How to Socialize a Dog

Two well-socialized dogs getting along together well

For dogs to be happy and comfortable in the world of humans, socialization is so important. Many dogs lack basic social skills — either because of limited exposure to various situations or a lack of positive experiences. Dogs who were raised without sufficient experience with new people, places, sounds, and objects often show fear of many commonplace situations, such as meeting new people. To help avoid this, here are some tips for how to socialize a dog.

When to socialize a dog

It's never too late to socialize a dog. However, exposure to new experiences is especially important when dogs are puppies. Between 3 and 20 weeks of age is the critical socialization period in puppy development. During that period of time, if puppies do not experience a considerable variety of new things in a way that allows them to feel safe and happy, they might become fearful adults. 

One of the best ways to leverage this opportunity is to take a puppy to a socialization class with a relationship-based behavior consultant. We can help fearful adult dogs, but socialization of adult dogs can take much longer than it does for puppies.

Dog socialization tips

When socializing your dog — or introducing them to novel experiences — it is crucial to avoid “flooding” them. Overwhelming your dog with lots of something new all at once can create a negative association with that thing or experience, resulting in a lifelong fear.

If a dog has had limited experience with the outside world, any change, such as a move to a new house or city, can be quite a challenge. When dogs like these end up in shelters, they often have a very hard time adjusting to their new environment. They may have been great with their people, even with a few family friends, but when everything in their lives has been turned upside down, they become fearful and antisocial. Unless someone works with them to improve their social skills, they are often deemed to be unsuitable for the role of family pet.

We can help these dogs by teaching them that the world isn’t as scary as it seems. To do this, we must help them experience a variety of things in ways that make them feel safe and happy:

  • To help a dog feel safe: Always work at an intensity at which the dog is completely comfortable. You can reduce the intensity of a trigger (whatever new thing you’re introducing the dog to) in different ways, including increasing the distance, duration, size, and volume. Watch the dog’s body language to tell whether they're comfortable. If the dog looks even a little uncomfortable, reduce the intensity of the trigger.
  • To help a dog feel happy: Have the trigger predict something that the dog loves, such as a special food treat. Every time the dog experiences the trigger, give them a special treat. With repetition, the dog will start to understand that the presence of the scary thing means that a treat is coming, and they will start to feel better about it.

Use the checklists below to keep track of common experiences you've introduced your dog to — and add experiences tailored to your individual lifestyle.

Introducing dogs to people

People of various ages:Differences in people:
___ Newborn to 3 months___ Loud man
___ 3 to 6 months___ Loud woman
___ 6 to 9 months___ Ethnic differences
___ Newly walking toddlers___ Using oxygen
___ 1 year old___ Using a cane
___ 2 years old___ Using a walker
___ More than one toddler at a time      ___ Using a wheelchair
___ 3 to 4 years old___ Other______________________
___ Groups of children playing 
___ Teenagers 
___ Adults — many different ones 
___ Seniors — many different ones 


People doing different things:People wearing different things:
___ Singing___ Hats
___ Dancing___ Glasses
___ Clapping___ Sunglasses
___ Jumping___ A helmet
___ Hopping___ Coats with hood up
___ Skipping___ Capes with hood up
___ Whistling___ Gloves
___ Jogging___ Masks
___ Other_____________________          ___ Big boots
 ___ Uniforms


Introducing dogs to other animals

___ Cats___ Kittens
___ Dogs___ Puppies
___ Horses     ___ Small pet animals


Introducing dogs to household activities

___ Vacuum___ Dog nail clippers
___ Broom___ Dog brush and comb
___ Mop___ Sound of electric hair clippers
___ Alarm clock___ Sound of electric fan
___ TV___ Plastic bags flapping
___ Radio___ A balloon with air escaping
___ Noise-making children’s toys___ A recording of storm sounds
___ Children’s pull toys___ A kite
___ Umbrella (open and close it)___ Things being dropped
___ Other______________________________ 


Introducing dogs to the outside world

___ Ride in cars___ See people on bicycles
___ Walk on different flooring___ See people on skates
___ Use stairs with and without backs___ See people using shopping carts
___ Walk on bridges___ Meet new friends
___ Visit other people’s homes___ Practice visiting the vet's office (give lots of treats)
___ Take the dog to be groomed 
___ See and smell parks 
___ Sit at coffee shop with you 
___ Use elevators 
___ Use automatic doors at stores 
___ Other_______________________