Picking a Puppy, Part 5: Socialization with People, Littermates

Did you miss the previous installments?
Picking a Puppy, Part 1: Timing & Picking a Puppy, Part 2: Meet the Parents, Boy or Girl
Picking a Puppy, Part 2: Meet the Parents, Boy or Girl
Picking a Puppy, Part 3: Personality Testing
Picking a Puppy, Part 4: Buying Long Distance, Socialization


Before the pups are weaned at seven weeks, they need to be handled by people. Puppies not exposed to people from five to twelve weeks of age will have over-socialized with dogs and under-socialized with humans. This is called the “sensitive period” for dog-human bonding. Dogs that do not meet people until after the socialization period can be antisocial, hard to train and spooky. Some dogs will never be able to react normally to people throughout their lives; others may even develop a lifelong fear of humans if they are not properly exposed to us during these critical weeks.

Physical Contact with People

In order for puppies to adapt to living in human families, people should touch them starting at five weeks — but only for short periods. It is extremely important that the affectionate handling by people only happen once a day, briefly, so that the puppy can remain with her litter the rest of the time. This ensures that she will be well adapted to both people and other dogs.

The delicacy of timing and intensity of these human interactions with puppies are two of the many reasons that puppies born in huge breeding facilities are at a distinct disadvantage: “puppy-mill puppies” do not get these important benefits.

The “Sensitive Period” Cannot Be Made Up Later.

Once gone, that five-to-twelve-week window is gone forever. The loss of the individual development that comes during this period is probably going to leave a dog with behavior problems. It is believed that environmental circumstances explain most canine behavior — that means that the nature vs. nurture question falls heavily on “nurture” where dogs are concerned. Experts do not believe that a puppy’s personality problems can be inherited or that a puppy’s genes determine his temperament — his character is shaped by the environment he grows up in, particularly during this crucial sensitive period. A pup’s temperament is not “written” in his genetic code. Puppies are known to copy their mother’s behavior; they may mimic a growling or overly assertive mother, but the undesirable traits they mimic can be unlearned.

Between Three and Eight Weeks a Puppy Needs Exposure.

During these weeks a puppy needs to be exposed to a wide variety of things that she will encounter later when she has left her canine family. Puppies from mass-production breeders have no prayer of being shown potentially frightening objects and noises. With a responsible breeder you can hope that the litter has been exposed to stimuli such as vacuum cleaners, aerosol sprays, children, mail deliverers, cats, vehicle noises, etc.

This exposure should optimally continue up to twelve weeks of age and then on into the juvenile period.

Taking a Puppy Home at Around Eight Weeks

A puppy taken home at eight to twelve weeks has the best chance of fitting right into the new human family he is joining. By sixteen weeks it is already a more difficult transition, and eight weeks is considered the prime time — a puppy has the best chance of becoming a well-adjusted adult dog at this age. Human socialization begins during the end of the canine socialization period. During this time any good breeder knows the importance of handling the puppies frequently, showing them that contact with humans is a pleasurable event. Handling also lowers the puppy’s level of stress with new sensations and experiences, which helps prepare him for stressors in later life.


Combative play gets more intense among siblings, which helps develop a ranking order within the litter. These interactions have a lasting effect and help shape a puppy’s permanent personality into a dog who falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of timid, even-tempered or overtly aggressive.

Puppies do best in adapting to their new homes if they are removed from their litters between eight and twelve weeks. The benefit of this is that you avoid developing a puppy with a personality extreme from the effects of a dominance order from rough play — other littermate( s) dominate him into subordination — which is not helpful to living with people. It is for this reason that researchers have determined that when people are socializing puppies, the dogs should be removed from the litter to be handled (see below, under “Fear-Imprint Period”).

Staying with the Litter Past Twelve Weeks of Age

Puppies kept in a kennel by a breeder until they are twelve weeks and older can suffer from “Kennelosis” or “Kennel Syndrome.” Staying too long with his littermates can be a problem for a dog who is naturally shy. Staying with the litter past twelve weeks can actually have a downside for any dog: even three weeks past this time can result in dogs that lack confidence. This was proven by a study of guide dogs for the blind, which showed a disproportionate failure rate in those puppies who were left with their litters past twelve weeks: the dogs did not have the self-confidence to make independent decisions necessary to protect a blind person, who might give a command that could endanger him.

Being kennel-bound also means the dog has missed her socialization period with people: she will never really learn to fully identify with humans. Kennel Syndrome can also make a dog unable to handle stressful situations later in life. These dogs will most likely develop a general fearfulness of strange environments and new situations and be overly excitable or overly withdrawn. You can eventually overcome some of this deficit, but it takes patience, persistence and buckets of time and love.

Puppies that remain in the litter from the twelfth to fifteenth weeks develop into a dog pack, with their positions and a dominant-subordinate pattern established. If a puppy who is naturally not as strong and assertive as her littermates stays in the litter during this period — and if the others bully her and force her into a subordinate position — she may develop a shyness that will stay with her for life. To avoid the problem of chronic shyness in an adult dog, steer clear of any puppy who remained with the litter past sixteen weeks of age.

Eight to Twelve Weeks Is the Fear-imprint Period.

This period is an especially sensitive stage of the puppy’s growth: it is called the “fear-imprint” stage because if the puppy has a frightening experience now, the circumstances leading up to the scare will become deep-rooted, with the fear often staying with the dog for life. For this reason you should avoid even the possibility of the puppy having traumatic experiences during this month.

During this four-week fear-sensitive period, most puppies (and especially those that are particularly sensitive to new and “scary” things) should stay home, rather than run the risk of encountering something especially spooky. That may sound extreme, but whatever frightens a young dog during the fear-imprint period may very well frighten her for the rest of her life, so you might want to give her the extra measure of security by staying on familiar turf.

These four weeks are usually a puppy’s first weeks in her new home. Stay home and let her continue to play with you, your family and friends, and whatever dogs you already have that are the puppy’s new pack.

It is important that all contact with humans — including social visitors and service providers — be positive experiences. Avoid giving any corrections or reprimands to the puppy in these early weeks. Under no circumstances should you hit or even threaten to strike the little pup. Physical punishment of a dog is never a solution to a problem with a dog of any age, but it can be especially harmful at this stage of a puppy’s development.

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Copyright © Tracie Hotchner — Originally appeared in The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know by Tracie Hotchner