Puppy Socialization: Stop Fear Before it Starts

16 | Posted:

By Dr Sophia Yin
1966-2014 R.I.P

Case 1: My Pomeranian puppy, Fluffy, barks at men, especially those wearing hats and beards. It’s embarrassing because I never know when we’ll encounter a man on a walk so I can’t just avoid them. Why is she so rude and what can I do? My neighbor’s dog does the same thing and her dog actually bit someone who was just walking by on the street. I don’t want Fluffy to do that!

Case 2:Our old dog, Rex was afraid of brooms, vacuum cleaners, trashcans, and other loud sounds. We have a new puppy and he’s the same breed. Is there anything we can do to make sure he turns out differently?

Case 3: Spike refuses to walk on wet or frosty grass or to go potty outside when it’s raining, even on the concrete. We don’t understand why he’s so prissy. It’s making it very difficult for us to potty train him.

These cases may sound very different but they all have one factor in common, they are all a result of incomplete socialization.From about 3 weeks to about 3 months of age, puppies are primed for bonding to other animals and individuals, for learning that objects, people, and environments are safe, and for learning what the body cues and signals of others mean. It is their sensitive period for socialization and it is the most important socialization period in a dog’s life. Puppies who do not get adequate socialization during this period tend to be fearful of unfamiliar people, or dogs, or sounds, objects and environments.

Veterinary behaviorists and other trained behavior specialists recommend puppies attend a puppy socialization class and practice regularly, but what types of interactions should puppies actually have? While some owners focus just on exposing puppies to many people and situations, it’s important to actually make sure that the puppy is having a positive experience and learning something good.

The following abridged section from Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right provides examples of what to socialize puppies to and how to socialize them starting even before the puppies have been adopted into their final home. By starting early and being consistent owners will provide the best chance that their pup will grow into a happy confident dog. Here are some recommendations.

Provide puppies with positive experiences with unfamiliar people of different sizes, genders, ethnicities.  Invite guests to come interact with the puppies while providing treats and toys to ensure the puppies are having a positive experience. Interacting with only household humans is not enough.

These puppies were nervous at first when they were handled by visitors. They showed their anxiety by trembling when held or refusing to take treats and moving around and playing less when the visitors were around. They were also more fearful of men, a common occurrence with dogs and puppies. By 6 weeks of age, after having several visitors a week, they are now relaxed around most new visitors, including men. It’s important that visitors wear a variety of clothes. My Jack Russell Terrier, Jonesy, randomly barked at people wearing Ugg® boots for a year, and he barked at one of my assistants because he didn’t recognize her when she was wearing this hooded sweater. One of the puppies from the litter pictured here also reacted to this person’s hood or her boots. He barked at her once while jumping back. Then he decided she was safe and approached to get treats.

Socialize Puppies to Children.

To puppies and dogs who have never seen kids, children can look like little aliens. As puppies mature, children can also start looking more like toys or things they should chase because they scream and run and flail their arms like injured prey. If the breeder does not have or know children whom the puppies can interact with she should at least play sounds of children and babies from a sound CD such as SoundsGood CD (http://www.legacycanine.com). The new family should also be told that the puppy is lacking in this experience and that they should make a special effort to provide good interactions with children.

These puppies have never seen a child, but because they’ve been socialized to so many other things by 7 weeks of age, they immediately accept this child as safe.  The child also knows how feed them treats and this helps them associate her with good experiences.  Because these puppies have already been handled a lot, they let the child pick them up and relax regardless of the position she holds them in.

Socialize Puppies to Other Species.

Many puppies will live with cats or other animals at some time during their life or they may see animals of other species. It would be best if they could react calmly instead of barking, lunging or chasing these other animals.

Reward calm behavior when other animals are present: This puppy is learning to sit calmly in the presence of the cat. Not only do we want dogs to feel safe and unafraid around other animals, we also want them to behave calmly. So we should reward calm behavior. This puppy’s entire litter is good with cats—at least those cats in two household settings. The puppies sometimes try to solicit play but are not overly rambunctious when the cats decline by walking away.

