The Importance of Socializing Your Dog

The definition of socialization is “a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position.” This applies to children learning how to be productive, kind adults, but it also applies to dogs learning how to behave appropriately around other animals and in unfamiliar environments. Basically, a dog needs to learn appropriate doggy manners at a young age so they can grow up to be a good member of their K-9 community. If they don’t learn these skills while they’re still young, they might be too frightened to interact positively with other dogs, they might become fear-aggressive as an attempt to protect themselves from the unknown, or they can trigger an aggressive response from another dog due to their rude behavior or their nervous energy. In other words, socializing your dog at as young an age as possible is crucial to their well-being.

Four properly socialized best friends.

When It Should be Started

You can start socializing your dog as soon as they have received their appropriate vaccinations. If you have a young puppy, make sure all of their shots are up to date before taking them to new places. If you got your dog from a shelter, check with your vet to make sure their shot records are up to date. These vaccinations must be done to keep your dog safe in the outside world.

Ideally, socializing should begin when your dog is a puppy. Puppyhood is defined as a dog from birth to 6 months old, adolescent is 6 to 18 months old, and adulthood is 18 months old and up. Their experiences from birth until they are about four months old have a major effect on their outlooks of life into their adult years. They begin to decide which things are scary or threatening during this time, so having as many positive encounters with humans, dogs, vacuums, stores, cars, and other animals as young as possible can help them grow to be very confident and happy. They will probably be nervous encountering these new situations at first, but as long as they are enjoying themselves at the end of the experience, it should help them in the long run. If your puppy is scared the whole way through, it is important that you take a step back and develop a slightly different plan. If your dog is not enjoying the experience, it could cause more harm than good.

While puppyhood is the best time to start socializing your dog, it isn’t the only time that it can begin. If you get your dog from an animal shelter, the odds are pretty good that it may not be a puppy. Because of their age, they will have already formed memories of things that will effect them for the rest of their lives. Growing up in a shelter isn’t easy, so your new dog might have some difficulty adjusting in their first few months with you. They’ll be remembering all of their bad experiences with other dogs, humans, and new environments, so it will be crucial to re-introduce them to these experiences gently yet effectively.

A puppy politely meeting a kitten for the first time.

Older dogs can make a change and realize that they are safe in new environments, but more often than not, if your dog is past the age of three, they will stay fairly firm in their ways. This is especially true if they didn’t receive any socialization as a puppy or if they were raised in a shelter. Some dogs have naturally good manners and are resilient at heart, so their upbringing may not affect them too much in adulthood. Other dogs, however, can be fearful or rude without proper socialization. This can cause some major dysfunction if they’re put with a group of dogs. Both fear and rude behavior can trigger aggressive responses from the dogs around them, even if those other dogs are polite and properly socialized.

Knowing Your Dog’s Limits

It is good to try to get your dog reasonably out of their comfort zone, but there also comes a time when they will stop improving, particularly if they’re past the age of three. If/when this happens, attempting to socialize your dog further could make them even more fearful and stressed. I believe that this is the time to accept your dog for who they are and to encourage them in the things they are already more comfortable with, without pushing them too far out of their comfort zone. This doesn’t mean that you should give up on socializing your dog, but you should look for different methods that involve activities that are more suited to your dog’s personality. Each dog is a unique individual and it is important to see them for who they are and to not push them too far. If your dog doesn’t achieve the things you’d like them to in a reasonable time frame, try something new and develop some new goals that your dog is more likely to achieve.

My Experiences

I got my precious little Staffordshire Terrier mix, Annie, when she was about eight months old. She was still quite young, but she clearly had some bad experiences before we met. We had two dogs at home when I got her, a Shiba Inu named Keiko and a Pit Bull/Lab mix named Halley. Annie formed a very good relationship with Halley who chose to become a mother-like figure for Annie, but Keiko wanted nothing to do with a wildly energetic puppy, and Annie could tell. Keiko began snarling and snapping at Annie whenever she came near her. Halley would always put her body in-between them to defuse these tense moments.

Halley and Keiko enjoying the snow a few years back.

On October 20, 2015, just five months after I rescued Annie, the dynamic changed forever. Our sweet Halley passed away at just ten years old due to liver failure and an infection in her lymph nodes. She was a complete angel of a dog and she passed much too soon, breaking the hearts of everyone in our family, including Annie and Keiko. Because Halley was no longer there to keep Annie and Keiko apart, their relationship got much worse. Annie realized that she’s a much bigger and stronger dog than Keiko, so she began to take a stand against Keiko’s snarling and snapping. They began to fight.

It started off happening very infrequently, but it got worse and worse as the months wore on, leading to us keeping Annie and Keiko separate 24/7. Because of this, I began to believe that Annie was aggressive towards other dogs and that I needed to keep her away from them as much as I could. This was not necessarily the right decision.

