Socialization - Doing it Right is as Important as Doing it at all!
Updated: Aug 16
The first months of a dog’s life are a critical time in which they must be socialized with the people, places, and things we want them to like. As such, socialization is an opportunity to maximize a young puppy’s quality of life, and remedial socialization can also be a powerful technique that empowers even older dogs to be more confident, social, and well-behaved. But while it is clear that we should socialize, it is less clear exactly how to do it, and getting it right is just as important as doing it at all.
The biggest mistake can be summarized as confusing socialization with exposure alone. If we expose our dog to the vet's office when young, but every time they go they have a scary or painful experience, we will not achieve the outcome we want. Most puppies you know probably attended the vet's office at a young age, yet many of them remain nervous at the vet's despite that early exposure. What went wrong? Review these common socialization pitfalls below to ensure you're not just doing it, but doing it right.
TOO MUCH, TOO SOON
Experiences that seem trivial to us are often overwhelming for dogs. Do you remember your first walk through New York City's Times Square? The sights, sounds, and crowd were likely a lot to take in, and you probably spent several minutes just acclimating and looking around before your brain could filter out which stimuli to focus on, and which to disregard as background noise. Puppies' brains in particular need time to be sure something is safe before they begin to interact confidently. Help them by breaking new experiences into digestible pieces, and go at their pace. For example, the dog park is likely too much, too soon for a young pup. Try a single, similarly aged and sized new friend first, and work up from there only when the puppy is totally confident with each prior step.
Once again, exposure alone is not socialization; the key is positive exposure. If your dog is not making a positive association during exposure, you will get the opposite of the effect you want even though you genuinely thought you were socializing! Keep in mind that what is “bad” to a dog may not seem so bad to us, so make sure you see visible proof of a happy dog making good associations. From a puppy's perspective, the sights, sounds, and sensations of a bath are no different than how an attack in enclosed space with a firehose might feel to us! They need time and slow, positive exposure to learn the foreign concept and ritual of "bath time". Also be alert to ambiguous responses. Do not leave it up to your dog to make up their own mind on how they feel about things - intervene immediately with calm, warm praise and treats to ensure the positive association you want. We often hear owners lament that their dog is "suddenly" barking at trucks when out on walks, or lunging at bicycles whizzing by. It may seem like this discomfort came out of nowhere, but it's just as likely that the dog was NEVER comfortable with those stimuli in the first place. Perhaps when the dog was a pup, no one went out of their way to make sure they were having a positive experience because they were too young or not scared enough to react negatively at the time. But since then, the discomfort has only been building. Err on the side of caution and ensure your dog or puppy is truly having a good time during socialization sessions, even if it seems like they're okay.
A dog that sits calmly to greet people and a dog that leaps on them with joy are both well-socialized dogs in the sense that they like, are friendly to, and are not afraid of people. However, owners and visitors may prefer one dog’s behavior to the other. The same is true for a dog who joyfully overreacts when they see another dog outside. Actually, some of the dogs you see lunging and barking on leash at other dogs are neither dangerous nor aggressive - they are simply overexcited when they encounter other dogs (and usually pretty frustrated they can't get to them because of their leash). After all, as puppies they were encouraged to socialize with every dog they saw - and it was great! When the time is right, incorporate basic training into your socialization sessions as appropriate to ensure the best outcome. For example, once your puppy is confident with new dogs, it may be time to only allow calm greetings, and also to let puppy know that sometimes we don't get to meet the other dog - and that's okay. Teaching your dog to react appropriately once a they have learned new experiences, people, places, and things are likely safe is one key to maximizing their freedom and quality of life.
(1) Greeting guests - Once your dog enjoys meeting people, use houseguests to reinforce polite greetings. Coach visitors to only approach your leashed dog when they can keep all four feet on the floor.
(2) Puppy's first bath - Start a few days in advance of the real bath by sprinkling treats on the tub floor. Break down each new item and sensation into short, positive introductions, proceeding only as your pup is totally comfortable with the prior step.
(3) Loud noises - It is not uncommon for young puppies to appear to be okay with pretty much everything. DO NOT be lured into a false sense of security. This is a consequence of where they are at developmentally, and is no guarantee of how they will feel or react in the future. Be alert to common triggers like loud noises, fast-moving objects, or unusually dressed people (hats, umbrellas, large bags, etc.), and give your dog a treat for tolerating these new and startling phenomenon.