Socialising your puppy
Puppy socialisation checklist
Socialising your puppy involves them meeting and having good encounters with:
- people you know
- other animals
- different events, both in the home and outside
- lots of environments
- different sounds
- vet surgeries
By introducing them to lots of new things at a young age, you're building up their bank of experiences which will better prepare them for unknown situations in the future. This helps them become a healthier, happier dog.
Sometimes shy dogs may need a little extra help. See below for more information on how to help shy puppies with socialisation.
Why is socialisation important?
Experiences during the first year of a dog’s life can really help to influence how a puppy feels about people, dogs, other animals and a variety of situations.
A puppy who lacks experience with the world will find many things that we take for granted scary and is very likely to grow up to be a worried dog. A frightened and anxious dog is more likely to develop behaviour problems than a dog who has had a rich, varied and positive puppyhood.
It helps to know the signs of stress in your dog so that you can help them in more stressful situations.
When does socialisation need to start?
The socialisation 'window' is between three and 12 weeks. As you won't be able to get your puppy until they are at least eight weeks old, a good breeder will have already started this important process.
They should have introduced them to a variety of people and brought them up inside their house, where they will get to experience all the homely sounds, smells and sights. This will help prepare them for their new life with you.
How much socialisation is carried out at this early stage will influence how confident your puppy is later in life.
What can affect socialisation?
Different puppies have different sensitivities – some are easy to socialise and some take a little more effort.
- Genetics: what the puppy has inherited from their parents plays a large part (nervous mums are more likely to have nervous puppies)
- Breed: puppies from herding breeds, such as collies and German shepherd dogs, tend to be more prone to fearfulness and need more and earlier socialisation than other breeds
- Missed out on early experiences: you may also have an older puppy that missed out on a lot of early experiences
- young puppies tire easily, so keep encounters short with enough time in between for resting
- try to create encounters that will be successful and rewarding – if all early life is pleasant and positive, your puppy will grow up to feel safe and confident enough to deal with whatever life may have in store
Socialising puppies before vaccinations
The good news is that socialisation can begin even before your pup has been vaccinated, you just need to be safe and sensible about it.
Puppies usually go to new homes at the minimum age of eight weeks old when they're not fully vaccinated, so can't get fully out and about just yet.
Until your puppy is fully protected by vaccination:
- don’t allow them to mix with dogs of unknown vaccination status
- keep to the limits of your home and garden when letting your puppy explore the world on their own four paws
- take them out as much as possible by carrying them. This allows them to experience the outside world without coming into contact with other dogs or contaminated areas.
Can my puppy socialise with vaccinated dogs?
As long as you know for sure that the dogs your puppy is interacting with are up to date on their vaccinations, then there is less risk involved in letting them play together.
This should be done in a private garden which will allow you to control the dogs they come into contact with.
If you would like to understand more about this, then it's best to discuss this with your vet.
It is a legal requirement to microchip your dog. An open door or a gap in your garden could allow your puppy to slip out, so it's better to be safe than sorry.
How to socialise a puppy before vaccinations
Focus on the things you can do at home that will help your puppy to become as confident, inquisitive and brave as they can be! This should give your puppy a great head start, ready for when they're able to learn even more about the outside world.
The idea is to expose them to as many smells, textures, sounds and sights as you can think of, all within the confines of your home and garden or garage, if you have one.
Getting your puppy used to walking on different textures
Some common items that your puppy can walk over in the home to get them used to walking on different textures include:
- bubble wrap
- a yoga mat
- grass and other outdoor surfaces (if you have a garden)
Always supervise your dog when you're introducing them to new surfaces. Puppies love exploring things with their mouths, so keep an eye on them to make sure they don't get carried away.
Things to get your puppy used to sniffing
Get your puppy used to different smells such as:
- talcum powder
- face cream
- suntan lotion
- various food items
- herbs and spices (don’t let your puppy sniff an open pot – they will be able to smell what’s inside with the lid on)
- packaging from deliveries and post
Household items to explore and have fun with
Make use of everyday items to help expose your puppy to a range of different things within the home.
- empty cereal packets
- plastic bottles
- toilet roll tubes
- cardboard boxes
- muffin trays
- laundry baskets
- washing up bowl
Popping a treat in these items will encourage them to explore.
