Puppy socialisation! A hot topic, and one that can make most owners feel slightly on edge.

We know it can feel like there’s a lot that can go wrong, as well as other sensible questions like how do you socialise a puppy when they can’t even go outside yet?

But there’s no need to break into a cold sweat. In this article, we’ve narrowed down everything you need to know about puppy socialisation to make sure your little one grows into a well-mannered and confident dog. 

Ah yes – there’s also an easy-to-follow puppy socialisation checklist you can print and put on your wall if you find it helpful. You can use it too, not just keep it as wallpaper.

What is puppy socialisation?

What if I told you socialisation is about teaching your puppy to ignore things, not interact with them? 

Shocking. 

Puppy socialisation is a process that teaches puppies how to think about the world, how to respond to things in the world, and generally how to behave when things happen in their world.

Like our delightful opening sentence indicates, here’s what puppy socialisation isn’t. It’s not about transforming your pup into a social butterfly with both humans and other dogs whenever they go out for walks. 

All animals have a time sensitive period at the start of their lives where they build connections between what they see, what happens when they see it, and how they should respond. Therefore, socialisation is essential to their survival so that they know if things are hazardous or rewarding. Essentially, it stops them from getting into a jam.

Although socialisation takes place over the first year of a puppy’s life, they have a ‘critical socialisation period’ (in dog slang, ‘the socialisation window’) that happens roughly between the ages of 4-16 weeks. The socialisation window is the time where they’re most receptive to this kind of learning, and will be morest likely to absorb the most information. 

You’ll find out quickly that puppies grow up quicker than we ever realise (although they’ll always remain puppies in our eyes), so it’s important to gradually expose them to other animals, objects and new experiences as this is when it’s really going to count. 

Essentially, a well-socialised puppy will be able to:

  • Be taken to new places and stay settled 
  • Ignore what’s going on around them – so leaving the pigeons alone. 
  • Be around other dogs and not lose their minds from the excitement. 
  • Generally, be a ‘polite’ and confident dog 
Puppy Socialisation: What is it really? + Checklist
‘What?! I’m not the only puppy that exists in the world?’ – they’re quite likely to think this as they trot along the park.

Step-by-Step: How to socialise your puppy

First, you should make sure to start early, and continue gradually and persistently. But remember to go at your puppy’s pace – trying to speed up the process only slows the progress down since we end up flooding them. Better just go with the flow instead!

What is flooding?

Besides being a fancy way to say ‘overwhelming’, flooding is basically when we push our puppy into situations they find difficult to cope with too quickly, and all at once. But flooding often occurs by accident, so it’s important to take good care of the socialisation process. 

Here’s what you can look out for to avoid any flooding accidents:

  • Allowing strangers to pet them or pick them up.
  • Taking your puppy to the dog park and being around rowdy dogs.
  • Taking them to busy roads when they’ve only just started exploring the outdoors. 

The best way to go about puppy socialisation is like with everything else you do for them – with repetition and patience. 

For your puppy to be their best socialised self, they’ll need to be exposed often to everything that goes on in their environment so they can have better chances of learning about them, and knowing what to do. Treats always make getting used to new things a lot better, so remember to keep them at hand!

Eventually, they’ll start not thinking too much about the big red letterboxes on the street.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Here’s some good step-by-step guidance on how to socialise your puppy with absolutely anything. Even lemons.

Step 1 – Socialising your puppy at home

Our Zigzag app shows you heaps of exercises to socialise your puppy at home. Below, you’ll find a couple that we think will set you off for a great start. 

Getting them used to sounds

Your puppy can experience a wide variety of sounds at home before you even start taking them outside. Don’t really know what you get up to at home, but we’re sure there are some sounds that are going to be quite new for them – the piano, vacuum cleaners, or blenders are some of the most common ones, but again, there might be many others that sound quite weird to them at the start. 

The best way to get them used to them, is to have the sounds play at a low volume or maybe from a different room so they’re not too overwhelming. We know that seeing them react to vacuum cleaner sounds can be entertaining, but we really wouldn’t want to frighten them, would we?

