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Socializing Your Pup to Get Along With the World

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

You've probably been told that you need to take your puppy out of the house and socialize him with other people, other dogs, and other environments.

That's true. But the word socialize  can mean different things.

The traditional meaning of socialization

Many owners define socialization  as making their puppy more social,  more friendly  toward people they encounter on their walks.

dog accepting a treat from a stranger

You can encourage your dog to be friendly and trusting and to accept treats and petting from a stranger. Just be aware that there are some downsides to doing this AND that not all dogs are comfortable doing this.

To accomplish this, you might sit on a bench at the park or at a shopping center, and when someone passes by, you encourage the person to pet your puppy and to give him a treat.

Important! If you have a small dog, ask the person to turn their hand so their palm is facing UP and then to rub their fingers against the dog's throat and chest,  rather than patting his head. Demonstrate with your own hand.

Small dogs (quite understandably) hate giant hands descending from the sky onto their tiny heads. If people try to pat them on the head, they may become both hand-shy and head-shy.

So that's the traditional method of socialization. But are there any downsides? What might happen if you teach your puppy that strangers are a source of positive attention and treats?

dog eagerly seeking out strangers for petting and treats

Extroverted dogs, when actively encouraged to be friendly, might ignore you and seek out strangers for petting and treats.

Well, if your pup is an outgoing extrovert, he might begin scanning for people during every walk. He might get excited when he sees someone, eagerly whining and pulling on the leash. Which means he is less focused on YOU. And all those words you've taught him, the ones he obeys so well in your house and yard? When he gets distracted by other people, he probably pays less attention to your words.

I have a dog like that. She was VERY outgoing as a puppy, so I socialized her in the traditional way, encouraging her to go to strangers. It makes both stranger and dog happy! But sure enough, when she's greeting other people, she does pay a lot less attention to me.

miniature poodle puppy, loves everyone

But that's okay with me because she's a small gentle dog, easy to manage even when she does get distracted. She doesn't jump on or pester anyone. But with her winsome smile and rapid-fire tail wags, she has this knack for making other people feel good when she greets them as her long-lost friends. Maybe our fractured world needs more dogs like Buffy!

Also, I have a trick up my sleeve when I want her to stop paying attention to other people. I begin a structured walk (taught in my training book) where she must pay attention to me only. She has learned that when I announce a structured walk, meet-and-greet time is over and she needs to focus on me again. She's such a good girl!

A different meaning of socialization

I also have dogs who are more introverted, reserved, standoffish. These dogs don't want to greet a stranger as a long-lost friend. In fact, they would prefer that strangers just leave them alone. Introverted dogs should not be forced to interact  with people they don't know – unless that person is a vet who needs to examine them.

So here's a different kind of socialization:

You still take your puppy to different environments, different social settings, such as the park, or downtown, or a shopping center.

But you don't allow him to interact  with anyone, and you don't allow anyone to interact with your pup.

jack russell terrier sitting attentively in front of young female owner

Get your pup accustomed to paying attention to you in public.

Instead, you work on all the words the pup knows ("Heel. Sit. Stay. Come.") and you use treats plus leash guidance to make sure he pays attention to you and ignores everyone else.

With this type of socialization, your goal is NOT to make your pup more "outgoing." Your goal is to simply teach him to behave  (to pay attention, no barking, jumping, lunging) in different, distracting social settings, such as:

  • a busy sidewalk with pedestrians
  • a shopping mall
  • a pasture or country road near sheep or cows or horses
  • a suburban neighborhood with kids riding bicycles and dogs barking behind fences
  • a park where children are kicking a soccer ball while their parents cheer and applaud

In these social settings, you want your pup to focus on you  and to simply "share space" with everyone else. You want him to view everything else as harmless, meaningless background noise. Because you  are the only one he interacts with, that means you  are the only one who gives him treats – never a stranger.

This kind of socialization is practiced by many trainers of world-class competition dogs, as well as trainers of police and service dogs.

australian shepherd shaking hands with male owner

This owner is teaching his pup, "Pay attention to me. Ignore everyone passing by. Focus on me. Good pup!"

