, or staring intently. This tells the puppy "stop it, this isn’t normal grown-up dog behavior."

But if your older dog gets physically aggressive toward your puppy, you should put a stop to this immediately.

You should provide both dogs with a place they can retreat to by themselves.

You should also feed both dogs in a separate space and supervise them carefully when they’re playing.

Importantly, you should never force an interaction between the dogs or punish a dog for bad behavior.

Finally, you should also spend some time with each dog individually, taking care not to neglect either one. A 2014 study from the University of California, San Diego found that dogs do indeed get jealous when they see their owner interacting too much with another dog — a reaction that evolved to protect canine social relationships.

Spending time with your older dog will help prevent them from feeling replaced by the new arrival.

Digby Bodenham
UK engagement team lead

Digby is an experienced journalist in various fields but has specialized in insurance for more than six years. Before joining ManyPets in 2013 he was part of the editorial teams of various magazines, including Retail Week and Drapers. He has a degree in journalism and a cat called Potato.