You hear it everywhere, “make sure you socialize your dog”, “If you don’t socialize your dog he will never like other animals or people”. Socialization is quite a vast term and is largely misunderstood by the masses. In fact, if done incorrectly it can actually cause more harm than good. It certainly is a very important aspect of the responsibility we have as pet owners so we should take it seriously. Let’s take a closer look to ensure we introduce this concept as effective and safely as possible.
I see very often in my line of work how an owner can really go wrong in training when the dog’s perception is not equal to the intention. We all want the best for our dogs and our efforts can at times inflict a negative experience and subsequently a negative reaction. So how does this apply to socialization exactly?
Socializing a Puppy
Let’s say for example, you get a new puppy. Most puppy training books and blogs suggest you expose them to at the least one new experience a day and interact with as many new dogs off leash as possible. While that is not bad advice, more should be considered in terms of execution on this suggestion. All dogs have a certain nature, typically based on genetics and early development with the mother and litter.
If your puppy is naturally timid and easily overwhelmed, then all this “socialization” can increase their insecurity. Watch their body language, it’s said that dogs never tell a lie. They always show you exactly how they are feeling, we just need to know what to watch for. Cowering, lowered tail and ears, dilated pupils, yawing, panting, shaking their body are all signs of being overwhelmed. As the puppy is flooded with stimulus that make it feel uncomfortable, they will begin to create negative associations. Those associations can eventually create reactivity and even aggression.
Best practice is to do what we trainers call, “working under threshold”. You expose a dog to certain situations and stimulus without causing emotional discomfort. Typically working on things low and slow does the trick. Instead of taking your puppy to the dog park and throwing him in the mix hoping he gets used to it, consider one or maybe two easygoing dog friendly dogs to get things started.
Even consider throwing in a few treats here and there to keep it extra fun and enjoyable. If ever you see your dog is not enjoying the interaction try to lessen or distance the interaction, take a quick break, or stop the session to start again at a later time. Bad experiences can last and create sometimes unchangeable notions, so investing your time, patience, and planning can really make a huge impact on your dog’s life forever.
Socializing an Adult Dog
It’s very important to evaluate why you are looking to socialize an adult dog as the steps involved vary from situation to situation. If your dog is already dog friendly then it’s ok to follow the steps you would for a puppy as listed above. Dogs that enjoy the company of other dogs can gain much from regular social interactions like mental and physical stimulation and strengthening their already present gregarious skills. You still must pay close attention to their comfort thresholds and proceed with the training accordingly.
If you ever use public places, especially ones that are heavily populated like that of fairs or parks to work on socialization, always remember to work slowly and watch your dog for their comfort levels. If you are going to a place or event your dog will not be comfortable, I would consider leaving them at home for a time more appropriate.
If your dog is afraid of other dogs then I would suggest working with a certified trainer to safely and effectively employ some counter conditioning exercises. This includes changing your dogs negative or uncomfortable association with the presence of another dog. This approach can be extremely effective but must be done slowly and carefully.
If your dog simply is not socially acceptable with others, then I would also suggest seeking a certified trainer to help you. The dog’s behavior threshold, triggers, and comfort levels all determine the appropriate advance. Never should general advice from a friend, something you read on the internet, or an assumption be used for specific behavior concerns.
Remember to understand that socialization is a broad term with many different perspectives on present skills and potential learning opportunities. Always work low and slow and never hold yourself or your dog to any perceived standard. You are a team with individual specific traits, so have fun with creating an interesting training path together.