This Trainer’s view on Socialization
Socialization - It’s a term I hear from new puppy owners over and over, and it’s one of those words that doesn’t mean what you think it means, at least not as it relates to raising a puppy.
A quick look at the dictionary reveals two definitions:
The activity of mixing socially with others
The process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society
Most people think that socializing a puppy relates to definition #1, when in fact, it relates to definition #2.
Your job, especially in the first few months of your pup’s life with you, is to teach and set your expectations for their long term behavior, socially, in this case.
I get a ton of calls for young dogs (6-18 mos old) that can’t control themselves around other dogs, even on a walk with the other dog across the street. My #1 call is dogs that get so excited when meeting new people that they can’t control themselves and jump all over the place.
These problems all begin with a lack of appropriate socialization.
People are often amazed when I pull Angus and Hope (my personal dogs) off the truck and they either outright ignore them, or listen intently to my directions to heel with me, sit and get petted calmly.
Why the big contrast? It isn’t anything inherently special about the dogs. It’s truly in how they were raised and socialized. If you don’t believe me, head out to any competitive venue where there are dogs, be it agility, obedience, field trials or schutzhund. You’ll notice pretty quickly, none of those dogs are running up to the many strangers and other dogs they see. They aren’t flipping out, pulling their leash and barking like crazy. In fact, they aren’t paying attention to those things at all!
You might think, well of course they aren’t Darrin - they’re super well trained, and I’m not a dog trainer, nor interested in competing! I don’t expect my dog to do all that crazy stuff! I just want them to walk civilly and greet Grandma without breaking her hip!
I understand this, believe me, I do. I competed with my personal dogs and trained working dogs for about a decade. I wasn’t a dog trainer when I started out either! I had to learn the basics, some through coaches but a lot through trial and error. I’ve always had a dog that paid attention to me in public though. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was those old books that all say “you should be the center of your dog’s world”.
If you ask around you’ll find some differing opinions on socialization. Some trainers, competitors and owners believe pretty strongly in allowing young pups to play with dogs outside their household pack. Many allow strangers to give their dogs treats and attention in an effort to make people “friendly”. I understand the base strategy here. Make all those things awesome, then rein pup in with solid obedience training later. I get it, really, I do, but I think it’s risky (what if pup has a bad experience?) and adds a lot of work to the equation (shifting pup’s focus to you after they learned otherwise).
Personally, and throughout the working dog world (as I know it), the focus is on ignoring these very attractive distractions. Yes, you read that correctly - from the very start, puppies are taught to ignore strange people and other dogs, focusing fully on the directions of their handler.
You may think you’re cheating your puppy out of a lot of fun here, but I assure you, you’re not cheating them out of anything. If you are to be the center of their world, which you really should be, spending the time and effort to make your bond, and subsequently, your life together their number one priority is time well spent.
Here are some do’s and don’ts from my perspective for socialization.
Do begin with the end in mind. If you want your dog to behave calmly around strangers and other dogs, then start teaching them from day one that this is the expectation. This is a simple matter of restricting their access to these things while they are present in the environment, then paying them handsomely (usually with food) for placing their attention on you. When people or dogs appear - the right behavior is to look at you, eye contact triggers treats!
Don’t coddle a timid pup. If your puppy behaves in a timid way, be careful not to coddle and reassure them verbally! This sounds just like praise for a job well done. You are promoting this timid behavior with your touch and soft, lovely voice. Just ignore their fearful reaction, get some distance from the distraction and again - pay them for voluntary eye contact!
Don’t reward the wrong behavior. Never use food to bribe your dog’s attention away from a distraction. If they are straining on their leash, they are pulling into their collar (ditch the harness!). This isn’t comfortable, so, if you just stand like a post and let them strain, they will eventually give up and come back to you! This is the time to pay! If you place food on their nose while they are straining away from you - you just promoted that behavior. This can take a lot of patience but believe me - it pays off! Be sure pup is hungry when you do these exercises (use an upcoming meal for rewards).
Don’t be a chatterbox! No talking! Except for your verbal praise word, which should come just before any food is delivered as a reward for voluntarily placing their attention on you!
Do get out and about early and often. Socialization begins on the day your puppy comes home! Be that 7 weeks or 12 weeks, or whenever you get them. They’re learning how to behave socially, so start teaching them correctly, right from the beginning. Be careful where you go until they receive their second set of booster shots (12 weeks), then get into full swing.
Do have FUN! Remember, you’re teaching here. Have patience with your pup, especially if they’re on the shy side. Make it fun! Praise enthusiastically and give that puppy hot dogs or chicken or whatever their favorite treat turns out to be!
Do worry if your puppy isn’t “food motivated”. The vast majority of pups are chow hounds. Not having an appetite in a new environment is a sign of severe emotional stress. Seek professional help if your pup won’t accept a nice food reward when out and about!
Don’t go to the dog park, puppy social or day care! These places are a free for all! Think Lord of the Flies! They are not appropriate venues for socialization!
Don’t waste your time and money on “group class”. Here’s a little secret. Most of the adolescent pups I see for problem solving went through a puppy class at Petsmart or somewhere else, did absolutely fine and still developed problem behaviors before they were a year old. Do a good job of socialization and let someone show you how to work 1:1 with your pup. Build a good bond and base of attention on yourself before you go to a group class. There’s a time when it’s appropriate, but not now!
Finally, and I can’t stress this enough - DO MAKE THIS ONE OF YOUR TOP SHORT TERM PRIORITIES!
I could go on and on here based on the things I’ve seen, good, bad and ugly with puppy raising. This is by no means what I’d consider the encyclopedia (remember those?) of socialization.
Just remember - socialization is the art of TEACHING your puppy how to behave in a social situation. You wouldn’t just give your 16 year old keys to the car and say “Have at it Kid”... Don’t just throw your pup into a situation and let them figure it out on their own. What you do (or don’t do) now is going to set the stage for a lifetime.
On Command serves an awesome group of clients serious about having well behaved dogs in Swedesboro, East Greenwich, Mullica Hill and surrounding areas. We bring almost 2 decades of experience right to your door. We can be found on the web at oc-dog.com, Facebook at oncommanddog and on instagram @oc_dog_training
Thanks for reading and as always - good training!