Train Puppies to Walk on Different Surfaces:

Probably everyone knows a dog who’s afraid of walking on metal manhole covers in the street or grates on the sidewalk. Or dogs who won’t step on wet grass to go potty. By exposing puppies to different surfaces when they are young we can greatly decrease the likelihood they will be afraid of walking on a variety of surfaces later in life. This exposure to different surfaces is something that can easily be started by the breeder-especially since the sense of touch is well developed, even at birth.

Walking on metal surfaces: These puppies find yummy treats on this metal surface and readily climb on. With repeated practice they will have no problems standing on a metal scale or metal table at the veterinary hospital. Standing on an exam table: This puppy has no fear of being on the metal examination table at the veterinary hospital. We give him treats to ensure that he has a positive experience. We’re using baby food on a tongue depressor as our treat.
Exposure to water and wet grass: The weather during the first 8 weeks of these puppies’ lives has been warm and dry.As a result, they haven’t had any exposure to rain, cold, or wet grass. The best simulation we have is a little infant pool with water and fake grass. This will help accustom them to the feel so that they don’t grow up to be sissies who can’t go out to potty when the weather is rainy and the yard is wet. You can use wet sod or mud instead. Exposure to frost or snow: These Corgi puppies live in Alaska so they are receiving exposure to the cold early on. They run on the frost and play in the cold like it’s normal for them, because it is.

Imagine what housetraining would look like if these guys didn’t like going outside in the cold weather!

Introducing Puppies to Other Man-made Objects and Sounds:

Most people never appreciate the every-day sounds and sights that might be frightening to a pet or even a person raised in a completely different environment. But once you have a dog who missed out on key environmental experience when young it can be overwhelming to deal with all of the objects they fear.

Dogs must also learn that regular-everyday objects are safe: Jonesy, the Jack Russell Terrier that I adopted at 8 months of age, poses with some of the objects he used to be afraid of but is OK with now. When walking down a typical city street he would bark at or tremble and shy away from about 2-3 objects per block—garbage cans, sidewalk signs, murals of dogs, skateboards, metal pipe sticking out of the wall. The list goes on. He was fearful because he’d been raised in a rural environment.


These are just a handful of the items and situations for which puppies should be socialized. To see the full –unabridged version and find out more about teaching puppies to enjoy being handled and to enjoy toenail trims and other common procedures, read Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right.

Also download the free puppy socialization checklist.

What objects/sounds/environments do you wish your dog had been better socialized to as a puppy?  Share your story here!


Learn how to read your dog’s body language with this poster!


Tags: , , , , , ,

16 responses to “Puppy Socialization: Stop Fear Before it Starts

  1. Do you have advice for people who aquire a dog that is older that has social problems with new people? We have a 2yr old chahuahua/weiner dog who is great with a select few people he knows,but growls and tries to bite anybody new. Its frustrating! We don’t get many vsitors so its hard to take him anywhere.

  2. Step 1 is to take your dog through the learn to earn program that’s in the Perfect puppy book. The goal of this is to build up some emotional control and teach her to look to you for guidance. Then you want to train positive experiences around ALL unfamiliar people until you’re sure he’s ok with them. you may want to look at low stress handling and beh mod of dogs and cats online edition chapter 12 (lots of examples) + read the fear sections in how to behave so your dog behaves. also look at the dog behavior issues page and read all the blog articles on dog bite prevention. They talk about the signs of fear and things people do accidentally that increase the chances that they will be bitten.


  3. There seem to be so many dogs out there with thunderstorm phobia.
    Do you have any suggestions for how to prevent that in puppies? I have worked with my young dogs during storms & it definitely worked, but what about puppies born in winter? I assume recordings don’t work as well as the real thing, since there are no vibrations, etc.?
    Thank you!

