Puppy Socialization with Teresa Umbelino

Teresa Umbelino is a veterinary behaviorist and science-based trainer at ABComportamento in Portugal, which she has been operating for the last 10 years. She also did an internship at the Oakland Veterinary Referral Hospital in Michigan, USA. She works in depth with dogs with a variety of behavior issues and specializes in prevention techniques for puppies. She also offers assistance for breeders raising puppies and puppy training classes. So, of course, we wanted to pick her brain on the subject of puppy socialization and share her insights with our Doglyness community!

Why is puppy socialization important?

Puppy socialization, simply put, is the act of exposing a young dog to different stimuli (animal, human, and environmental) in order to acclimate them to the world we are setting them up to live in. It’s not ideal or safe for adult dogs to be curious about every single new object, animal, or environment, as this would continuously put their lives at risk. We could compare our puppies to toddlers, who are curious about electrical outlets or hot ovens, making us concerned and doing our best to baby-proof them and teach them what behavior is acceptable.\

As babies grow, they start to have a better notion of danger and become more cautious when exploring—which is why, eventually, they stop being curious about putting their fingers in electrical outlets! A similar process happens with dogs, meaning it’ll be easier to expose them to novelty and teach them about safety and danger at this young, open-minded age. Showing the world to a puppy while they are curious and open to novelty increases our chances of having a mentally healthy and stable adult dog that can navigate our world by our side, with little stress for them and, therefore, for us!

What is the critical window for socialization?

The critical socialization period is, on average, between 3 and 12 weeks, which means that we have to find a balance between good exposure and keeping our puppies healthy, as this coincides with their vaccination period, where they are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. The idea of keeping a puppy strictly indoors until all their vaccines are done is outdated and leads to a much higher risk of the dog developing behavior issues throughout their lives.

Usually, a good, but sanitary socialization can be achieved with common sense. Most infectious diseases will be passed through pee and poop. So, our natural first step should be to make sure we are not allowing our puppies to explore the excrement of unknown animals. Following this, I would also recommend avoiding direct contact with unknown animals, as we won’t know their health and vaccination status. Additionally, we will have no previous idea if that animal is social with young dogs and if they will react in an aggressive way when meeting our puppy. It’s best to socialize with animals we know are physically and mentally healthy, providing our puppies with good and safe experiences at this age.

puppy socialization

Teresa with two of her fur-clients!

What are the benefits of good socialization?

Good socialization will predispose our dog to better deal with the world, adjust quicker to new situations, and recover from stress faster. A properly socialized dog will be able to handle their day-to-day with ease, giving them more freedom to go to different places with their family, therefore giving them a fuller and more stimulating life. Access to an adequate amount of physical exercise, as well as mental and social stimulation, reduces the odds of a dog developing anxiety or other behavior issues, and providing them with these basic needs becomes much easier if they can cope with and enjoy the world around them!

It's also important to keep in mind that proper socialization will depend on the environment and context in which the dog will live. Socializing a dog to ride on the subway isn’t much use if that dog will spend its life in the country, watching over sheep, and I might not need to worry about exposing a puppy that will live in New York to camels in the desert.

Tips for socializing your puppy at home

When at home, we should ensure we are developing the habits we want to see in our adult dog from day one. It’s important to keep in mind that some things look adorable in a puppy but will not be desirable in an adult. For example, an 8-week-old Great Dane puppy putting its paws on your leg to ask for cuddles may seem adorable, but when they are fully grown, they will be neither cute nor safe!

My favorite thing to ask is, “will I like this behavior when they are fully grown?” If the answer is yes, by all means, allow that to continue. However, if the answer is no, it’s best not to allow that behavior from the puppy and prevent issues in the future. Keep in mind that a lot of things will vary from family to family and come down to personal preference. I personally would not mind a toy poodle putting their paws on my legs when asking for cuddles, but would not like that from a standard poodle! For other people, a standard poodle hugging them for cuddles is adorable, and they will choose to allow this behavior. There will be those who think even a toy poodle should not be putting their paws on humans, and that is a perfectly fine choice, too! Whatever you choose, just make sure you are consistent with it.

Another thing to consider at home is how we want to set up our puppy to greet visitors and immediately start guiding them toward that desired behavior from day one. This doesn’t have to involve scolding and punishment but rather gentle guidance and praise when they are on the right track, much like we would do with a toddler.