These trainers take their pup everywhere, but they don't allow anyone to invade his space or try to pet him. If a stranger approaches, the trainer whips out a tasty treat and gets the dog focused on the trainer rather than the stranger. The pup learns that when he sees strangers, his owner  will give him treats. Seeing a stranger then becomes a GOOD thing to the pup... but not someone to interact with.

And if a stranger tries to pet the dog anyway? The trainer says, "Oh hold on, ma'am, he's in training right now, he's going to be a service dog (harmless white lie) so he's learning not to get distracted by people. It would be so helpful to us right now if you don't pet him, I really appreciate it, thank you."

Risks of socializing with strangers

We've already talked about two risks of letting your puppy interact with strangers:

  1. You're encouraging an extroverted puppy to pay more attention to other people than to you.
  2. An introverted pup may feel trapped if you let lots of strangers pet him when he clearly doesn't like it.

There's also a third risk:

  1. A stranger might do something the puppy finds startling or scary, which can mess up the pup's temperament.
australian cattle dog puppy

One stranger doing something stupid can ruin an impressionable young puppy.

Sometimes all it takes is one negative experience for a very sensitive pup to become wary of all strangers, or at least strangers who resemble the one who startled him.

The puppy starts tucking his tail and avoiding people, or threatening them with blustery barks to make them go away.

Owners often leap to the conclusion that their shy or aggressive rescue dog must have been abused. But it's far more common that he was simply startled or handled inappropriately at an impressionable age.

What might a stranger do that could negatively affect your puppy? He might rush in and invade the pup's space. He might try to hug or kiss the pup. He might try to pick the pup up. He might enthusiastically pat the pup (thump-thump!) on the head. He might gesture with his arms or break into a loud rollicking laugh. He might make playful woofing sounds at the pup.

People do all sorts of daft things around dogs.

How do you avoid things like that happening?

  • Well, you can try to manage each interaction carefully. "Excuse me, I'm getting my puppy used to people. Would you be willing to hand him this treat? But please don't touch him yet because he's still a little nervous around people."

    The problem is that many people can't or won't follow instructions. You'll need to stay on guard for that.

    beauceron pups

  • Or you might decide to take your puppy only to places where you know the people well and can trust them to carefully follow your instructions. Assuming you know such people!
  • Or you might decide that you won't allow any stranger to interact with your pup when you're out with him in public.

    Now, that doesn't mean your puppy should become a hermit! No. In your home and yard, your friends and relatives who visit can certainly pet and play with your pup, if he enjoys that.

    And whether he's aloof or not, he still must accept handling when you say so. Else how could a veterinarian or groomer or boarding kennel worker take care of him?

    You've taught him to Sit  and Stand  while you handle and examine his ears, mouth, paws, etc., right? Now you should occasionally ask a responsible friend to do the same thing with him, while you direct and guide the pup into the right positions.

    As responsible guardians, we must teach our dogs how to be calm and accepting in the real world that we all live in.

Be a good role model for your dog.

black spanielWhether you decide to let your pup interact with strangers or not, you should still interact with strangers.

Smile and say "Hello" to passersby. Ask them what time it is. Comment on the weather.

Why? Because you want your puppy to see that you're happy to see people.

If you, the leader, are relaxed and confident, your pup, the follower, will conclude that the world is nothing to worry about. If you're tense and anxious, he is more likely to be, too.

Loosen your puppy's leash.

One of the most common mistakes owners make is holding their puppy on a tight leash around other people or other dogs.

  • A taut leash can make dogs more  aggressive. When your pup can feel your presence (literally) through the leash, he feels bolder about threatening someone else because you're there to "back him up." The tight leash is his umbilical cord.
  • A taut leash can make anxious dogs more  anxious. The pup feels trapped, which makes him more fearful.
  • Finally, a taut leash communicates to your dog that you're  concerned about the situation – which makes him  concerned about the situation.

great dane pup on tight leash

terrier mix on tight leash

pit bull on tight leashgreat dane pup on tight leash

So don't hold your pup tightly beside you. Instead, use the "loose leash" techniques you learned when I helped you teach your puppy to walk nicely on the leash. See the lovely Jack Russell Terrier (below) on a loose leash?

jack russell terrier on a lovely loose leash

Correct inappropriate behavior.

The most important message to convey to your puppy is this:

"You don't need to like  people or other dogs. But you must accept  them. You cannot express your negative feelings through inappropriate behavior."

Really, it's that simple.

If your pup dislikes strangers, having  those feelings is fine. But he needs to keep them to himself.

He may not:

  • growl, bark, or woof suspiciously
  • lunge toward anyone
  • bolt fearfully to the end of the leash, trying to escape
  • stand up on his hind legs, pawing at you to be picked up

liver dalmatian pupA puppy who is doing any of those things is not practicing calmness and is not trusting you, the leader, to handle the situation. That's a no-no, so use whichever corrective techniques work for your particular pup to get him standing quietly beside you on a loose leash.

If you can't control the puppy with a regular buckle collar, try one of the alternative collars I cover in my training books.

Don't, don't, don't....

Don't reassure or pet a puppy who is displaying inappropriate behavior. This is a huge mistake that owners make.

Don't say, in a soothing tone, "Lacey, it's okay, I'm here, nobody's gonna hurt you." It might seem like a perfectly natural thing to say. We reassure our toddler like this when he skins his knee. That's what humans do, and other humans respond by feeling safe and reassured.

Unfortunately, a soothing voice is interpreted very differently by canines. A soothing voice is interpreted by your pup as positive reinforcement  of whatever behavior he's exhibiting... in this case, his aggressive or fearful behavior. You really don't want to reinforce that, do you?

Remember, positive reinforcement is a reward, and dogs repeat behaviors that bring rewards. If you reward nervous or aggressive behavior with soothing (or petting or treats), you're going to see more  nervous or aggressive behavior. Not less.

In a stressful situation, dogs don't need petting or comforting or treats. They need direction  from you – a constructive thumbs-up or thumbs-down of their behavior.

If your pup is fearful rather than aggressive...

... should you correct that, too? Yes. A dog who is allowed to practice fearful behavior may escalate until his mind is so filled with seeing demons everywhere that he actually lashes out at an innocent person who simply startles him. Shyness can be a serious behavior problem, especially in large breeds who can do a lot of damage if their anxiety leads to a defensive bite.

Now don't become paranoid! It's perfectly normal for a puppy or adolescent dog to occasionally act worried about something he sees or hears. Just give the pup something else to focus on ("Sit" or "Heel") and calmly and methodically correct misbehaviors such as pulling on the leash or barking.

On the other hand, if you reward  worried behavior with petting and soothing words, you will push what was a minor concern into phobic fear or aggression.

scared chihuahua

Many dogs have been made  anxious or aggressive or neurotic when their owner enabled the pup's anxiety by....

  • reassuring, petting, or giving treats when he acts anxious.
  • tightening his leash to hold him close to you.
  • picking him up (unless an off-leash dog is running straight toward you!)

Again, those soothing responses simply encourage a puppy to repeat the anxious behavior that resulted in petting and fondling. Remember, only reward what you want repeated.

Socializing with other dogs

Here we run into the same basic issues as socializing with strangers.

  1. Are you trying to make your puppy more of a social butterfly  with other dogs?
  2. Or are you trying to teach him how to behave properly in a social setting  that includes other dogs?

For most dogs, I favor Option 2. In my opinion, letting your pup play with other dogs that you don't know and can't control is very risky. It can take only one instance in which your puppy is attacked by another dog for him to start acting aggressively toward other dogs for the rest of his life. His mentality becomes, "I'll get them before they get me."

When owners consult with me about these psychologically-scarred dogs, they usually say mournfully. "It was just that one time. We had no idea the other dog would bite Benny like that."

golden mix pupDog parks and dog beaches? Most owners stand around chatting, laughing, and talking on their phones while their own pup's body language (or some other pup's body language) is flashing bright red warning signs that a fight might be imminent.

