How To Socialize Your Dog, According To The Experts
And set her up for success 🏆
Did you just adopt a new dog, and now you’re super excited to introduce her to all the awesome people and animals in your life?
While you might want to bring her everywhere you go right away, it’s also important to take the right steps in order to set her up for success — especially when it comes to dog training and socialization skills.
The Dodo reached out to Juliana Willems, head trainer at JW Dog Training in Washington, D.C., and Dr. Corinne Wigfall, a veterinarian working with SpiritDog Training, for some insight on how to socialize a dog.
What does it mean to socialize a dog?
Socialization is the process of helping a dog enjoy and feel comfortable with people, other animals, places, novel objects and environments.
“Socialization is basically exposing your dog to lots of new sights, smells, people and places,” Dr. Wigfall told The Dodo. “It teaches your dog what the outside world looks like and, more importantly, that all of these things are completely normal and nothing to worry about.”
It means bringing your dog out into the world and introducing her to various positive experiences — which helps to make sure she learns how to be a happy, friendly pup (with manners!) and can reduce fear in unknown situations.
It also helps to give your dog the skills she needs to learn about boundaries — so she’s not running around and bulldozing other dogs who clearly just want to sleep whenever she’s around them.
Best age to socialize a dog
The best age to socialize your dog is when she’s a puppy because there’s a critical socialization window in a dog’s life between 3 and 16 weeks.
“This is the age where puppies are like sponges, soaking up information and using the experiences during this time to determine how they feel about the world later in life,” Willems told The Dodo.
Experiences — or a lack of experiences — during this critical socialization window can have a direct impact on a dog’s behavior as an adult.
While the ideal age to socialize your dog is when she’s a puppy, you can still socialize her if she’s older — just make sure to start ASAP (more on that below). “Even older, grumpier or nervous dogs will benefit from socialization,” Dr. Wigfall said.
Best way to socialize a dog
The best way to socialize a new rescue dog is to go at her pace, use treats and always pay attention to body language.
“When you let your new rescue dog approach situations at their pace — allowing them to approach or retreat when they need to — you’re giving them choice in the interaction and you’re decreasing the chances that your dog will feel overwhelmed and scared,” Willems said.
And make sure you have some of your dog’s favorite treats ready to go during the process!
If you give your dog high-value treats when she meets new people or animals or goes somewhere new, you’re increasing the chances that she ends up really liking those experiences. Why? Because she’s learning that new people, animals or places equal tasty treats!
While you’re keeping her happy with treats, make sure you’re also paying attention to how she might be feeling in this new situation, and always give her the opportunity to take a breather if she needs one.
She should always have the option to leave a new situation if she’s uncomfortable, especially when it comes to meeting new people and dogs.
How can you tell if your dog’s uncomfortable?
According to Willems, your best bet is to look at your pup’s body language — and it’s helpful to be able to understand what certain signals mean.
Obvious signs your dog’s uncomfortable include:
- A tucked tail
- Trying to move away
- Avoiding interactions
- Growling or barking
More subtle stress signals include:
- Lip licking
- Ears back
If your dog exhibits stress signals like these, it’s important you advocate for her and move her out of the situation.
What should you do if your dog’s uncomfortable?
If you find yourself in a situation that’s making your dog uncomfortable, you’ll want to get her some relief by moving away, and you can also try adding something your dog loves to the equation.
“The most effective tool here is high-value treats — something squishy and stinky that your dog really enjoys,” Willems suggested.
How to socialize a dog with other dogs
If you have a puppy, the best way to socialize her is at a weekly puppy class. These classes will not only help with socialization, but she’ll learn basic cues and manners, too.
The critical period for socialization starts before puppies are considered fully vaccinated, so make sure your pup interacts with fully vaccinated dogs only and avoids areas where there might be animal urine or feces to prevent the spread of disease (which means no dog parks!).
The best way to socialize your puppy with other dogs is to invite calm, fully vaccinated dogs into your home.
If you have an older dog, the best way to socialize her with other dogs,according to Dr. Wigfall, is at the dog park on the weekend. “You will find lots of dogs here!” Dr. Wigfall said. “Start small and let your dog look at the other dogs from far away first, and if they still appear calm, allow introductions on a lead. If still OK, you can let the dogs off the lead to have a short play. Build up from here.”
How to socialize a dog with humans
A good way to socialize your dog with humans is by asking guests to bring some treats when they come over, or offering them a box of kibble to give your dog.
If possible, when having new people over, have your dog meet them outside first to prevent any territorial behaviors from your pup.
“Sometimes meeting outside the home in a more neutral environment is better, before coming into the home,” Dr. Wigfall said. “If your dog shows any signs of nervousness or aggression, let people know to stay away and seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist or dog trainer.”
How to socialize a reactive dog
Socializing a reactive dog can be harder than socializing a dog with a more mellow temperament (especially if your dog’s reactive towards other pups) — but it isn’t impossible.
According to Dr. Wigfall, you need to find the source of the reaction (e.g., other dogs), and reward your dog whenever she isn’t reacting around them. In this case, distance is your biggest ally.
“Say, for example, your dog is reactive to other dogs,” Dr. Wigfall said. “Start by being in the same area as another dog (e.g., across a sports field) and ask your dog to focus on you by asking for basic commands, such as ‘sit,’ ‘down’ and ‘stay.’ Reward with treats. When you’re certain your dog's attention is on you only, you can then SLOWLY reduce the space between you and the other dogs. This can take months of training, so enlisting professional help may be beneficial.”
When is it too late to socialize a dog?
It’s never too late to socialize your dog! “Whilst the task is admittedly harder, consistent daily exposure and commitment will pay off,” Dr. Wigfall said. “Start small and build off of small successes.”
Unless you adopt a puppy who’s 4 months old or younger, Willems said that the dog you’re bringing home is well outside the critical socialization period.
“What this means is you won’t be able to undo what did or didn’t happen during that window when they were a puppy,” Willems said. “That being said, a goal with newly adopted rescue dogs is always to introduce them to new people, animals, places and activities in a positive way.”
Of course, there’s a good chance your pup was already socialized, especially if she was living happily with a foster family before she went up for adoption. But no matter what stage she’s in socially, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what to look out for.
As with puppies, being exposed to people, animals and places isn’t enough if you’re hoping to get your pup to truly love and be comfortable with these experiences. You should be paying attention to how she’s reacting to these situations as well.
According to Willems, simple exposure without looking at if your dog’s having fun, feeling comfortable and enjoying herself leaves the door open for a negative experience.
That means it’s important you don’t overwhelm your dog by going to too many new places — or meeting too many new people — when she first comes home.
Take your time and socialize her slowly
It’s definitely worth it to put in the work with your new dog to help her get comfortable with her new life, but make sure to resist the urge to take her to tons of new places or introduce her to a bunch of new people or animals right away.
“Aggressive behaviors are rooted in fear, so all the more reason to be very intentional, patient and positive in your socialization practice to help your dog learn their world with you is not a scary place!” Willems said.
Your new dog has been through so many changes — so let her decompress and get acclimated to her new home, routine and family.
All those couch snuggles will be worth it.
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