I’ve been a dog trainer for almost 20 years. In that time, I’ve been thrilled to see a growth in the awareness of the need for dog socialization. Twenty years ago you rarely heard anyone talking about socialization. Now it’s heard fairly frequently. This is great news because socialization, when it’s done right, can have a dramatic impact on a dog’s life. But the key is…”when it’s done right.” There are two common misunderstandings about socialization that sometimes get in the way of doing it right.
1. The first misunderstanding is that socialization just means introducing the dog to a bunch of new stuff. Mere exposure to things is not socialization. It’s true that dogs, especially puppies under 4 months of age, need exposure to new environments, people, and animals. But socialization is not just introducing dogs to novel things. In order for socialization to be effective, your dog needs positive associations with the novel things he encounters.
- For puppies this is vital. The importance of socialization for a puppy under 4-months of age lies in the fact that positive experiences can have long-lasting effects on your dog’s behavior. You are shaping the puppy’s view of his world at a stage in the puppy’s life when he is receptive to learning. Positive experiences help him learn that new things are fun, and hopefully he’ll remember the good association when he encounters them again later. However, fearful experiences at this age can also have long-lasting effects. Your dog can learn parts of the world are terrifying.
- During socialization, if a dog of any age is hiding, drooling, bolting to the end of the leash, shaking, clawing, or yelping, then he is not having a positive experience with his environment. You either need to change your method of socialization or you may need assistance from a trainer.
So how do you best socialize your dog? For every introduction and new environment, follow these basic rules
- Create space: Keep your distance from the new situation or person until the dog shows a willingness to move forward
- Use treats: Feeding tasty treats (chicken, liver, beef, cheese) to your dog while he is experiencing something new will help create a positive association for the dog. Additionally, one of my biggest reasons for using treats is that if your dog suddenly stops eating, that can be your first warning signal that your dog is getting nervous. When an animal enters a fearful state, he will normally stop eating. You have a built in alarm system to your dog’s feelings! Use it.
- Go slowly: The dog sets the pace, not you. If your dog needs 5 minutes, give him 5 minutes. Forcing him to go faster will generally backfire and make the dog more scared. Ever watched kids in line to see Santa? If they are crying from 10 feet away, do they become more or less upset when they are suddenly plopped on Santa’s lap? Usually more. Same with your dog.
If the methods above do not seem to be working with your dog, you may have stumbled upon the second misunderstanding about socialization:
2. Socialization is not the same as behavior modification. If your dog is having a hard time getting comfortable around specific groups of people (men, children, people with hats, etc) or environments (on a walk, in a car, on the leash, etc), you do need to help him. But the solution may not be socialization (and if you are going to try socialization, please refer back to #1…mere exposure is not socialization).
- If you have a puppy under 4 months of age showing excessive fear of new situations (backing away, hiding, yelping, clawing at you), you have a behavioral emergency on your hands. Get help now by contacting a good trainer in your area.
- If you have an adult dog who is seems afraid of other dogs or people, or you can’t take him for walks because he’s barking non-stop, you will benefit from working one on one with a dog trainer or animal behaviorist who can help you create a behavior modification program for your dog. In these situations socialization by itself may not be enough.
I hope everyone will get out and socialize their dog. Follow the basic rules about socialization and be mindful of the two misunderstandings about socialization in order to set yourself up for success.
Do you know of other problems with socialization? I’d love to hear about them.