Do you have a new puppy? Have you heard that socialization is super-important? Do you keep reading articles that say you only have a short socialization window to work with? Sounds like you’d better act fast! But your veterinarian says you have to be super-careful where you take your puppy until they are fully vaccinated. Huh??!? What are you supposed to do??
The truth about socialization
Puppy socialization is very important. Puppies are most open to new experiences when they are very young. Research suggests that the best time to socialize puppies is within the first twelve weeks of their lives.
My puppy is already 13 weeks old! Am I doomed?
It’s true that puppies tend to be most receptive to new things when they are very young. On the other hand, socialization isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing. Dogs need socialization throughout their lives, not just when they’re puppies. So your 13-week-old puppy can still learn a lot from thoughtful socialization – and your 13-year-old adult dog may benefit from it at times too!
My puppy isn’t fully vaccinated, and the vet says they might get sick
Your veterinarian is giving you good advice. They want to make sure your puppy doesn’t contract a terrible puppyhood disease, such as parvo or distemper. You should listen to their guidance, and make sure you keep your puppy safe.
But there’s good news, too!
You can socialize your puppy while minimizing the odds of disease. Here the key thing to remember: Socialization doesn’t have to mean interacting closely with things. There are lots of things you wouldn’t want your pup near even if they were fully vaccinated. Puppies don’t have to touch, sniff, or even approach things to learn about them. Take cars, for example. Does a puppy need to sniff every car they see to learn that cars are OK? Do they need to chase cars or get hit by one to understand how cars move? Of course not! Watching cars go by, listening to the engines, and smelling the rubber, metal, and exhaust from a distance is socialization too.
Just like with cars, puppies can learn that all sorts of things are a normal part of life – and sometimes even fun – without having to interact closely with them.
How to minimize the risk of disease while still providing socialization
Here are a few ways to help your puppy experience the world through sight, sound, and smell without much risk:
Put your puppy in a wagon, stroller, or puppy sling and wander the neighborhood.
Go for a drive at slow speeds with the window cracked a quarter of an inch open so the puppy can see, hear, and smell the world as it goes by. (The slow speeds give them more time to take in different things.)
NOTE: Keep the window almost completely closed! Dogs have been known to leap out a four-inch gap between the top of the window and the door frame.
Take your puppy around Home Depot in a shopping cart. (Pro tip: Bring a blanket or towel to put in the cart basket so your pup’s toes don’t get caught in the mesh.)
Carry your puppy in your arms for short walks.
Take your puppy to an event such as a children’s soccer game and “tailgate” with your puppy (leash on, just in case, please). Other options for events include having your puppy in their travel crate, or sitting in a chair your brought from home with the puppy beside you or in your lap (again, with a leash on just in case).
Head to a local park, spread a towel or blanket from home on a park bench, and sit on the towel/blanket with your puppy as you watch the world go by (again, pup on leash, please).
Bring the socialization home. Have fully vaccinated, friendly-to-puppies dogs visit for playdates, or ask friends to come and meet the puppy.
What if my puppy is fully vaccinated? Then they should meet everyone and go wherever they want, right?
Allowing your puppy to rush up to every dog, person, and thing they see sounds fun, but it’s not really the best idea. For one thing, some dogs and people may not be friendly. For another, you may not always have time to stop and say hi. Take a moment to decide whether you wany your puppy greeting that dog or person before asking your puppy to say hi. A bonus of this approach is that it teaches your pup that greetings don’t happen every time, so you can walk on when you’re too busy to stop for a play session.
The same applies to inanimate objects. If you see broken glass, mud, a treated lawn, etc., you want a puppy who walks past it calmly, not one who’s trying to get closer to it. Some exploration is great, but again, it’s best to make sure (a) you have time, and (b) the area is safe before letting your puppy check it out.
One more important socialization tip
Never drag your puppy up to anything. If they don’t approach it willingly, they don’t want to get closer. Forcing them can create big fears down the line.
Socialization summed up
Ideally, socialization is about teaching puppies that most things don’t require special attention. They see something and they move on. The best way to teach that lesson is to simply keep moving most of the time.
Thoughtful socialization is one of the most important things you can do for your puppy. It helps your puppy learn the world is a good place, and teaches them an appropriate attitude towards new things (most of which are not a big deal). As you socialize, be sure to keep your puppy safe. And for those of you with young puppies, remember: “Look, don’t touch” isn’t just for children!