First Impressions Count

Socialization is the key to creating a confident dog. Here’s how to do it right.

You’ve probably witnessed the dog on walks that lunges or barks ferociously at every dog he or she sees. Or maybe you live with that dog. That poor dog is stressed and fearful. One of the causes of this kind of reactivity is the lack of early socialization.

Dogs see the world as safe, dangerous, good, bad, or neutral. You want your puppy to see the world as safe and good. The time in your puppy’s life, when he is most open to novel experiences, is before 12-14 weeks of age. This is the time to get him out there, so go! But do it right. 

Puppies, like children, need to be taught appropriate play skills.

Here are Dog Nerds’ top 3 great tips.

Tip 1: Use Great Rewards

Pair new experiences with something your puppy loves like food or play. Figure out what his favorite treats are and reserve them for creating strong positive associations.

Puppy Bryn is having fun at the hardware store. Always strive to keep the experience positive.

Tip 2: Ace The First Encounter

First impressions count. If your puppy’s first encounter with something new doesn’t go well, it takes a lot of work to change his mind. Always try to make first experiences particularly rewarding. If your puppy is not enjoying the experience, he will show it by turning away or trying to leave, tucking his tail, lip or nose licking, cowering,  pulling his ears back against his head, and/or averting his gaze. If this happens, help him by giving him more distance or by leaving the situation.

This is Bryn’s first experience with goats! The experience feels safe so she is more likely to accept another experience like this in the future without worry.


Tip 3: Timing Is Everything

You should reward your puppy as soon as something new happens, but it’s important that the new thing happens first. For example:

  1. You’re out with your puppy and pass your neighbor’s house.
  2. You see your neighbor about to press the garage door opener.
  3. You wait for her to press the button.
  4. As the sound begins and your puppy’s ears perk up, you treat him with yummy food bites and use a happy, cheerful voice.

The association we want your puppy to make: Garage door noise = Good things happen.

Applying The 3 Rules

New place.

Give your puppy plenty of time to explore and get comfortable. Try to get him to play with a toy, chase you, or toss some yummy treats on the floor for him to find.

New person.

Ask all kinds of strangers and children to give your puppy a treat before petting him. Ask one person at a time; don’t have several people crowd your pup. If your puppy is shy or unsure of himself at any time, have people toss a few treats on the ground or have them stand at a distance while you calmly feed your puppy. You can also teach your puppy to sit (or any cute trick) so you can have people ask your puppy to do something. That stops them from immediately trying to pet your puppy, which can be overwhelming for him. Once your puppy is comfortable, go ahead and let him interact with the new person at his own pace.

New dog.

Not every new dog your puppy sees should be an instant guarantee of play or physical interaction. That means the reinforcement for meeting a new dog needs to come from you and the best time is directly after your puppy sees the new dog. Get in the habit of rewarding your puppy for simply looking in the direction of another dog. Not only will you create a positive association, but you will help prevent all-too-common behavior problems in adult dogs like barking at other dogs while on leash, barking at dogs (or people) when behind a fence, etc. When the occasional interaction occurs, be sure it is with the right dog that you know well and who will be gentle with your puppy. Don’t take any chances with strangers.

For how long? This is not just for baby puppies. Continue to build your dog’s confidence through social maturity, which in most cases is 2 to 3 years of age. Is your dog not a young puppy? It’s not too late to get started building more confidence.

Your puppy should be exposed, in a positive and safe way, to as many experiences as possible. Below is a scavenger hunt you can play with your dog. Please share your experiences with us.

If your dog of any age is fearful or reactive around other dogs, today is the day to begin to change that. Get more information here on how to do that and start building better behavior.

Take your puppy on a fun and safe scavenger hunt every day.

(Thanks for the list, Robin Bennett!)