  4. Hi

    I have your perfect puppy book, and i have to say that initially i thought it was draconian to have your puppy tied to you constantly initially. i now realise the benefit of it in not having done it! and i’m struggling a little.

    we adopted an abandonded puppy from the SPCA when she was 5 weeks (they told us she was 7 or 8 weeks, the vet didn’t agree). she had diaherra for 10 days and she wasn’t eating. it was therefore really dificult to put into practice the advice in the book.

    now she still is not very food motivated, so some things she gets quickly, but others i still have issues with. i have used your method and prastice tips to prevent pulling on the lead whilst in the house. she gets it immediatly. perfect puppy. i take her out and she’s far more interested in everything else than she is in me. i can’t get her attention. i try to reward the lack of pulling by getting what she wants – which is to keep going. so when she pulls i stop. she sits. but with her back to me. i wait until she looks at me, or comes back to me (which takes a really long time) when she does we go again. she pulls immediatly. and yet at other times she walks perfectly to heal. around the house on the lead, off the lead etc.

    the other issue i have is with barking. recently she has just started barking at people and cars outside, and food or treats do not interest her. i just read the theory on the reason for barking, and that it is a response to human. so clearly she wants to tell me something, and i’m not getting it. i don’t know what to do in this case. i tried hgging her. i tried going outside with her to see the cause of the noise. i tried giving her treats whilst the noise was there. i tried distracting her by trying to play with her. in all cases she stood and barked and barked. her body language showed that she was a lttle stressed, but not unduly so. the examples you;ve given on treating dog’s who bark at the dinner table won’t work in my case! can you suggest some other response i need to make to help her?

  5. Our son and daughter in law adopted a not quite 2 year old English mastiff. Unfortunately he was crated for long hours during the day and not socialized. He has come a long way since they got him 5 months ago but he still is not dog friendly. We have taken him to a vet but take him to the very first appointment in the morning as to not run into other dogs. They hired a “dog trainer” who after several visits brought his dog to their property and of course the mastiff went crazy and it became a nightmare for them when he attacked the other dog and bit the trainer in the meantime. The vet has commented that she can see he has made great progress since his first visit but we still need advice on how to introduce him to other dogs. Of course you can guess by the breed that he is a very strong 150 pound boy. We would appreciate any and all suggestions you can give. Thanking you in advance.

  6. Dr. Sophia you did tremendous job by sharing such informative and useful tips for puppies!! I owned two cute puppies and I think by following your info, I can take extra care of my buddies. Thanks

  7. We adopted two dogs on Dec. 23rd, a female 2 month old terrier mix, and a 1 yr old male terrier mix.
    The puppy, Jessie, showed severe aggression the second day we had her. It has been 3 weeks and she still does this on a daily basis, for a variety of reasons. She doesn’t like to be stopped from what she’s doing, ( and having her paws wiped), she will initiate fights with the male, she tries to get his food, etc.
    I have been watching videos and even received a call back from a professional dog trainer. He told me that Jessie is inheritantly vicious, and our options are to spend thousands of dollars for training to modify her behavior, or we should return her to the rescue group. She seems to be a happy, loving dog for the most part. She clearly asserts her dominance, with us and with the other dog, Jack.
    I guess what I need to know right now is if you think she can be broken of this behavior, or do we return her before any more time goes by ? I am heartbroken over this. Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you

    1. I purchased a Shishon puppy when he was 3 months old. At the time purchase him, I noticed that all the other puppies were playing together while this puppy sat away from them by himself. He was larger that all the rest and so adorable. The day I brought him home he was such a sweetie but the next day was
      a different story. He was definitely trying for the Alpha male role. He is agressive and his mouth is always open and biting, He is also very destructive with everything and wired constantly and won’t let you pick him up to just love him. Everything I try to do with him he fights me! I have had puppies since I was 6 year old and now I am a grandmother and never had a dog this difficult and impossible to train.
      He is now almost 6 months old and was recently neutered so he should be calming down. I now think he was not socialized at all for the 3 months before I got him and he is just not going to give in on anything. I tried to wash around his eyes with a warm wash cloth and he was biting me the whole time. I want to keep this puppy but I don’t know what to do next. I did not think the Shi-Tsu/Bishon breeds were predisposed to this obstinate and aggressive behavior. What can I do to stop him from attacking every time he does not like something?? I do reward him for good behavior and I do crate him when he gets too bad. Of course he fights everything including his crate. When he is tired he really does get mean. Any suggestions or information would be helpful as I am lost as to what to do. I previously had 2 Scottish Terriers and both of them were so easy and devoted. This little guy is just wired to be difficult… Thank you for any help you can give me as I love this stinker.