I don't put my dogs' lives in the hands of other owners who don't recognize or respond properly to the body language of their own dog.

Your dog doesn't need to play with other dogs in order to have a long and happy life. He really doesn't. You and your family make perfectly fine substitutes for your pup's social needs.

Of course, if you know another dog very well, that dog might be a great choice to test for playtime compatibility with your own pup.

pups playing

But it's much more important that your pup learns how to share space with other dogs without flipping out, and to pay attention to you  even when other dogs happen to be nearby.

  • other dogs being walked on a leash while you and your pup are also out for a walk.
  • other dogs standing in their own yards and barkingwhen you and your pup pass by.
  • other dogs sitting beside their owner at the vet's office when you and your pup come in.

red Siberian HuskyThose are the kinds of other dogs your puppy needs to be comfortable around. And by "comfortable", I don't mean that he needs to play with them. He just needs to accept their presence calmly, without getting "triggered."

That means you calmly and methodically correct any excitable, aggressive, or fearful behavior on his part. He needs to stand or sit or lie down quietly beside you on a loose leash.

If an off-leash dog approaches you on a walk

man walking his dog on a leash

One of the responsibilities of a leader is to protect followers. Often a pup who lunges and barks at other dogs feels insecure because he thinks he  needs to handle potential threats. This is a leadership issue.

In contrast, if your puppy sees that you  will step between him and an approaching dog, he will be more likely to "leave the other dog up to you," the leader, to deal with.

So when you and your puppy go for a walk, especially in an area where you know other dogs run loose, take a sturdy walking stick. If an off-leash dog actually approaches you and your puppy, pick up your pup if possible. If he's too big for scooping up, step firmly between him and the approaching dog. Use the leash to hold your pup behind you while you brandish your stick at the other dog and order him to get lost. If he doesn't leave on his own, drive him away. And if there is a truly aggressive dog in your area, carry pepper spray and/or find different places to walk!

When your pup witnesses that YOU are the leader and protector, he will feel less pressure to do this himself.

Should dogs be allowed to sniff each other?

I would need to know the other dog very well.  Because if my pup is a small, sensitive, or timid dog, a mistake here could have catastrophic consequences to his future attitude toward other dogs.

More dog fights ensue from sniffing noses and butts than at any other time.

This canine ritual is where crucial social signals are exchanged. Each dog uses subtle body language to say things such as:

  • "I'm the boss!"
  • "Oh yeah? Says who?"
  • "I don't like the way you look or smell."
  • "I don't mean any harm, please don't hurt me!"

Dogs can carry on quite a sophisticated conversation using the positioning of their head, ears, and tail, the tension of their muscles, the "hardness" or "softness" of their facial expression.

When this exchange communicates a pecking order that both dogs agree with, everything will probably be fine. But if that order is in doubt, a fight may ensue, either immediately or soon after.

Two dogs on tight leashes, sniffing noses

Here's how dog fights start... Allow two dogs to sniff noses and lock eyes, while holding them back with tight leashes. Novice dog owners make this mistake over and over again. These two are Pit Bulls, but could be any breed.

The chances of a dog fight increase markedly when owners hold their dogs on tight leashes  and let them sniff noses. Tight leashes lead to all kinds of behavior problems in dogs.

Even if an owner assures you that his dog is "good" with other dogs...

Take it with a grain of salt. Dog owners are always assuring people of their dog's "friendliness." Just ask any (bitten) vet, groomer, or mail carrier how many times he or she has been told, "Oh, my dog would never bite."

Sad to say, many owners know little or nothing about their own dog. Even worse, they have little or no control over its behavior.

Should you allow your small dog to play with a larger dog?

I don't. A larger dog can accidentally hurt a small dog simply by jumping up and down. Even a friendly head butt or playful pawing can harm or frighten a smaller dog.

white pupAnd there is the prey instinct to think about.