PRO TIP: Remember that treats will truly be your right hand (..or hands?) when it comes to puppy socialisation training. While the sound is coming from a different room, make sure to keep handing them treats to remind them that everything is all is in order. 

YET ANOTHER PRO TIP: There are many available apps like Sound Proof Puppy Training or tracks you can play to help your pup get tuned in to all kinds of different sounds (pun intended) that aren’t so easy to replicate yourself such as fireworks or thunderstorms.

For more information on how to get your puppy used to sounds, The Dogs Trust has a lot of juicy material 

Getting them used to surfaces

‘What’s under my feet?’

When walking outdoors, your puppy will probably experience walking on all kinds of different surfaces like pavement or muddy trails and things such as snow, ice and spat up gum, unfortunately.

To get them feeling confident about touching and walking on strange surfaces, ‘What’s under my feet?’ is a good exercise (and game!) you can do at home before starting on any outdoor adventures. 

Before you start:

  • Make sure the surfaces you use for this exercise are safe – nothing slippery or skiddy like plastic bags. They’ll come later.
  • Do this exercise in the room that your puppy spends most of their time in to make them feel safe.

How to do it

1. Set up three different surfaces on the floor. Here are some ideas:

  • Your welcome mat
  • A towel
  • Scrunched up paper
  • A cushion
  • Cardboard or paper

2. Let your puppy sniff and explore them in any way they like for about 15 minutes. They might feel like walking or even like barking at them but that’s alright – it’s a good way for them to build confidence in front of them too.  Who knows – it might even be their way of warning whatever inanimate object in front of them that they are not to be messed with. 

TIPS

  • If your puppy takes more time to explore than you expected, there’s nothing to worry about.  As long as you’re with them, they’ll feel good and at ease. Bet you didn’t think your presence could provide such peace, did you?!
  • Try to aim for three new surfaces per week. This will help them feel better about going into unknown situations and prepare them well for when it’s time to go outside. No need to go on the hunt for snow or pebbles for them to walk on at home – they’ll meet those in person soon enough.

Meeting new people

Having friends over

Having your friends meet your puppy is a great way for your puppy to get used to different looking people, while in the comfort of your own home. It’s also a good way to make your friends like you just a wee bit more. Just joking.

To ensure that things go smoothly when having your puppy meet your human friends, here’s a good checklist to go through:

  • Invite just 2 people over at a time so as not to flood (or overwhelm) your puppy with too much happening all at once.
  • Ask your guests to sit on the floor or the sofa when they come in
  • Your puppy will have to approach them in their own time, so make sure they know this to prevent them from crowding or picking the puppy up just yet. 
  • Your friends are strangers to your puppy still, so your puppy needs time to find out more about them. It makes sense, I’m not sure how much you’d like it if unknown people suddenly started petting you – while you’re in full nude too. 
  • Hand your friends a couple of treats to give to your puppy, and see if they choose to come over to them.

Here’s why we like to follow these stages:

  1. By giving your puppy time to figure things out for themselves (like who on Earth are these people in my living room) in their own time will help them grow more confident.
  2. Overloading your puppy with novelty will flood your puppy, and can potentially make them fear new people, which we don’t want.
  3. When puppies get picked up, especially by strangers, it makes them feel like they’re not in control. Remember last time you lost your sense of control when driving in France on the other side of the road? Yep, not so nice.
  4. Preventing people from having a party every time they walk through the door can help your puppy not get overly excited about visitors – not every person who comes to your house is going to love dogs (who would believe it?!) so we’re sure you’d want to avoid a disaster: A high pitched squawk, bags flying in the air, visitors never coming back.

Experiencing the outside world

Watching the world go by

This puppy socialisation exercise is all about helping them to build positive associations with the outside world. Instead of thinking of the big, red double decker buses as monsters, they’ll eventually start seeing them as you do – metal boxes that although follow an inconsistent schedule, get you from A to B.

Puppies can take time to acquaint themselves with everything that lives outside, so there’s no need to rush things! The goal is to boost their confidence and make them feel like they’re able to walk safely among the all-weird outside things.

