Twenty years ago the words “dog socialization” was practically unheard of except by a handful of people who worked professionally with dogs. Today, while the concepts related to the socialization of dogs have become part of common knowledge, the problem remains that people seem unsure as to what good dog socialization entails. Today I am going to dispel some myths, discuss what safe and effective dog socialization should include, and what to stay away from.
The purpose of socialization is to introduce your dog, in a controlled way, to a wide variety of new situations, new people, sights, sounds, and smells. Ideally this socialization should occur very early in the life of a puppy to keep him from becoming overwhelmed and fearful later on in life. There are critically important windows of development that all young puppies go through and if proper attention is not paid to effective socialization, then fear imprinting will cause them to be unnecessarily fearful whenever they are faced with an unfamiliar situation.
When socialization is effectively carried out, it results in a dog that has the confidence to be able to comfortably handle new situations without emotionally shutting down, resorting to fear, or fear aggression.
The optimal time for a puppy to start having new gentle social experiences is at the very young age of 4 weeks old. By the time a puppy is just 14 weeks old, missing crucial socialization windows can cause the puppy to not only be fearful but to have a very difficult time getting past his fears. Desensitization to prevent fears is far simpler than trying to rehabilitate the fearful adolescent or adult dog later in life.
Socialization Of The Mature Dog
Sadly, many second chance dogs that are adopted these days have had either no socialization or very little exposure to socializing experiences. It is for this reason that many of these dogs have paralyzing fears whenever they are exposed to any new experiences. They simply lack the ability to know how to process the stimuli of the new situations. These dogs either shut down emotionally or they lash out in an aggressive attack hoping to drive away the new fear inducing object.
The process of socializing the mature dog, while possible, can be a painstaking slow process and needs to be approached a little differently than when working with a puppy. With puppies socializing only involves the introduction of new experiences. With the mature dog, socialization is a combination of the introductions of new experiences combined with the desensitization to any previously developed fears to the experience and the addition of new coping skills. This is why the socialization process takes longer for the mature dogs.
Socialization Versus Exposure, Behaviour Modification, And Flooding
The concept of socialization seems to be simple enough at first. To socialize just place your dog into new situations and he learns how to be comfortable with it, right? Wrong. If socialization is done incorrectly, it actually has the opposite effect on dogs. Overwhelming frightening situations will actually cause even more fear and apprehension in dogs.
3 Common Socialization Myths
The first myth is that people think that to socialize a dog you just have to put the dog into new situations. This is NOT socialization, this is called exposure. Proper socializing requires exposing dogs to new situations in a measured and controlled way so that they can make a positive association with the new situation. He has to feel safe and in control while he is faced with the new situation. If you expose the dog to the new experience and the dog has bad or fearful experience, he will go on to equate the new thing as a negative experience. That is the opposite of a positive socializing experience.
Alone, the act of exposing a dog to fearful experiences will not automatically cause the dog to suddenly get beyond his fears. Behaviour modification (changing how they feel about a situation) is used to help a dog overcome his fears. The purpose of socialization is used to present the dog with new experiences in the hopes that it prevents him from becoming fearful in the first place.
The third myth assumes that if you fully immerse the dog into the fearful situation (flooding) he will have no choice but to face his fears and he will be able to get past the fears. Not necessarily true. Think about it for a moment. If someone is deathly afraid of snakes, is putting him into a room full of snakes going to be helpful in them getting over their fear of snakes? Most likely not. They will probably just shut down with fear. Socialization differs from flooding because the exposure to the stimuli is fully controlled and adjusted to the needs of the dog by keeping him under his fear threshold.
Principles For Puppy Socialization Versus Adult Dog Socialization
Do dogs have different socialization requirements depending on their age? Yes they do.
Puppy Socialization Needs
Puppies come into the world as a blank canvas. Beyond their natural temperaments, the sum of their experiences will constitute their likes, dislikes, and their fears. A dog’s behaviours are shaped during early puppyhood. The more new situations that puppies can be gently exposed to, the more confident and relaxed they will be as adult dogs.
The eminent Behaviourist, Dr. Ian Dunbar, when asked about the importance of early puppy socialization in creating a confident dog recommends,
…your puppy should ideally meet a hundred different people before he is eight weeks old and then meet an additional one hundred people during his first month at home. He also wisely points out the socialization process does not end in puppyhood. In order to continue having a well- rounded friendly confident dog, the dog needs to continue to have social experiences through adulthood. Socialization is a process not a destination.
