THE SOCIAL PUPPY: Getting Along with Both Dogs and Humans

Just the other day, I popped into a small pet store to pick up some bully sticks for the puppies, when I ran smack into what was billed as a “puppy class,” intended for the purpose of socializing young dogs. There were eight or ten people there, and each of them had a puppy. There were a Siberian husky, a Chihuahua, a Lhasa apso, a golden retriever, a Jack Russell, and a few other puppies of breeds that I don’t recall.

The owners were gathered around in a circle, and the puppies were just going wild in the middle. There was no guidance whatsoever. The puppies were all different ages, different levels of energy, and all over the map in terms of social skills. To put it simply, it was chaos. I watched the Chihuahua—isn’t it always the Chihuahua?—taking over the class, dominating and then attacking the Siberian husky puppy. It wasn’t play anymore, it was escalating into an actual fight.

The teacher cried out in a teasing, high-pitched voice, “No, no no! We don’t do that in class!” Then, after the owner of the Chihuahua had pulled her puppy away, the teacher said, “Now let’s all give our dogs a cookie.” I wanted to cry out, “What for? What are yourewarding them for?” Fortunately, I reminded myself that I was at the store as a customer, not as the Dog Whisperer. I bit my tongue, paid for my bully sticks, and retreated back to the safety of my car, where I took a deep breath and thought long and hard about the meaning of the term puppy class.

To me, a puppy class should be about reinforcing manners, fostering calm-submissive energy, and teaching proper social behavior. My dream puppy class would mirror the kind of education a puppy would get in a natural pack, where there’d be a wise old senior dog like Daddy, an adult dog—maybe a mother dog with great caretaking skills—and a higher-energy, adolescent dog like Junior. The adult dogs would all be balanced and experienced, show the puppies limits, and offer them good role models to emulate.

There would be a few puppies, of course, and at least one experienced human to supervise. That’s the kind of puppy class I would like to offer at the new Dog Psychology Center, a class in which puppies can practice social behavior with their peers but be overseen by older, wiser dogs—as well as responsible human pack leaders.

Dogs are among the most social of all animals. That’s one of the things they have most in common with humans, and it’s one of the reasons our two species have become so bonded over the past tens of thousands of years. You may have trained your puppy to sit, stay, come, heel, get the paper, carry your slippers, or turn out the light before barking “Good night,” but if he doesn’t get along well socially with humans or other dogs, you haven’t got a balanced puppy. And if your puppy isn’t balanced, he won’t grow up to be a dog that gets to experience all the joys and adventures of life.


Socializing your puppy to people should begin from the first moment you arrive at your home. All the members of your family, including all children, need to understand how to greet the puppy, and how to share calm-assertive energy. You need to explain to even your smallest children that your new puppy is not a toy but a living being, and that in order to acclimate him to his new home, they will need to refrain from showering him with all the affection and excitement they surely must be feeling, at least at the very beginning.

Everyone in your home, from the youngest child to the oldest grandparent, needs to be educated in and committed to the rule of no touch, no talk, no eye contact. When the puppy arrives, children should not be crowding around it topet and play with it. Instead, they should quietly allow the puppy to smell them, then let the primary caretaker put the puppy in its safe place or crate.

“The new pup needs to associate entering your home with calmness, not excitement. He may be stressed and not feeling well due to the change in environment and from the car ride,” advises Diana Foster. “He doesn’t need to be petted at this point. He needs to be left alone to adjust at his own pace. You will have this dog for many years, and there will be plenty of time to pet him and be with him once he has adjusted to his environment, has bonded to you, and respects you as leader. All these things take time and there is no need to rush it.”

But even after thirty years of success in training and breeding prize German shepherds with calm, even temperaments, Diana still finds that new puppy owners take offense at this counsel.

It’s not easy for a child to hold back from playing with a new puppy, which is why parents need to be educated in order to supervise. Puppies coming into a new home are often in their reticent stage, as well as naturally unsure about the new situation. Children coming on too strong to a timid or insecure puppy can intimidate him, and such affronts, if repeated, can create a dog that is either too shy or fearful or, worse, fearfully aggressive.