Before you start:

  • Do this puppy socialisation exercise at a time where there aren’t that many people out and about. Also, let’s not pick a busy area like Oxford Street – which is too busy for most of us at the best of times. 
  • As always, have a good handful of treats in your pocket.

Exercise:

  1. Carry your puppy in your arms just outside your home onto the street. Let them take in what’s going on outside. 
  2. Watch the world go by with them from there for about 10 minutes. You might run into schoolchildren, other neighbourhood dogs, seagulls, or your local milkman. Love how milkmen came back. 
  3. Around every minute or so, give your puppy a treat to show them that everything is going well – especially if something really new has gone past like your neighbour saying hello across the street.  

TIPS

  • If your puppy seems unsure about something, don’t move closer to it as a way to prove it’s safe because they will most likely find it overwhelming and become even more frightened about it.  Instead, move further away, and try again another time.
  • Not a great idea to let your puppy on the ground unless they’re fully vaccinated! It’s not safe for them just yet. Find out more about when it’s safe for puppies to go outside in our guide.
  • Doing this everyday will teach them the outside world is a positive one, and they’ll be less worried when the day of proper walkies comes. 
Puppy Socialisation: What is it really? + Checklist

Step 2 – Taking them out and about

Indeed, there are ways to take your puppy outside while still keeping them safe before they’re fully vaccinated – use a puppy carrier for outings.

Here are some places that would be great for your puppy to visit while still waiting to get their vaccinations:

  • Vet Surgery (sure, it’s not Disneyland but it will be great for them to get used to their vet) 
  • To the park, as long as they’re sat on a bench next to you at a safe distance from everyone else
  • Take them for coffee – don’t literally give them coffee, but they’ll look cute in a carrier on the seat next to you.

But while we always think about being safe as being all about your puppy’s vaccination status – we also want to be mindful of what’s emotionally safe – so make sure not to flood them by getting them into overwhelming situations they can’t cope with! Let’s stay away from schools as the bell goes off for home time.

PRO TIP: New situations and treats go well together. Don’t forget to bring them along with you so your puppy learns that there’s loads of good to be had in the outdoors!

Puppy socialisation checklist

You’ll want to make a checklist of things you need to socialise your puppy with, so here’s one we’ve made!

Tick them off as you go, and remember you’ll probably need to repeat them quite a few times, so be prepared to practice patience. 

When working on puppy socialisation, variety is key. For example, meeting babies is something you’ll have to do more than once; they’ll need to meet, see and hear different babies and children many times throughout the puppy socialisation period in order to realise that kids aren’t so scary after all. 

We know they can be in all honesty. But let’s just not tell them that. 

PRO TIP: Try to do several things on one outing as situations will overlap – it will make your life easier if you combine things, but just make sure they are not too many so your puppy gets overwhelmed.

Type of Socialisation Socialisation Specific Check off when completed 
Body Handling            
  Check inside of ears          
  Check eyes          
  Open eyelids          
  Touching between toes          
  Checking mouth and gums          
  Check between the fur          
  Examine puppy when they’re up on table          
  Hold puppy on your lap          
  Wipe your puppy’s paws with a cloth          
  Hold your puppy on their back          
  Popping your fingers inside the collar (collar grab – start very gently!)          
  Nail Trims – pretend to do it          
  Putting on a harness          
  Wiping all over with a towel          
  Putting on a dog coat or jumper          
People            
  People of many ethnicities          
  Men          
  Women          
  Babies          
  Toddlers          
  Teenagers          
  Elderly People          
  Cyclists          
  Wheelchair Users          
  People with walking sticks, canes or walking frames          
  Joggers          
  Men (or ladies!) with beards          
  People in high viz          
  People wearing head coverings          
  People wearing sunglasses          
Dogs            
  Calm friendly dogs          
  Dogs who will play well          
  Dogs who will teach your puppy if your puppy plays too rough          
Other Animals            
You don’t need to have your puppy right up and meet them – they can learn not to fear them just by watching from afar – and getting yummy treats of course! Cats          
Birds          
Livestock – cows/sheep          
  Horses          
Scary Sounds            
We suggest using the Sound Proof Puppy app for this when you’re still at home Fireworks          
Car Doors Slamming          
Doorbells          
Motorbikes          
  Rain/Thunderstorms          
Lorries          
Buses          
Trains          
Doorbell          
Door knocking          
Crowds of people          
Vacuum cleaner          
Barking Dogs          
Surfaces and Objects            
  Concrete          
  Tiles          
  Sand          
  Wet Grass          
  Stairs          
  Mud          
  Cobblestones          
  Rivers          
  Umbrellas          
  Skateboards          
  Balloons          
  Crutches, canes or walking sticks          
  Plastic bags          
  Shopping Trolleys          
  Brooms/Mops          
  Vacuum Cleaner          
  Prams          
New Places            
  Outside the front of your house          
  Up the street (a little louder)          
  A main road          
  Inside dog friendly shops (DIY Stores, and Pet Shops are often dog friendly)          
  Puppy Training Classes          
  The Pub (hurrah)          
  Cafés          
  Restaurants          
             
Type of Socialisation Pre Vaccination Post Vaccination
Handling Check eyes and ears    
  Check between paws    
  Wiping feet/wiping body with towel    
  Checking mouth and gums    
  Holding puppy on your lap    
  Harness and collar fitting    
  Grooming    
  Bathing    
People Babies and Toddlers    
  Children and Teenagers    
  Different Ethnicities    
  Men    
  Women    
  Elderly People    
  Wheelchair Users/Walking Sticks    
  Elderly People    
  Cyclists/Joggers/Skateboarders    
Sounds Thunderstorms    
  Fireworks    
  Sirens    
  Lorries/Buses/Trains    
  Crowds    
  Barking Dogs    
  Doorbell    
  Vacuum Cleaner    
  Washing Machine    
Places Vets Office    
  Pet Shops    
  Dog Friendly Pubs/Cafes    
  Rivers/Lakes    
  Beaches    
  Woods    
  Puppy Training Classes    
Animals Dogs    
  Cats    
  Horses    
  Livestock – sheep/cows    

Puppy socialisation FAQs

What is the best way to socialise a puppy?

Good question. 

The best way to socialise a puppy is by:

– Taking them out and about with you – at both pre-and post-vaccination times. There’s truly no need to stay indoors if you’re able to carry them or pop them into a carrier. It’s all for their benefit in the end!
– Take them everywhere you’re allowed to (kudos for pet-friendly businesses!) and let them take in the world. 
– Remember to have your treats ready to teach them that there is no such thing as a big scary world.
– Gradually, let your puppy show you how comfortable they are. Learn to read their body language and see how your puppy is feeling. We love Lili Chin’s work – she has some great information on dog body language with lovely and easy-to-follow illustrations.

Puppy Socialisation_ What is it really_ + Checklist (3) (1)

What is the most important socialisation period for puppies?

The most important socialisation period is before they are 16 weeks old. It’s not like you’ll be in trouble after that window closes, but this window truly is the time where puppies are the most eager to soak up information. Before they hit the 16-week mark, you’ll need to do lots of socialisation outings to help them grow into a confident dog. 

PRO TIP: Socialisation periods are also called sensitive periods. Surprise! This is also a time for you to look out for their emotional needs; so, give them positive experiences, protect them from worrying about things in their environment, remain consistent with your training, and teach them how to be a calm and well adjusted dog. Yes, it’s a long list. But you’ll manage perfectly.

When is it too late to socialise my puppy?

Never! It’s always a good time to socialise your puppy.

Like we said before, if your puppy wasn’t able to be socialised before the 16-week deadline it’s not ideal. But there is still time – up until they’re grown-ups, even – to keep working on it. The only difference is that you may need a little more time – keep in mind their emotional needs just as you did when they were puppies. 

Really though, the best thing you can do is make a commitment to your puppy and their socialisation. Planning ahead and having a schedule with all the necessary activities is a great way to help them learn about the world in an enjoyable way. 

Seeing as they’ll enjoy much more of life after they become better at socialising, we’re here to support you along the way! 

What happens if you don’t socialise your dog?

Mmm, not so great things.  

If puppies are not socialised when they’re young, there is a big risk you’ll be playing an endless game of trying to get them to change their mind on how they perceive things. Until now, their view of the world may be a rather cloudy one due to a lack of early exposure and experience to the world, which can sadly result in a shy, fearful and sometimes aggressive adult dog.

We don’t mean to scare you, but the hard truth is the number one cause of death at under three years of age is due to behavioural issues, not illness or infectious diseases. The AVSAB has more information about this, if you’re interested in knowing more. 

So yes. Because of this, we couldn’t be more eager to help you socialise your puppy as best you can to give them all the chances at a good, fulfilling life, and everyone around them. It’s perfectly possible too!

My puppy can’t go out yet, what socialisation training can I do at home?

Don’t get us started – there’s plenty! 

Here’s a list of puppy socialisation training activities you get into while they’re able to fully go outside:

Creating a puppy adventure box : These ones by Avidog are brilliant.
Walking on different surfaces: Think of gathering tiles, both soft and rough rugs, the grass and brick floors from your garden…anything that won’t hurt their paws should do just fine.
Meeting new people: We know how exciting it is when a new puppy enters your friend circle. But let’s start off without a bang so your puppy doesn’t get overwhelmed – having two visitors at a time come over will be a good way for your puppy to know that there are more people than you that exist around them.
Watch the world go by: Admire the world from a safe distance – whether it’s from the front of your house or going for a drive, watching the world go by is a great way to ease them into the wonders of the world. 
Introducing new scents: Everything from another dog’s blanket to the strange gnomes in your neighbour’s front garden. 
Play dress up: In life, your puppy will probably run into many people that look and dress different to you, so better prepare them for the unexpected.
Visiting the vet: The vet isn’t a scary place. It’s quite the opposite! They make everything better. Popping by to the vet’s for a quick hello is a great way to build positive associations with them so your puppy is always happy to go there.

The Puppy Plan and Sound Proof Puppy Training also have good ideas on things you can do to socialise your puppy before their vaccinations – feel free to take a look!

How do you socialise a nervous dog?

It’s alright if your puppy is a little nervous or shy. With so much going on, we can’t really blame them. 

But we know it can be difficult to know exactly how to help the little one when there’s so much worry in their minds. However, as you’ve probably experienced so far, the world is a great place to be – let’s help them see this side rather than the scary one. 

Making a plan will help you through it. But first, take a deep breath and make yourself a warm drink (or a glass of wine, why not?) and remember to not stress – there are only good days ahead of you!

Here’s how to make a plan:

Step 1: Write down all the times you felt your puppy was uncomfortable or distressed. Make sure to jot down what it is that got them feeling iffy, its size, at what distance you were from it, how loud it was…everything you can think of that can help you find more about what they’re worried about is grand.

Step 2: Think about how you can bring your puppy into contact with them at a distance, duration or volume level that you think they’ll be ok with. 

Step 3: With so much good in the world to see, decide what else is important for your dog to experience, and think about how you’re going to help them deal in a positive way.

Step 4: We wish there was a way to stress this more – but stick to the plan! We’re sure your friends and other dog owners nearby are well-meaning when they try and tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. But this can potentially ruin all the good work you’ve done so far. 

So, here’s what you can do to stay on track: 

Take it slow: Like that story about the tortoise and the hare…slowly wins the race.
Keep it positive: Positivity rubs off! Stay calm and relaxed, and your puppy will too. 
Keep sessions short:  We all know by now that puppies have short attention spans – try just short and sweet, with lots of breaks. 
Don’t force your dog to interact with people or other dogs: If it doesn’t work on you, probably won’t work on them.
The stinkier the treat, the better: Treats can really do wonderful things – like changing your dog’s mind from thinking something is scary, to fun. Like the mailman.
Liver paste, Crab paste, dried sprats all count as high value rewards. It’s no exaggeration when we say that puppies will go bonkers for them.
Always go back to the plan: No matter what. You know your puppy best, and will therefore know what’s best for them. Have faith and trust your instincts!

We hope you enjoyed reading our article and that it gave you some good tips on how to socialise your puppy. 

If you’re looking for more puppy training advice, check out our article on lead training your puppy, next. And of course, don’t forget to download the Zigzag app and get all the advice you need at a click of a button.