Just Socialize Them!

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If you’ve been around the metaphorical block, you’ve likely been told you need to socialize your dog. It’s become a staple in “Pet Parenting 101”. You walk your dog, feed your dog, brush your dog, and socialize your dog. This is one of those phrases that everyone knows, but may not really understand. It’s tossed around like so many other well intentioned but poorly informed sound bites. Your dog is reactive on leash? Socialize your dog. Your dog is nervous around strangers? Socialize your dog. Your dog is fearful of the wind? Socialize your dog.

And, like you’ve heard us say before, behavior is more complex than that.  


What is a socialization period?

A socialization period is a biologically predetermined period of time where our dog’s brains are like sponges. They are taking in information about the world, determining what is and isn’t safe, and how to interact with their environment. The experiences that dogs have during this time will have a lasting impact on their behavior. To really see how this impacts our pups, we need to know a little bit about dog developmental periods. 


Puppy Development

Dog development is a vast and interesting topic. For our purposes, I’m going to keep this very brief, but if you’d like more detailed information and more “how” on puppy raising, I suggest our on-demand Puppy Development course. All of these periods can vary a little from pup to pup based on factors such as health and breed, so all periods will be given as a rough timeline.


Prenatal – ~63 day gestation period 

Mom’s experience can affect the pup’s future learning capabilities, reactivity and resilience. 

Neonatal – ~0-14 days 

The pups are little potatoes. They are blind, deaf, barely mobile, and unbelievably cute. Caretakers can start providing structured Early Neurological Stimulation. 

Transitional – ~14-21 days 

We start to see the transition from potatoes to pups! Their ears and eyes open, they start walking and vocalizing, and we start to see social signals. Caretakers start providing safe exposure with things like adventure boxes. Avoid any harsh stimuli like loud bangs, crashes, sharp objects (they are more pup like, but also, still kinda potatoes).

Critical Socialization – ~3week-ish – 12-16 week-ish 

This is the period animal behavior professionals are talking about when we discuss socialization. This is the biologically determined period of flexibility to learn what is and isn’t safe. The critical socialization period in dogs is broken into two parts:

Primary Socialization – ~3 week-ish – 8 week-ish 

This is where dogs learn how to dog with other dogs. This is the time where it is critical that pups stay with the litter, learn from their littermates, their parents, and role model dogs. Puppies learn to read and interact with other dogs. 

Secondary Socialization – ~7 week-ish – 12-16 week-ish 

This is where pups learn about everything else: interacting with other species, humans, substrates, scents, body handling, potty training… Experiences during this time will shape how our pup buckets things into “safe” and “not safe” in the future. 

Sensitive or Fear Periods 

These are times where we see our pups become more reactive or sensitive to things. For example, pups who have seen an ironing board every day may suddenly be fearful. There are two confirmed sensitive/fear periods: one at ~7-11 weeks for that usually lasts for ~1 week, and another at ~4-12months that usually lasts ~3 weeks. Professionals think that there might be a third between ~1-2 years, but this has not been confirmed by research. 

Juvenile – ~4 month-ish – 12-18 month-ish 

Teenagers are hard… in all species. There is a biological basis for this as their brain is developing. 

Adulthood – Starts ~12-18 month-ish 

Things finally settle, and you start to look back fondly on the puppy biting, the terrifying zoomies and the smell of puppy. 


What is socialization?

Socialization is using controlled (gradual and slow) positive (party all day!) exposure during the critical socialization period to help our pup learn what is safe in the world. It’s providing our pups the opportunity to safely (their body language will tell you if they are feeling safe) interact with things. This can be people, dogs, scents, substrates, sounds, textures, structures… All these things = WONDERFUL STUFF for our pup. 

On the other side of the coin, forcing, flooding or overwhelming our pup during this time can also have long standing detrimental effects on our pup. Letting your pup “get over it”, or luring them into uncomfortable situations can lead to increased maladaptive behaviors in the future. 


Why the focus on socialization? 

There are so many factors that contribute to behavior that we may have little to no control over: genetics, prenatal environment, early rearing experiences, some aspects of physical health. When we adopt a puppy at 8 weeks, socialization is an area where we really feel we can actively make a big impact. Experience during the critical socialization period isn’t the end-all-be-all and there isn’t any guarantee, but it can certainly have an incredible positive impact.

During that critical socialization period (~8 weeks -12-16 weeks), it’s important to focus on quality over quantity. It’s better to have 5 controlled positive exposures than 100 slightly stressful ones. Our socialization plan should include things that will be regular experiences in our pup’s lives. You can find a multitude of checklists online. The main goal is to help your dog prepare for your life together IN THE FUTURE. 


I just adopted a dog out of the critical socialization period. Does that mean I’m SOL?

Not at all! While we won’t be able to take advantage of that sponge-like socialization period, we can still make a huge positive impact on our pup. Our adult dogs may not enjoy the canine equivalent of a frat party. However, they may thrive in a book club. And that’s okay! We can still work toward your pup socializing (socially interacting) with individuals. We can still teach your dog that XYZ thing predicts good things. We will need to respect them for who they are, be patient, and move at their pace. I am still capable of learning another language, but it would have been a lot more efficient when I was younger. 


In either case, controlled positive exposure is important. Keeping your pup under threshold, avoiding flooding, and making each experience THE BEST DAY EVER can help you make progress. 


Now what? 

  • Brush up on your dog body language! All living creatures communicate through body language. When do you see stress signals and when do you see your dog’s body relax? At any age, being skilled at reading dog body language will improve your communication with your pup.
  • Thinking of getting a puppy? Before you bring the pup home, start building your socialization plan. You can find checklists online, but also take stock of your life. Think about what your life will look like post pandemic. Will you be traveling for work? Do you leave the house for work? Will your pet be around other species? Will you have kids in your life? Do you have people over regularly? Remember, we are planning for the future!
  • Is your pup out of their critical socialization period? Observe your pup. Are there areas where their behavior is in conflict with your future goals? You can work on that! If you aren’t sure if you should DIY it, or seek professional guidance, Allie has you covered in this blog.
  • We’d love to help you! Email us at [email protected]m to schedule a session or check out our Setting Yourself Up for Success: Behavior Modification Basics course. 


– Ellen