The First Eight Weeks: Socializing Puppy Litters in a Shelter or Foster Home

The first few weeks of a puppy’s life are critical to its mental and social development. A puppy isolated from the world during this time may develop a fear of social contact and may have poor learning and problem-solving abilities. Insufficient socialization can lead to hyperactivity, over-reactivity, emotional rigidity, anxiety, fear, and aggression.

Shelters and fosters raising a litter of puppies can have an enormous positive impact on the future of the puppies by understanding the following concepts and suggestions.

What you should know:

  • During the Neonatal Period (birth to 12 days), puppies need to be exposed to mild environmental stressors, such as changes in surface texture and temperature.
    • Stimulation as little as 3 minutes a day has a positive impact on a puppy’s resistance to disease, emotional reactivity, and adult learning and problem-solving ability.
    • The puppies should be handled a few times a day.
    • Try rubbing their bodies against warm and cold towels.
    • Nail trimming should start as soon as week 1.
    • Gradually expose them to different sounds (doorbells, vacuums, hairdryers, vehicles, horns, barking dogs, kids playing, etc.) starting at low levels.
  • Major changes happen during the Transitional Period (12 days to 3 weeks). Puppies become more active and start walking as early as day 12. Their eyes open (12 to 14 days), and ears open (20 to 21 days). They start eliminating independently of maternal stimulation.
    • During this time, novel stimuli (e.g., toys, cold bottles) should be introduced to the whelping box.
    • The puppies can be moved for a few minutes into a different room (e.g. kitchen area, bedroom, living room).
    • At about 3 weeks, expose the pups to other friendly, healthy dogs and a variety of new people.
  • The Socialization Period is a critical period of development that happens in two phases. The Primary Socialization Period is between 3 to 5 weeks and the Secondary Socialization Period is between 6 to 12 weeks. During the Socialization Period, the puppy learns how to communicate and relate to other dogs, humans, and its environment.
    • Acclimate the pups to various substrates including carpet, smooth floors, tile, etc.
    • Starting with week 4, the puppies should begin to experience the outdoors.
    • Between weeks 5 to 8, familiarize the pup to grooming tools, ear cleaning, drinking and eating from a bowl, training with treats, wearing collars, and leash walking.
    • At weeks 6 – 7 separate puppies from their litter for short periods of time to help accustom them to being alone. It can be a shock to a puppy to go from sleeping near several siblings to being alone in a crate and you need to help the dog gradually transition.

What else can you do?

  • Acclimate puppies to crates and playpens, leaving them with a “puppy pal” (soft toy to cuddle with) and proper chew toys.
  • Allow pups to investigate in the yard, teaching them to walk up and down a stair or two as opposed to carrying them in and out.
  • Take the pups out in the rain. Many dogs have accidents during inclement weather because they aren’t yet comfortable going outside.
  • Work on house training to help get the new owner off to the right start.
  • Take car trips, especially to the veterinarian’s office. The pup’s first experience with the veterinarian should not be a cold, motorized table and vaccination needles. Acclimate the pup to the motion of cars to avoid car sickness.
  • Control puppy play and start teaching bite inhibition. Bullies that play rough with the others should be removed for a few seconds from the play area. Upon return, if the rough play continues, they should be separated again until they learn how to play appropriately. If the puppy nips while you are playing, yelp and stop the game for a few seconds.
  • The mom will naturally wean the puppies off starting around week 6 or 7.

Beyond the first eight weeks in a puppy’ life, caregivers should also understand that between 8 and 12 weeks, puppies experience a Fear Imprint Period, where traumatic experiences to stimuli that induce fear may be generalized and produce lifelong aversion responses. As a result, elective surgery should be put off until after week 12, and veterinary visits should be made positive with treats.

The critical steps to a puppy’s social and mental development occur during its first 8 weeks. Understanding the stages of development during these early weeks and consistently following the suggestions discussed here will help puppies avoid the consequences of poor socialization.


Blake, M. (2007). The dog trainer’s resource: the APDT chronicle of the dog collection. Wenatchee, Wash.: Dogwise Pub..

Lindsay, S. R. (2000). Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. Ames: Blackwell Pub..

Martin, K. M., & Martin, D. (2011). Puppy start right: foundation training for the companion dog. Waltham, MA: Karen Pryor Clickertraining.