Timing Matters When Socializing a Puppy

Timing Matters When Socializing a Puppy

Two puppies socializing in the park.Two puppies socializing in the park.
Two puppies socializing in the park.Two puppies socializing in the park.

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Table of Contents:

  1. What Is Puppy Socialization and Why Does Timing Matter?
  2. Less Than 7 Weeks Old
  3. 7 – 9 Weeks Old
  4. 9 – 11 Weeks Old
  5. 11 – 13 Weeks Old
  6. 13 – 26 Weeks Old

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), there are two key ingredients for successful puppy socialization: creativity and timing. Though socializing a puppy can be tough, we’ll break down all of your pet’s social and emotional milestones to make the process a little easier. For each milestone, we’ll also include some ideas and activities that will help you make the process creative and fun for your pup. But first, the basics.

What Is Puppy Socialization and Why Does Timing Matter?

Socialization helps your puppy get used to a variety of different sights, sounds, and smells in a positive way. It is important for their development because it:

  • Reduces the number of things in the world that your puppy is afraid of
  • Builds their confidence
  • Helps them tolerate new situations

When and how you introduce your puppy to other dogs, people, and situations can impact the way they react to unfamiliar experiences as a grown dog. Dogs who are very aggressive or anxious most likely had a bad socialization experience as a puppy. The more a puppy is socialized and exposed to new stimuli at key points in their development, the better adjusted they will be for the rest of their doggy lifespan.

Most of us adopt puppies when they are 8 – 10 weeks old from an animal shelter or a breeder. This means you won’t be able to guide your puppy’s earliest days of exploration. It is very important to ask prospective breeders how they socialize their puppies. Good breeders carefully expose young puppies to new people and experiences.

We’ll review the early timeline of puppy social development just in case you do find yourself raising your own litter of puppies:

Less Than 7 Weeks Old

In the first 7 weeks of life, puppies learn several important social behaviors from parents and littermates. These are:

Creative Socialization Suggestion:

  • Introduce your puppy to strangely-shaped objects and noises such as umbrellas, vacuum cleaners, or hair dryers one at a time in a cautious, non-threatening way.

7 – 9 Weeks Old

The AKC calls this the Behavioral Refinement Stage, which sounds pretty intimidating (even to a human). This age is a good time to introduce some basic training, since learning starts to become permanent in your puppy’s brain. Although most puppies are still with their mother, they are no longer nursing and less dependent upon her. They become more fearless and curious about exploring their environment. Since they are usually still with siblings, they continue to learn about social behavior and behavioral boundaries.

Creative Socialization Suggestions:

9 – 11 Weeks Old

The time in your puppy’s life when they are usually joining their forever home is also the most critical time in terms of socialization. At this age, puppies are most sensitive to fearful events or situations. This fear imprint can lead to aggressive behavior as an adult, including biting, attacking, and/or self-harm. It is important to never ignore fear in your puppy. Signs that your puppy is afraid including hiding, shying away, cowering, and trembling. Other puppies become more aggressive when they are afraid and lunge, bark, or growl at whatever spooked them. Protect your puppy from a negative fear imprint by approaching all of their new experiences with support, encouragement, love, close contact, and of course treats.

Creative Socialization Suggestion:

  • Plan playdates with just your puppy and one other unfamiliar dog. Be careful not to overwhelm your dog by going to a dog park with too many other dogs of different sizes and temperaments. Introduce them to dogs of different ages and breeds.

11 – 13 Weeks Old

At this age, your puppy develops greater environmental awareness. All of their senses are fully developed. You can tell when a puppy has entered this stage because they seem beside themselves with an uncontrollable excitement for exploring. Everything is interesting, smells great, needs to be chewed on, and played with. Take advantage of their energy and show them your world! Be careful not to exhaust your puppy, however, and make sure to plan time for naps.

Creative Socialization Suggestion:

  • Take your dog to a beach, for a walk in the woods, or a dog-friendly store to experience new sights, sounds, and smells. Make sure you bring lots of treats to reward good behavior and watch carefully for signs of fear or fatigue in your puppy.

13 – 26 Weeks Old

Once your puppy figures out their environment, they turn to lessons in dominance. At this age, your puppy’s brain is trying to make sense of dog and human hierarchies, and maybe even their standing with that grumpy cat sharing the household. Dominance, leadership, and important behaviors such as bite control, commands, and leash-walking need to be reinforced when your puppy is 13 – 26 weeks old. Time to up your training game and have those treats and commands ready!

A word of caution though. The second critical time in your puppy’s development where they can be more susceptible to fearful events occurs during this older stage. Pet behavior experts say that fear imprinting can happen anywhere between six and fourteen months (24 – 56 weeks) of age.

Creative Socialization Suggestions:

  • Introduce your puppy to trips in the car.
  • Introduce your puppy to folks of all ages, shapes, and sizes, but only one new person at a time so that they don’t feel overwhelmed.

Timing of socialization for puppies matters because they have two key fear periods in their early lives. Things that frighten your puppy during these periods could continue to scare your grown dog and impact lifelong behaviors and temperament. By understanding the developmental milestones outlined above, you can learn how to best socialize your puppy. Curating your puppy’s introduction to new experiences early on will help your puppy grow up to be the easy-going and laid-back adult dog you have been dreaming of.

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