  8. This article is fantastic! We actually bought the book and it was a great read for working with puppies. I think we didn’t realize just how much you can socialize a puppy in a short amount of time to so many things. Even tho its not as effective we are still working on different things with our new pup even tho he is already 5 months. Its just little bit more work but it helps a bit. Thanks for all the great info!

  9. I read your article about puppy socialization but what about adult dogs. My wife and I were given a seven year old Maltese when our 86 year old friend died. She raised the dog from a puppy in her small one bedroom mobile. The dog goes crazy whenever trash cans are moved outside she Barks A lot and runs around a lot she even tried to bite a pillow next to my wife on the sofa. Every time we use the vacuum cleaner she does the same thing trying to bite the vacuum cleaner. What can we do about this. Thank you Hannah’s owner.

  10. Tears are running down my face right now… one month ago I had to put my dear dear 1 year, 4 month old, 75#, gorgeous, blue merle, brilliant Aussiedoodle to sleep… Jasper’s breeder had him until he was 4 months old and did not socialize him at all. His first owner did everything right… puppy classes, socialization as outlined in this article, but as he grew she realized he was too big, too reactive for her to manage safely in her home when visitors came and in public. She returned him to his breeder from whom I adopted him. To make a long story short, I worked hard with him for 9 months under the tutelage of experienced, professional trainers. He improved in many ways but as time passed his fear and reactivity intensified and became more unpredictable…his world narrowed because of his size, strength and energy. In consultation with his vet and the trainers it was decided euthansiation was the only solution. My vet told me the window for solving his issues was long long past. Folks, please please only adopt from reputable breeders and rescues… it is one thing to put a dog to sleep when they are terminally I’ll another when they are young, healthy and full of incredible potential save fear based reactivity.

    1. Sheri, I am so sorry to hear about your pup. I had a similar experience with my dog adopted I at 6 months which ended in euthanasia. With my dog, just like yours the critical period for socialization had passed. I too worked with professionals who assured me that my pup’s problems developed long before I met him and I did everything I could. I hope to see more education and awareness on social media to give puppies the best chance possible to have a happy life.

  11. I have an 8 month-old standard poodle that I have only had for about 2 months. She has anxiety like I have never seen in a dog. The litter wasn’t socialized at all when I got her. These puppies were living out-of-doors in a chain link kennel this past winter in Utah. I got my dog and her smaller sister considering them to be a rescue. My friend has the sister and reports similar problems but to a much less extent. Sometimes she is okay but the smallest thing like a neighbor in their yard will set her off. Even frequent and familiar situations like taking her to work with me can create anxiety for her with the anxious level varying from medium to terrible. I don’t know what to do and would like any advice on where to start or who can help. We live in Logan Utah.

  12. My puppy is 8 months old. I thought she was well socialized. I got her at 8 weeks and too her to parking lots of shopping centers that had no pet friendly businesses and asked people walking by to give her a treat. She loves people. We saw people of many different ages and ethnicities. We also did puppy kindergarten and I exposed her to different surfaces. Then yesterday, we traveled to our first National Park and realized she is terrified of Asians (most of the visitors were Asian). We realized that we don’t see many Asians in our town so that is probably why. She is also scared of toddlers. She is fine with infants and 4+ year olds but toddlers are a real fear for her. I’ve started classical conditioning to reverse this but I know it’s going to take do much more effort that it would have if I’d been more careful to seek out exposure to toddlers and Asians during her socialization window.

  13. Hello,
    I have downloaded the puppy socialization check list which is very helpful. Thank you !
    Just how do you do all this in 7 days ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *