Socialization – What is it, really?
Socialization – What is it, really?

Socialization – What is it, really?




If you’ve ever gotten a puppy or known anyone with a dog, I’m sure you’ve heard them talk about making sure your dog is socialized.

When we think of socializing, as humans, we automatically think of other humans. Going out, talking to other people and doing activities with them, or making sure children have time to interact and play with other children. 

But when it comes to dogs, socialization is not the same.
In fact, it's pretty much the opposite.

When it comes to socializing dogs, you actually want to expose them to many different things while not necessarily interacting with any of them.

You want them to hear noises, walk on different textures, see different types of movements, smell all the things, and learn how to be calm and relaxed in all the different atmospheres, while still giving your their focus and attention.

I’ve compiled some infographics below (just click the +’s to view them):

Socialization Window

You may have heard of the “socialization window”. This is the time of a puppy’s development when socialization is most easily absorbed, and is the most necessary. 

The American Kennel Club has a wonderful breakdown of this learning zone for puppies:

Stages of Puppy Socialization & Development

Puppy socialization sets the stage for a dog’s entire life. The socialization that Pat Hastings identifies are:

Curiosity Period (5 to 7 weeks)

Now weaned, puppies are virtually fearless and thus ready to explore the world. They want to climb, crawl, investigate, and taste everything. Their acceptance of people peaks at this as they are becoming increasingly mobile. New challenges, such as first baths, grooming, and trips outside the house, are ideal because puppies bounce back quickly if frightened by something new.

Behavioral Refinement (7 to 9 weeks)

Puppies are capable of learning anything despite their short attention span. Learning is permanent at this age. Training should be structured on an individual basis, and puppies should form good habits, learn boundaries, and the rules of their new life. A stable individualized learning environment is important.

Fear Imprint (8 to 11 weeks)

Between 8 and 9 weeks of age, puppies begin to be more cautious, even fearful of loud noises, sudden movements, strangers, and discipline from other dogs or humans. If frightened during this period, it may take weeks to return to normal. In non-socialized puppies, anything associated with fear at this age will be a fearful stimuli throughout life without extensive desensitization.

Environmental Awareness (9 to 12 weeks)

Puppies are starting to learn the right behaviors for the right time. They’re significantly improving their motor skills, paying more attention to humans, and are busy learning about their new world. Behavior can be shaped very differently depending on what the owner expects from the puppy. If almost totally separated from other dogs, the human bond becomes strong. Puppies left with littermates often have trouble with separation anxiety and/or hyperexcitability.

Seniority Classification (13 to 16 weeks)

The age of independence, this is when a puppy begins to test dominance and leadership. Critical learning occurs now. Puppies that are allowed to bite, dominate children or resist activities such as leash training, nail cutting and removal of food possessions are less likely to develop into a well-behaved dog. Puppy classes are essential, and being handled and trained by a variety of people helps build self-confidence.

What If the Window is Missed?

Well that’s an excellent question.
Is all hope lost if you miss the window?
What about rescue dogs that are adopted older than 16 or 20 weeks old?

Although this period is a really important one that can shape your dogs views on, well, almost everything, there are ways you can coach your dog to feel better about things that may be scary for them.

Cathy Madson, MA, FDM, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA wrote this wonderfully informative article about how to help the unsocialized dog. I’ve copied the tips section here for your convenience, but I highly recommend reading the entire article:

Tips for Helping an Unsocialized Dog
  • Connect with a certified professional. A certified canine behavior consultant, like myself, or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist will help you work through remedial socialization safely and effectively provide much-needed support.
  • Work at your dog’s pace, whatever that may be. Don’t force it. By “flooding” a dog with too much, too fast, you can increase fear and aggression.
  • Keep practicing social distancing with your dog! The COVID-19 pandemic gave us some good practice in keeping our distance. For dogs who get overwhelmed or fearful around certain “triggers” in their environment, staying at a distance where they can see the trigger, but not overreact to it is important.
  • Be aware that your dog may not reach the level of socialization you envision – and that’s totally okay! Many dogs who struggle with missed socialization enjoy happy and enriched lives without visiting places like the dog park, dog daycare, or local café.
  • Keep the end goals in mind. The first goal is to help your dog become more comfortable, less stressed and anxious, and safer in their everyday life. The second goal is to make your life with your dog as easy and low-stress as possible.
  • Identify and use the reinforcement that matters most to your dog, but that isn’t so distracting to take their mind off their environment. These are most often high-value food treats, but some dogs prefer playing with toys or calm praise and soothing petting.
Contact me if you would like help from a professional to coach you and your dog through their socialization issues.

This downloadable puppy socialization checklist is found at here. 


Let’s define some of those terms above.

Certified Professional Dog Trainers – You may have noticed the letter CPDT behind the names of trainers such as Cathy Madson above. Although there is currently no licensing or mandatory educational requirements for dog trainers, most ethical and reputable trainers do try to complete specific standardized testing to be a part of a certification organization. 

Certified Council for professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) is one of these organizations, and behind CCPDT are often two or three letters; KA stands for Knowledge Assessed, and KSA means Knowledge and Skills Assessed. Some others are:

While the number of acronyms following a name does not automatically equal an ethical amazing trainer, it does generally mean that they find value in continued education. Looking up what organizations the trainer belongs to and is certified through can give you an idea of what their beliefs are and if they align with your values, making them a good fit for your family… or not. 

Remedial Socialization – this just means socializing an adolescent or adult dog rather than during that critical socialization period in puppyhood

Flooding – Flooding is a full immersion training technique applied both in humans and animal psychology. It consists of forcefully exposing the dog to the stimuli that triggers its fear and caused the original trauma

Fear and Aggression – Fear is a psychological state in which a dog feels uneasy and panics. Here’s the difference between fear aggression and the myriad of other aggressions. The fearful dog is not the actual aggressor—but the victim of his fear. However, even though he is afraid, he may lash out at the cause of his fear, which would be considered aggression.

Triggers – A neurochemical release happens when your dog is triggered. The neurochemical release is exactly the same for us. This tells our body “be prepared, something is about to happen” …. we may need to flee or fight, and our body starts to get ready. This chemical release happens no matter what we (or our dogs) are triggered by. It could be something uncomfortable, something that’s interesting, something that’s exciting, or something that we love.

Reinforcement – “something that strengthens or encourages something.” In terms of dog training, there are different types of reinforcement, and different tools you can use to positively reinforce a behavior. We will discuss all of this in a future post.