7 min read

Why Socialization is So Important for Dogs


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 08/05/2022, edited: 08/09/2022

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You’ve probably heard or read about how important it is to socialize your dog. Socialization, or the process of exposing a dog to new people, animals and places, results in a more confident and relaxed animal who can enjoy discovering new things. It can also help prevent or minimize behaviors caused by fear of the unknown. 

Socializing a dog should begin when they’re very young, between 3 and 12 weeks of age. Young puppies will happily go wherever you take them, fascinated by any new sensory stimulation, and you can use that natural curiosity to your advantage by giving them many positive new experiences to learn from. With a lack of negative memories from these experiences, these animals are less likely to be fearful or suspicious and learn that their world is a safe, fun place.

Does this mean that older dogs can’t be socialized? Absolutely not! If they’re given a variety of opportunities and lots of positive reinforcement, an older dog can change their feelings about new experiences and can learn that they can be fun and rewarding too. In fact, the process may be somewhat easier with adult dogs because they are less likely to be distracted than puppies and may be more motivated.

What happens if you don’t socialize your dog? Dogs who aren’t socialized often engage in unwanted behaviors like barking and/or nipping at strangers, being impolite at the dog park, or fighting with other dogs over toys, food, and attention. 

Let’s look at some of the benefits socialization brings to puppies, dogs and their parents’ physical and mental health and well-being.

Dog shaking hands in greeting with girl in field - Why Socialization is So Important for Dogs

Socialization builds confidence

Dogs who have been properly socialized feel and act confident when responding to unexpected or unfamiliar situations. These pups don’t cower or hide behind their parent's body, which can invite aggression from other dogs. Confident dogs will greet new dogs and people with their tails in a neutral position, and in a relaxed but curious posture. A socialized dog trusts their parents when they’re exposed to new environments and stressful experiences such as vet visits, and their relaxed responses foster similar reactions from other canines around them.

Socialization calms fear and anxiety

Socialized dogs are not constantly on guard and tense, because they know they’re safe. Having seen many different places and met many kinds of people and animals, these dogs often have less fear of the unknown or anxiety about what could happen. Strange or loud noises aren’t as troublesome to them, and they don’t feel the need to protect their human family members with aggression. Barking at what they see outdoors will diminish, and they’ll become more mellow and laid back. They are also less likely to react negatively to the groomer, veterinarian, postman, or pizza delivery person.

Socialization improves dogs’ physical and mental health

It shouldn't be any surprise that reducing your dog's fear will also reduce their stress, and that alone can help create a peaceful pup who can roll with whatever life throws at them. But dogs who’ve been socialized properly will also be less vulnerable to health conditions shown to arise from constant anxiety and stress, such as Cushing’s Disease, depression, GI upsets, skin ailments, diabetes, or heart disease. When a dog inherits a disease, stress and anxiety also can make it less manageable. 

Golden Retriever with a sun hat on relaxing next to human at a festival

Socialization enables dogs to enjoy activities with other dogs and people

Dogs who haven’t been well-socialized can be seen hiding under benches and behind trees at the dog park, too fearful to venture out among the other happily playing dogs. Or when they’re out for a ride in the car, they might be panting and drooling, or even vomiting from anxiety. They might bark at everything they pass out of fear, charge or bite, or give clear signals that they don’t want to be touched or petted. Unfortunately, this unsocialized fearful reaction deprives them of worlds of happy encounters. 

Pups who have been successfully socialized, however, aren’t as afraid of new experiences, people or animals. This means they are able to enjoy playing with new dogs or cats, or receive affection through touches, pets and snuggles. Likewise, they welcome visitors to their home, and are well-behaved when they’re taken to dog-friendly restaurants, bars, vineyards, and other exciting dog-friendly spots. 

Socialization improves pet parents’ ability to enjoy their fur babies

Dog parents who haven’t socialized their pups might be constantly anxious that they will lunge at people or animals and may break their leash or collar, pull them down in pursuit of another dog, or attack another pupster at the park. Dog scratches and bites, however minor, may leave the parent open to medical, legal and financial challenges. Socialization’s slow desensitization tamps down a dogs’ over-the-top responses to people, other dogs, and even small animals like squirrels and cats, allowing both person and pup to relax and enjoy the experience together.

Socialization helps reduce bad behaviors

Many bad dog behaviors that pet parents often complain about, including indoor elimination, destroying shoes or furniture, or barking excessively, can often be traced back to stress. Socialization helps to reduce your dog's overall fear and anxiety, and this helps to keep stress levels low so that when your dog is confronted by a scary situation, such as being alone or seeing a stranger, they can react out of curiosity and confidence instead of negatively from fear. 