Finally, it’s essential to consider home management. This means deciding when and where our puppies are going to be in the home and making sure we don’t give them access to dangerous objects or objects we don’t want destroyed while providing them with access to objects and areas where they can safely explore and learn proper behaviors. For example, I don’t need to teach my dog not to chew on the table leg. I can restrict access to the table and provide them with plenty of appropriate chew options. Once they are reliable with those, gradually increase access to the table, at first with active vigilance and then gradually relaxing. Preventing mistakes is the best way to create great habits!

puppy socialization

Teresa stresses the importance of training both in and out of the home.

Tips for socializing your puppy outside the home

Socializing outside the home needs to be done with some extra care to avoid unnecessary exposure to pathogens or traumatizing events. It’s important to realize we will never have full control of the environment surrounding us, and that becomes even more true once we leave the comfort of our homes.

Will that off-leash dog be fully vaccinated, and are they sound-minded, or will they scare our puppy? Is that screaming child approaching us going to be too scary or too exciting for our puppy? How can I ensure none of this becomes a setback?

Personally, I think it’s important to plan our outings with young puppies according to their age and level of exposure to that environment. If my puppy has never seen a bus before, taking them to the bus station for 2 hours is surely going to be overwhelming! I prefer to take my puppies to increasingly challenging environments and keep their adventures short but sweet. I tend to control their interactions with dogs and people to ensure they don’t get overwhelmed with those, either. I have no problem picking up my puppy and removing them from a potentially uncomfortable situation before it even gets to that point. I prioritize my puppy’s feelings over the sad person who did not get to pet them or the frustrated dog who did not get to bulldoze them while playing.

What to avoid during puppy socialization?

The main thing to avoid during puppy socialization is overexposure and overexcitement. Meeting 200 people in 2 hours is not going to be better than meeting 3 people properly in the same time frame. If I overexpose my puppy to novelty, I am going to remove their ability to process these novel experiences and instead create anxiety. It’s important to give them plenty of processing breaks. While we tend to focus on how much or how little to physically exercise young puppies, we forget how much mental stimulation and mental processing actually impacts their well-being! For my own puppies, I measure their outdoor adventures by how many people they have seen, how many buses they heard, or how long they got to explore that patch of dirt. If I measure their exercise by how much their little brains are taking in, I will surely have a properly exercised puppy.

The other main thing to avoid is accidentally giving the notion that the outdoors is for activity only. If you take your puppy out for a walk and constantly give them lots to do, you will miss out on exposing them to the amazing concept of nothingness. In your eagerness to expose them to as much as possible, you may forget to take them to chill out or nap in new places. Sometimes, it’s going to be important to be able to be outside and just relax, like if you take your dog for a full-day event. Think about a dog that’s unable to relax at a weekend-long dog show or sports event and how exhausting and overwhelming that would be! This is why a lot of my puppies’ outdoor exposure includes napping in a variety of places and contexts.

Extra tips for successful socialization

Let’s not forget socialization includes concepts like grooming or veterinary care, so make sure you begin exposing your puppy right away to these procedures, keeping it short and sweet. If you can manage to introduce gentle handling and grooming when your puppy is already relaxing, and you keep the procedures stress and pain-free at this early stage, you have a higher chance of your puppy associating handling with relaxation and thus being more cooperative for these procedures throughout their life.

Another thing to consider is that puppies have no clue of what we desire from them or what behaviors we’d rather not see. So no matter what it is or how small it seems, always let your puppy know they have done something right. It doesn’t matter if they peed on the correct place or were able to settle down quickly at your best friend’s home or if they controlled themselves and didn’t jump up on that excited child to say hello. Puppies need to be told what we like so that they will be more inclined to repeat those behaviors. Reinforcing good behavior can come in the form of praise, cuddles, access to a place or a smell, play, or a treat. I always recommend you vary your reinforcers as much as possible from a young age so your puppy learns all of these options are valid and valuable.

Finally, as a veterinary behaviorist who runs puppy classes, I highly recommend you find a program and enroll with your new puppy as soon as you are able to. No matter how experienced you are, for how long you have had dogs, or even how many dogs you have at home, a properly run puppy class that focuses on socialization and human-dog bond will always be an amazing opportunity to provide your dog with great exposure to novelty, in a safe, controlled environment. It’s a golden opportunity no one should ever miss out on. Attending puppy class will also show what your puppy’s social strengths and weaknesses are, allowing you to customize their socialization to their specific needs and enhance your chances for success even more!

Teresa can be found online at ABComportamento. You can also follow her business on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to find resources and videos on dog behavior.