This can lead to a bite, and the tendency is to blame the puppy for being aggressive. On the other hand, an outgoing, active puppy may tempt children to play too vigorously, raising the puppy’s level of excitement to an intensity that may be hard to temper as he grows bigger and bigger. “The biggest problem we have is kids on the floor, with roughnecking, tug-of-war, play-biting, and scratching, and the dog gets too rough,” says Diana. “It’s all about prevention. And the kids, it’s so hard nowadays because parents tend to spoil these kids.

They let them do whatever they want. Then the dog gets big and out of control and starts hurting the kids. Now the family doesn’t want him anymore, because he’s not cute and fun; he’s doing damage.”


  • Don’t introduce an excited child to a puppy. Teach your kids early about the concept of calm-assertive energy. 
  • Teach children how to greet a dog properly, by using the no touch, no talk, no eye contact rule until the dog signals that it wants to have more interaction.
  • When the puppy first arrives, make sure the children limit their engagement with it for the first few days, and that they always interact in a calm, quiet manner. 
  • Educate your kids about leadership, and show them how to block a puppy’s excitement if he begins to play too rough. It may seem cute in a tiny puppy, but it could become dangerous as the dog grows up. 
  • Don’t ever let a child tease a puppy. 
  • Discourage rough games such as wrestling, tug-of-war, keep-away, and play biting, and encourage your children to master the walk and to engage in challenging activities such as fetch, swimming, and agility games. 
  • Teach children that all games with a puppy need to have a beginning and an end.


The best strategy for preparing a puppy to meet a baby is by getting the puppy used to the baby’s scent, using a towel or T-shirt. Then take the puppy for a walk beside or behind you while you push the baby’s stroller up front. As always, the walk is the best way to create any kind of bond with a dog. But often, circumstances bring puppies and babies together face-to-face. Learning how to introduce your puppy to a baby is an important step toward socializing him to be polite and respectful of all children.

To demonstrate how to introduce a puppy to an infant or very young child, I asked Dog Whisperer field producer Todd Henderson to lend me his wife, Lindsey, a vet tech and experienced dog owner, and their new son, Hunter, just three months old. The wonderful thing about both a puppy and a baby is that each starts with the advantage of not having any issues. Our job is to help them to grow together with that same mentality.

To begin the exercise, Lindsey sat on the floor of my family room with Hunter in her lap. The baby had just eaten and was in a beautifully calmsubmissive state. To this peaceful tableau I added five month-old Mr. President, who came in with a totally different energy—a classic, pushy, bulldog way of being. At first,

Mr. President got excited by the baby and ran right up to him, putting his feet on Lindsey’s leg and starting to lick Hunter’s face. Some parents might think, “Oh how cute,” but Lindsey knew better—that kind ofapproach is too much, for both puppy and baby. With a firm touch, Lindsey made Mr. President step back, creating an invisible boundary around Hunter ’s space. Once he stepped back, however, Mr. President became very uncertain about Hunter. He growled, then started to bark excitedly. In translation,

Mr. President was expressing his uncertainty, fear, or mistrust of the baby—the baby was a new scent for him, something he didn’t understand. His bark was also an expression of alert—since we don’t have babies in my house on a regular basis, Mr. President was alerting his pack that “something new is in the house!” We needed to help Mr. President lose that uncertainty, because that could become aggression toward this baby or toward babies and children in general.

I often get letters and e-mails describing real-life situations similar to our little experiment with Lindsey and Hunter. People write, “My puppy started growling at my baby; what do I do?” Often when this happens, people become afraid and react very emotionally. They start having negative feelings about the dog and creating bad energy. At this point, owners need to stay absolutely neutral and try to understand where the dog is coming from. What I did in our exercise was to address the barking and growling immediately, with the calm-assertive sound “Tssst,” which tells Mr.

 Presidentthat I don’t agree with his state of mind. He turned away from Hunter, but herelaxed. This was progress, from fight (aggressively confronting the baby andgrowling), to flight (running away from the baby), to avoidance (being nearthe baby but ignoring him). Finally, I got the reaction I was seeking—submission—when Mr. President plopped down and stretched out right in frontof the baby. Still, I maintained an invisible boundary between him and Hunter.This is so important to teach puppies. All dogs must understand the “bubble ofrespect” that surrounds all human babies.

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