While it is true that I should have been cautious with her around other dogs, it was still the time to try to help her make positive memories with dogs that actually liked her and wanted to be around her. She was between the ages of 1-2 1/2 years old during this time. I stopped taking her to the dog park because I didn’t trust her to not start a fight. I took her to several different training classes for obedience and agility and walked her around stores so she would get some interaction with the outside world. She would often bark and lunge at other dogs during these interactions, and I learned how to pull her away and get her to re-focus on me. She improved greatly out in the world, but still continued to be aggressive towards Keiko by fence fighting through the door that separated them. If we didn’t choose to keep them separated constantly, I’m sure more fights would occur. Annie and I moved into our own apartment when she turned two.

My silly Annie, relaxing since Keiko is elsewhere.

What I didn’t realize is that she was behaving this way mostly out of fear. While I do think it’s true that her relationship with Keiko and the loss of Halley had a major affect on her behavior, I should have also known that, with her experiences in the shelter and with a sudden change in her routine, she didn’t know what was going to happen anytime we went somewhere unfamiliar. She was also probably unsure if every dog would be a threat to her like Keiko was. Her experiences with Halley took place in such a short period of time that Annie could have been led to believe that Halley was the only kind dog out there. She may have begun to believe that she had to protect herself from other dogs because she didn’t get a chance to meet and play with any friendly dogs after Halley passed away.

Because we lived on our own and she got relatively little interaction with the outside world, she became more fearful, and more attached to me. She believed that she had to protect me, and that she was only safe when I was there with her. If we were somewhere that we went frequently where she felt safe, she would do amazing and have a great time! I take her to PetSmart, Better Life Pet Foods, Andele’s Dog House, and Pet Co. on a regular basis and, when we’re there, she no longer acts aggressively towards other dogs, she doesn’t show as much fearful body language, and she doesn’t try to protect me. She knows what she likes and where she feels safe.

Annie just turned three on Halloween of this year. Because of this, I am pushing her out of her comfort zone even more to try to help her to continue to improve. To do this, I am taking her to doggie daycare about once a week (at Your Pet Space, of course). This gives her a chance to be somewhere new without me and hopefully figure out that she is safe. She has already made improvements with trusting Joy and Dave, and she has met a few laidback, senior dogs. She may never feel comfortable enough to play with the higher energy dogs, but that is completely fine. I want her to improve as much as she can, and if all she can do is relax with calm, old dogs all day, that’s perfect to me. If I keep taking her weekly for several months and she doesn’t continue to improve, it’s time to re-evaluate and come up with a new plan. Since she just turned three, this year is the time to figure out as much as I can with her, so she can be as happy, healthy, and well-adjusted as possible in her adult years.

Dave gave her treats, so Annie is repaying him with hugs and kisses.

What You Can Do For Your Dog

If you are just beginning to socialize your dog, it is best to start off slowly to introduce them to the outside world. A great place to start is obedience training classes, especially if you have a puppy. Training gives dogs confidence, it helps them form trust in you, and it helps them begin to understand the concept of “good behavior”. Obedience training will also help once you move further along in socializing your dog, and you need to know that your dog will listen to you and trust your commands. Claren Wilson at Cloud K-9 is one of the best trainers out there, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with her!

Once your dog has good obedience skills, you can begin taking them on walks in stores, at the farmers market, and along the street. This website recommends developing a regular walking group with a variety of dogs and people so your pup can get used to being in a group of dogs without throwing them into the cacophony that the dog park tends to create. Even doggie day care might be too much excitement when you’re just beginning.

A calm, one-on-one meeting between two young dogs.

While the goal is to get your dog socialized, the ultimate focus should be your dog’s safety. This trainer provides an excellent perspective on taking socializing slowly and focusing on your dog’s reactions to their new environments and their safety. She explains that you should “match the scenario to the dog’s current skill set. Has the dog ever been to a public event? If not, starting at the street fair with new asphalt substrates, a thousand people, several dozen food vendors, other (possibly stressed) dogs, music from the dance troupes, and the roar of engines from the car show is probably not a good choice for an outing. How about starting with the neighbor’s cookout, where you can introduce your dog to fewer people and then pop him back home after he’s had a good time?” In other words, baby steps are key.

Last, but certainly not least, here is a wonderful weekly checklist and report card that you can use to help you figure out what situations your dog is sensitive to, and to track their improvements as their socialization moves forward. I would focus on one item on the checklist at a time before moving on to the next item, then rotating back through so your dog doesn’t forget what they’ve learned. You may even need to print a few of these lists if you want to track your dog’s daily exposure. While this checklist is targeted toward puppies, it can certainly be used for adolescent and adult dogs as well. Just keep in mind, if your dog isn’t a puppy or is over or near the age of three, the process will be much longer and possibly less successful. As long as you work on socializing your dog with patience, kindness, and mountains love, both you and your dog will change for the better.

Jessica Smith, Associate Editor, having been raised in a household full of dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, and all things furry, Jessica’s love of animals has only grown over the years. She is currently volunteering for Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary in her free time when she isn’t out and about with her ridiculous pit bull mix, Annabel Lee, or taking care of her two goldfish, Carrot Cake and Winchester. She is also putting her literature degree to use by working as an editor for a local online magazine, Independent Noise. While she has no plans for the future, she knows that it will be filled with fur and fiction galore. You can e-mail Jessica at