Getting your puppy used to different sounds
You can desensitise your puppy to a variety of sounds using either a CD designed for this, YouTube or by downloading something similar from the internet.
Good sounds to familiarise them with are:
- babies crying
- children playing and laughing
- cars and trains
Find out how to desensitise your dog with these sounds.
This will really help prepare your puppy for the noises they are likely to hear throughout their life.
Getting puppies used to car travel
If you need to drive to the shops, consider taking your puppy with you. Be sure to take another person you live with to stay in the car with them. They'll be in charge of winding down the window so that your puppy can experience all the new sights, smells and noises from a safe distance and with their paws safely off the ground.
How to socialise a puppy out and about
Once your puppy is vaccinated, you'll usually need to wait two weeks before you can give them full access to the outside world.
However, this can often change if you're in an area with lower risk of parvovirus. So it's important to speak to your vet who will be able to give you a timeline. Be careful not to give them more exercise than recommended for their age and breed.
Begin slowly at first, gradually increasing the number of positive encounters as your puppy becomes older and gains confidence.
Getting puppies used to people you know
Meeting adults and children should be the most important item on your socialisation list as it’s especially important that dogs feel comfortable in their company.
The more people your puppy sees, the more relaxed and confident t they will become. Take your puppy to your friend’s houses and invite friends to your house! Once your puppy has grown a little in confidence, try to take them everywhere with you if possible.
If you live in a household without children, try and make sure that your puppy gets to meet a variety of sensible children of different ages. Young children can behave very differently to adults, so if your puppy doesn’t meet them when they're young, they are likely to be worried by them when meeting them in later life.
Stay relaxed and help your puppy to understand that you aren’t worried or concerned at all in the presence of unfamiliar people – in fact, let your puppy know that you like them! If it’s safe to do so say ‘hello’, and where you can, chat as you are passing people by.
If your postman, delivery driver or local builder is willing, then don’t forget to include them too. Being introduced at an early age will help create a positive association with these people who might otherwise be seen as a threat.
How to introduce them to strangers
Most puppies will enjoy meeting new people, and most people will enjoy meeting a puppy! But it’s important that your puppy is not overwhelmed. You can help them out by:
- asking people to crouch down to meet your puppy
- allow your puppy to approach a new person, rather than the other way around – this way you can be sure that they are feeling confident enough to meet somebody unfamiliar
- not letting strangers pick your puppy up to hug them. It may frighten your puppy (especially if they're shy)
- avoid using food when introducing your puppy to strangers as this may teach them that all people carry food on them, which is not ideal. You’ll want your puppy to approach people because they want to say hello politely, not to receive treats!
Livestock, horses and cats
Puppies should see, if possible, a variety of animals such as, livestock, horses and cats, especially if you live in an area where you will come across them regularly.
They will need to be kept on lead to stop them learning to chase them. This can be a really challenging behaviour to overcome once learned.
Reward your puppy verbally and with treats if they're calm and relaxed in these situations. If they become a little excitable (which is only natural at first), then create a bit of distance until they get used to staying calm in these situations.
Dogs should always be kept on lead around livestock as livestock worrying is a crime.
Other dogs and puppies
Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s important that your puppy meets a good mix to ensure that they are not frightened of certain dogs as they get older. Ensure these dogs are safe around puppies as a bad experience is often worse than none at all.
A puppy learns to interact appropriately with well-socialised adult dogs by spending time with them. They will learn important skills such as:
- not putting teeth and paws all over them (unless invited to do so during play)
- how to communicate effectively
Most adult dogs will tell a puppy off if they are too excited; but some are extremely tolerant and may allow your puppy to play too roughly.
Monitor your puppy playing with other dogs carefully and think about how you’ll want your puppy to behave with unfamiliar dogs that they will meet when out and about, especially when they get bigger.
Dogs that play very physical games when young (either with another puppy or a tolerant adult dog) often learn to expect these sorts of games from all dogs which is likely to get them into trouble.
Should I stop dog play at any time?
If games become too boisterous, then intervene by encouraging your puppy away and get them to focus on you instead.
Equally, protect your puppy from the exuberant play of a bigger dog, especially if your puppy is shy. Crouch down to provide a safe haven and do not allow an older dog or another puppy to frighten or bully yours.
If you're concerned, speak with the other dog's owner and ask them to call their dog away if you feel your puppy needs a break.
As well as meeting other animals, puppies should encounter a variety of different environments and situations. This provides an opportunity to become familiar with a wide range of different scents, sights and sounds.
If your dog is socialising well with humans, familiarisation with different environments should happen naturally. However, it's worth making an effort to check that your puppy is gradually becoming accustomed to:
- car travel
- the countryside
Visits to the vet
At some point your puppy or adult dog will have to go to the vet’s if they are unwell or have hurt themselves. Being handled when you’re not well or in pain is unpleasant and this may in itself cause a dog to feel scared enough to behave defensively.
One way you can help prepare your dog for this is to provide them with lots of positive experiences at the vet’s before a trip is needed for more serious reasons.
You will need to think about:
- choosing a practice that is happy for you to visit several times with your puppy where they only receive some gentle handling and treats
- helping prepare your puppy for the more formal handling that will occur in the consulting room - practice this at home first
- muzzle training your puppy. You never know when you might need one as all dogs have the potential to bite when scared. Better to prepare your dog in advance so that if they need to wear one for any reason, they are very comfortable doing so. Check out our video on how to muzzle train your dog.
Puppy training classes
A good puppy class can help with socialisation and get you started with your training, but remember that a weekly session won’t be enough and the majority of the work will need to be done by you away from the class.
Puppies usually attend between the ages of 12 and 20 weeks and the entire family is encouraged to be there so that all the puppies present get to meet a wide variety of adults and children.
How to find a good puppy training class
Finding a good class is essential. A bad one can do more harm than good – your vet may be able to recommend one or you can take a look on the Animal Behaviour and Training website.
Ask to observe a class in progress before taking your puppy along. If there is a lot of uncontrolled play between puppies with little intervention, look elsewhere.
You'll know they're a good trainer if:
- the sessions are well controlled and planned, and the class size is small. More than 10 is likely to be a bit chaotic!
- the classes are only run for young puppies - rather than for older dogs too
- positive reward based training is used
- the puppies and their owners look happy and relaxed
My puppy seems worried
It's normal for some puppies to a be a little unsure of things on their first few days of experiencing the outside world, so they may appear a little worried at first. Most puppies quickly gain confidence, but some shy puppies may need extra time and extra distance from things they are worried about.
Signs that your puppy is worried
It's important that you become familiar with the signs of stress in your dog and take action as soon as possible, usually by taking your puppy away from whatever is causing them to be worried.
A happy, relaxed puppy will stand up straight with their tail (or whole body) wagging and be keen to investigate.
How to help prevent your puppy worrying
- Keep an eye on your puppy for signs of anxiety or being overwhelmed. If things get too much, remove them from the situation or give them more space and freedom to approach
- Never pick up your puppy and pass them to someone
- Don't pull your puppy towards whatever you're trying to introduce them to - puppies should always be able to make an approach in their own time and retreat if they want to
How to help shy puppies socialise
Shy or nervous puppies are likely to need a lot more extra support during this really important time in their lives.
It’s good to let shy puppies ‘watch the world’ from a distance at first and as you begin to see them relax you’ll be able to gradually increase their level of exposure.
Introducing shy puppies to new people
Allow your shy puppy freedom and time to observe people from a safe distance. Let them approach in their own time when they feel ready and comfortable.
- Ask the unfamiliar person to crouch down and avoid strong eye contact
- Even if the puppy sniffs the stranger, it’s best they don’t touch at first – instead ask them to talk gently and wait for the puppy to make all the first moves
- Stroking should only take place once the puppy is showing confident and relaxed behaviour
- Always take regular breaks to allow the puppy to move away if they want to
If your puppy is still not confident with approaching strangers, that's fine. It may take them a little longer to feel comfortable in this situation. If you're still struggling, contact a qualified behaviourist who will be able to give you some more advice.
We recommend not using food when introducing shy puppies to people they don't know. Their interest in food may lead them into a situation that they didn't want to be in. When the food is gone they may suddenly realise they're in the location or situation they felt uncomfortable with without actively choosing to go there. This may cause them to panic and make it difficult for you to use food to use in a positive situation again.
See our advice on how to approach a dog.