Noted author and Dog Trainer Pat Miller, also points out that effective socialization to other dogs at an early age is crucial to creating a balanced and confident dog. Miller states that if dogs do not learn how to read and interpret dog language
… during the pups’ critical learning period, well before the age of six months, you may end up with a “canine nerd” whose inept use of physical and postural language gets him into constant trouble.
Expose Your Puppy To:
People: with beards, wearing glasses, wearing hats, carrying umbrellas, carrying packages, men, women, children, and crying babies.
Objects: shiny things, loud things, things that move, things with wheels, motorized things, machines that make noise, large things, small things, indoor things, doors, stairs, telephones, TV’s, outdoor things, light posts, garbage cans, lawns, trees, and open skies.
Animals: small animals, large animals, other dogs, cats, birds, and yes even the sight of the dreaded squirrel.
Basically, to create a confident dog, puppies need to be exposed to EVERYTHING in a gentle and controlled fashion as soon as possible.
Create a Safe Controlled Experience
- Show your dog that you are willing to step in to be his protector during this process and that it is safe for him to trust you. During this process you can also work on creating a trusting relationship bond with your dog. Show him that everything is fine and encountering new things is no big deal.
- Pay careful attention to the distance between the puppy and the new person or object. Don’t force the puppy to approach the new object too quickly. Let the puppy set the pace according to the level his own confidence. If the puppy is thrashing about trying to flee, hide, is shaking, profusely drooling, or crying then the puppy is not having a positive experience. You need to either increase the distance between the puppy and the new object or you need to find a better approach to introduce your puppy to this new experience.
- Help the puppy associate the new experience with pleasant things. This is a good time to offer yummy High Value treats to mark confident behaviour. In addition to treats, you can also use praise and touch to help make this a rewarding and positive experience.
TIP: Did know that you can use your dog’s willingness to eat food as a gauge for how well he is coping with a new experience? When a dog is overwhelmed and fearful he shuts down emotionally and will refuse to eat food. If your puppy refuses to eat a treat that he normally loves, then this is a sign that you need to either create more distance between the new object and the puppy or that your puppy is not ready for this new experience.
Safe And Gentle Ways To Socialize A Puppy
There are many ways that you can introduce new experiences to your puppy but each new exposure must be kept positive and fully controlled by you. Remember to always keep the situation under control, carry lots of treats, and keep the experience happy and positive. You must not force your puppy into anything that he is not ready to handle. And also remember that it is better to keep these experiences short. Shorter frequent encounters rather than long but infrequent ones.
Something to keep in mind; When a young pup starts sexually maturing he turns into a testosterone jockey and she turns into raging hormone queen. This will affect how they are going to interact with other dogs in their environment. Unfixed dogs can lead to continual dominance issues and play a negative role in the relationships they have with other canines.
Daily Walks Around Your Neighbourhood
What better way to familiarize your puppy to the sights and sounds of the neighbourhood than with walk. It can not only help socialize your puppy but it can give some much needed gentle exercise to your puppy. A puppy is much calmer when it has an avenue for all of its energy.
Enrollment into Puppy Obedience Classes or Socialization Classes
All puppies should be given the experience of learning how to behave appropriately around other people and dogs. A good class will provide a structured environment that both exposes your dog to new experiences as well as guides the dog to teach it social appropriateness. A good class will allow for free play but it must still be supervised to correct inappropriate social behaviours. Allowing puppies to play in an out of control manner only serves to teach each other bad behaviours and allows for some puppies to start developing fears around other dogs.
Nature Trails And Outdoor Parks
These outings can deliver both gentle exercise as well as opportunities to meet many new people. This is a good way to make use of a lot of new faces and many new sights and smells.
As long as the outdoor event does not have overly loud noises, like crashing, banging, loud music, loudspeakers, or fireworks, small fundraising activities or social gatherings provide lots of new people and experiences for your puppy.
Organized Puppy Play Dates
You can get together with other puppies to have a fun play date at someone’s home or at the park. But pay careful attention so your puppy is not overwhelmed by an incompatible dog temperament. Find dogs of similar size and play style as your puppy and this way your puppy will have a fun positive experience.