Socialization helps teach dogs how to be dogs

Dogs need to be around other dogs to learn how to act in dog society, as they teach each other the rules and boundaries of the pack. While in the wild, wolves and feral dogs have an instant source of this education in their packs, pet dogs who are the only canine in the household need to spend time with other dogs to learn these essential skills. Socialization can help make sure your dog is able to play safely with the neighborhood pups at the dog park, on play dates, or during a meet and greet on a walk and learn more from each pup they encounter.

Dog standing on beach looking out at waves

Tips for socializing your dog

Is it true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Whether you're the parent of a new puppy or an older dog, a senior or disabled one, the principles are the same and can be tailored to meet your pup's needs. We've collected a few tips to help make the process a little less daunting for you and your furbaby.

Introduce your dog to one or two new experiences at a time

While it’s tempting to look for every opportunity to help your dog become socialized, it’s important not to overwhelm them with too much stimulation at once. This is especially true for older pooches who may be slower learners or have more deep-seated fears. Puppies tend to gallop between experiences as they come up, but mature pupsters may need to take more time and have some separation between experiences. It’s okay to take it slow.

If your dog balks or shows anxiety, stop and try again another time

In a new setting or experience, try to read your dog’s response and mental state, and end the encounter if they’re clearly distraught. There’s no value in forcing the issue, loudly repeating instructions, or yanking on their collar which will only serve to make your dog more anxious. If calm, reassuring encouragement isn't working, it can be damaging to your doggo to push the matter, and it may cause long-lasting trauma, so try again another day when they are more relaxed. 

Stay calm and always use positive reinforcement

While this is a standard for any kind of training, remaining calm and rewarding good behavior is also incredibly beneficial for socialization. Doggos don’t understand yelling and threats in the context of their behavior and angry or abusive responses are counterproductive to creating a trusting bond between the two of you. Instead, ignore bad behavior and celebrate when your dog gets it right! Showing your consistent support and love throughout the process of socialization, and using positive reinforcement, such as treats, pats or toys, will help your dog feel safe.

Be aware of how your dog’s breed may affect their socialization process

As many dog breeds as there are, there are almost as many different attitudes toward socialization and training among them. It’s important to understand your pup’s tendencies and abilities and not ask them to do something that's not in their genetic temperament. Some working dogs like Labradors are naturally more laid back and likely to socialize easily, whereas Australian Shepherds and Jack Russell Terriers may be uneasy if they’re expected to just meet, greet, and play. Be sure to observe your new dog to tease out their unique personalities.

Small dog exploring a new trail

Take your dog’s age and condition into consideration

Older or disabled dogs can also be successfully socialized, despite their age or limitations. They may be more timid, hampered by sensory loss, or less able to move around, but they’re not a lost cause. It’s never a waste of time to help them be comfortable around new dogs, people, and experiences and will only serve to enrich their life.

Accept that rescue or shelter dogs may come with past trauma and meet them where they are

It’s a good idea to assume that dogs who’ve been rescued or surrendered are carrying some sort of baggage, even if it’s just grief for the loss or separation from a human, canine or feline friend. Keeping an open mind about their past experiences will prepare you for unexpected behaviors and shyness. You’ll be better able to help them through their socialization and a happier life if you be sure to take things slow and gauge their reactions at every step.

When possible, don’t introduce malleable young puppies to potentially anxiety-producing experiences

In many cases, a pup parent is in control of their pup's first experience. Traumatizing experiences like having their ears painfully yanked by a toddler can create unhappy memories and reflex responses in dogs. By thinking ahead about potential problems, you may be able to avoid situations that can create an anxiety or fear. 

Remember that socialization is a lifelong, ongoing process

Dogs who are socialized at a very young age will likely carry their calm responses with them all through their lives, barring severely negative trauma. But taking into account the many new experiences, dogs, and people they will encounter, it can be helpful to reinforce their socialization and bonding skills. 

Like their wild wolf ancestors, dogs are pack animals that thrive within communities. But anxiety stemming from negative experiences or fears of the unknown can turn any doggo from social to terrified. Socialization is the easiest and best way to prevent or dissipate those fears and allow curiosity, playfulness and confidence to grow. Whether young or old, every pup needs positive socialization to allow them to discover just how exciting and fun the world can be.

Need some help socializing your dog? Book a virtual or in-home training session with Wag! today to get tips and tricks from a pro!

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