I have been the unhappy eyewitness to horrifying spectacles in which a large dog suddenly grabbed, shook, and seriously injured (and in one tragic case, killed) the smaller one.

The speed with which it happens is unbelievable.

The problem is that larger dogs may view toy dogs as prey.  A sudden movement, such as your toy dog pouncing on a leaf, can trigger chasing instincts even in a nice  larger dog who means well. He can seize your little one before he even thinks about what he is doing – before you have time to move or draw a breath.

It has happened time and time again.

For safety's sake, if you own a small dog, assume that:

  • Other owners don't understand the prey instinct.
  • The efforts of other owners to control and restrain their dog may be slow, weak, and ineffective.

You want your dog to be calm and confident in the world

Fearful dog.

This poor dog is showing stressed body language. See his wide eyes, furrowed brow, pursed lips? Also the base of his ears pulled down low? These are signs of anxiety.

You want your dog to react calmly to sights and sounds in the world.

Unsocialized dogs often develop fears and phobias. I knew a Beagle who freaked out whenever his owner opened an umbrella.

A Doberman who refused to walk across a tile floor. Apparently he didn't like the sound of his toenails clicking on the hard surface.

Dogs who won't go up or down stairs.... or who will go up but not down.... or down but not up.

Dogs who pitch a fit when the vacuum cleaner turns on.

Fear of thunder, fear of fireworks, fear of sirens, fear of mailboxes. (Mailboxes?)

Fears are stressful, and stress is bad for your dog's health. Socialization takes away fears and stresses so your dog is not only happier, but also healthier. You can socialize your dog to be calm about what is happening in the world around him.

Socialize from puppyhood through adulthood

Socializing Golden Retriever puppy

Start socializing your puppy at 7 weeks old.

PUPPY socialization (first six months) has the most dramatic effect on how a dog turns out.

In fact, here's something interesting....

The most critical period in a dog's life, psychologically, is the period from 7 weeks old to 16 weeks old.

Now, you wouldn't think those nine specific weeks could be so important. But scientific research shows that they are. Puppies should be introduced to strangers and other animals during this critical period.... but....

You have to pay attention to how Puppy reacts. If he is shy, or if he jumps all over everyone and mouths at their hands, you need to know how to handle these issues before you invite more people over. Otherwise he could develop bad habits that last a lifetime.

Remember, this critical learning period (7-16 weeks old) comes only once in your dog's life. So you want to get it right.

But socialization doesn't END with puppyhood.

Tiny aggressive dog barking at a big scared dogADOLESCENT socialization is next in importance.

Adolescence begins somewhere between 6 and 9 months old. It ends somewhere between 14 months old and 3 years old. (Smaller breeds start earlier and end at the lower end of the range. And vice versa for larger breeds.)

Adolescence is an awkward time of change. A young dog's attitude toward the world may change from week to week – even from day to day!

This is also a difficult time for owners. Because up until then, Puppy may have been getting along famously with the world.

But during adolescence, when the hormones kick in, Puppy may change dramatically.

He may suddenly become suspicious or nervous around other people or other dogs. Or he may alternate between aggression and fearfulness.

Most owners respond to these fluctuations in ways that are actually counter-productive with dogs. Your responses, though well-meaning, can simply reinforce the spooky behavior.

To help your dog through this challenging period in his life, you should respond in specific ways that match how dogs learn. I can help you with that.

Socializing adult dog

By adulthood, you may not be able to change how your dog feels about other people, other animals, or the world in general. But you can still change the way he acts toward them.

Finally, there is ADULT socialization. Suppose you have an adult dog who is acting inappropriately toward people or other animals. Obviously you can't "go back in time" to socialize him during the all-important puppyhood and adolescent stages!

But you can start now and work forward. It may be too late to change his feelings about other people or other animals – but socialization can still change his behavior toward them.

In other words, you can teach your dog to remain calm and quiet, tolerating and accepting people and other animals even if he doesn't particularly like them. And that is a very worthy goal.

My book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important – the most important thing – in your puppy’s life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.