Most pet stores happily oblige dog owners and allow them to bring their dogs into the store. Be on the alert for out of control dogs or clueless owners. If you encounter a dog who is overly rough or out of control, you must quickly remove your puppy or the pet store experience will not be equated with a positive experience.
The Dog Park Experience
Once your puppy has its vaccinations you may consider taking your puppy to a dog park provided that:
- You can ensure that you puppy is not going to get accosted by rude, aggressive off leash dogs.
- The park is clean, safe, and fully fenced for safety.
If you are lucky enough to have a quiet safe dog park that provides a safe place for puppies to play or interact with other dogs and you take your puppy during off peak hours, then a dog park may be used as part of puppy socialization process.
But, if the park has heavy dog traffic or is frequented by aggressive or out of control dogs then pass on this experience until your puppy is much older and has more experience. If your puppy has the frightening experience of being attacked or bullied by another dog then this will not be a positive socializing experience for your puppy.
Socializing The Mature Dog
Behaviourist Dr. Ian Dunbar points out that
fewer than 25% of surrendered dogs are adoptable because of their problem behaviours, nearly all due to the lack of effective early socialization. Unlike working with the blank canvas of a young puppy, mature unsocialized dogs come in with baggage. They have developed fears, bad habits, and set ways that they behave in order to try and cope with the overwhelming nature of new experiences. These dog have no skills or tools to be able to cope with the overwhelming nature of a new experience so socialization of the mature dog is not just about exposing them to new experiences. This means that the socialization process of a mature dog will differ slightly from puppy socialization process.
Socializing The Adult Dog Involves
- The exposure to new experiences, PLUS
- The desensitization and counterconditioning to old fears, PLUS
- Helping the dogs to develop new tools and tolerances for coping with the stress of new experiences.
Safe And Gentle Ways To Socialize The Mature Dog
Many of the same methods of socialization that applies to puppies can be applied to mature dogs. However, you must allow for extra time to process the new information, distance to triggers to keep them under their reactivity threshold, and they must be given new tools for coping with their stress.
Just as with puppies, exposing dogs to an experience before they are ready and flooding dogs with stimuli is not setting dogs up for success. It only serves for them to equate the experience with a negative outcome so pay careful attention to the dog’s behaviours.
If they are hiding, panicking, drooling, crouching or becoming aggressive in a situation, then you need to remove them from that situation. They are not ready to have this experience yet. You may need to employ methods of desensitization and counterconditioning to the old experience before your dog can enjoy the benefits of exposure to the new experience. If your dog’s issues are severe you will most likely need to consult a behaviour specialist to help guide you in rehabbing your dog’s behaviours.
When the dog is ready you can use these social experiences as socialization
Doggy Daycare, Obedience Classes, Socialization Classes, Outdoor Events, Walks in the Park, Doggy Play Dates, visiting Pet Stores and finally Dog Parks.
A Word About Dog Parks And The Un-Socialized Mature Dog
Dog Parks and unsocialized dogs can be a real double edged sword. While it is true that they can offer your dog some much needed exercise and the opportunity to learn how to socialize with other dogs, for dogs that have no previous socialization skills, going to the dog park to learn how to socialize is a lot like dropping a non-swimmer into the middle of the lake so they can figure out how to swim.
Without the tools needed to socialize, your dog’s socialization attempts will most likely only end up in skirmishes or dog fights. Dogs should attend socialization classes FIRST, learn the how to’s of meeting other dogs before they are released into an off leash social situation like a dog park. You do not want the dog park experience to be associated with negative experiences.
Using The Well Balanced Dog As A Socialization Tool
A happy medium between the dog park and no social opportunities is to find an agreeable volunteer who has a very well socialized and well balanced dog. When unsocialized dogs meet a very skilled dog with great social skills, they are given a lot of latitude for making social mistakes. Well balanced dogs do not automatically launch into an attack when a social faux pas has been committed. This gives you time and opportunity to correct your dog’s behaviour and it also gives your dog appropriate social behaviours to mirror. This experience is far more likely to result in a positive outcome for your dog.
Always see YOUR dog and meet his needs. Always set your dog up for his greatest chance for success.
As always we welcome you, questions, comments, and stories regarding this topic. When we share our stories and our wisdom we may be helping someone who is struggling with their Snow Dog.
Helping All Snow Dogs … one owner at a time.