Puppy Socialization Practices - And How They Are Lacking

Almost a third of puppies are missing out on important socialization during the sensitive period.

Two puppies having fun at the beach - but almost a third of puppies miss out on important socialization during the sensitive period

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A survey of puppy owners by Dr. Janet Cutler et al (University of Guelph) finds that a sizeable number of puppies are not receiving enough socialization.

Puppies have a sensitive period for socialization from 3 weeks until about 12-14 weeks. During this time, they should have lots of positive socialization experiences with other people and dogs and habituate to the kinds of environmental stimuli they will encounter as adult dogs. Without these positive experiences, they are less likely to be friendly, confident dogs.

The scientists recruited people with a puppy less than 20 weeks old. Then, when the puppy turned exactly 20 weeks, they sent an email with a link to the survey.

Almost a third of puppies were not receiving many socialization experiences, which in this study was defined as up to 10 people and 5 dogs or less per 2 week period. Lack of socialization can lead to behaviour problems such as fear and aggression, which in turn can lead to dogs being re-homed or euthanized.

The results show that half of puppy owners (49%) took their puppy to puppy class. There were differences between the people who had been to puppy class and those who hadn’t. If people had been to puppy class:

  • They exposed the puppy to more people between the ages of 10 and 20 weeks of age
  • They exposed the puppy to more dogs outside the home between the ages of 14 and 20 weeks
  • They were more likely to expose the puppy to more stimuli, including large trucks, sirens, children, people coming to the door (but there was no difference for walking on leash or going to the dog park)
  • They were more likely to reward good behaviour (93% compared to 86% of those who did not attend), use redirection, and ignore bad behaviour
  • They were less likely to use verbal corrections (82% compared to 96%)
  • They were less likely to use positive punishment, including holding the puppy on its back (21% compared to 96%) 

Of course these figures do not show causality, as although people will hopefully have learned from attending the class, at the same time certain kinds of people might be more likely to attend puppy class in the first place. The increase in exposure to stimuli could in part be due to the puppy class, as by definition there were other people and puppies there (although not enough to meet socialization needs). People were more likely to attend puppy class if they had done more research on puppies, had a higher household income, lived in a suburban rather than rural area, and did not have children.

Only 70% of the puppy classes included opportunities for puppies to play together. This is a shame because puppies learn important skills through play. The least common activities were gradual exposure to noises, trading one item for another, and teaching the puppy to go to a mat (as well as a category called 'other'), of which happened in less than half of the classes. Other research shows that up to half of adult dogs are afraid of loud noises, and gradual exposure during the sensitive period can help to prevent these fears.

Sit, down, and coming when called were the most popular commands, being taught in over 80% of classes. Body handling was taught in just over half of the classes. It would be better if more classes taught this, as body handling exercises at this age can help puppies learn to accept veterinary examinations without being afraid.

Owners who used punishment were more likely to say their puppy was fearful. 4% of owners said they would force the puppy to face its fears, something which risks making the fear even worse. Puppies who had attended class were less likely to be afraid of noises such as the vacuum cleaner.

There were 296 participants. It was a convenience sample so they are not representative of the general population (if anything, they are likely to be more educated about dogs, given they were recruited via a mix of email and online sites including some related to professional organizations and humane societies).

The authors say it would be nice to have research on how much socialization is needed, in order to give dog owners clearer advice. A recent study with Guide Dog puppies suggests more socialization is better.

But the most important finding from this study, in my view, is that a sizeable minority of puppies are not getting enough socialization. The authors refer to the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour position statement on puppy socialization, which says that socialization should begin before the final vaccines are given. Only 51-65% of vets discuss behaviour with new puppy and kitten owners, but this would be a good time to educate people about socialization and training.

The scientists write,
“Owners who attended classes with their puppies provided those puppies with more socialization opportunities than owners who did not attend and also indicated more favorable responses to managing signs of fear in their puppies and to disciplining them. This highlights the need for veterinarians and other animal care professionals to educate puppy owners about the importance of early puppy socialization, socialization classes, and positive reinforcement–based training and assist puppy owners in accessing reliable resources for this information.”
These results show that, although many people are getting a lot of things right, there is still room for improvement when it comes to socialization and training of puppies.

You'll find plenty of tips on caring for a puppy in my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog HappyModern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

If you are looking for a puppy class, make sure that you find a good dog trainer who will only use reward-based training methods. (See here for more information on the risks of using punishment).

Did you take your puppy to puppy class?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Cutler, J. H., Coe, J. B., & Niel, L. (2017). Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 251(12), 1415-1423. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

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