Puppy Series: Socialization, Let’s do it Right!
April 3, 2015
If you have a new puppy, chances are you have read or heard about the importance of socialization. Socializing puppies to a variety of experiences, surfaces, people, and places is extremely important to prepare them to become as mentally stable and confident as possible as adults. But it is equally important to make sure socialization is done in a way that is actually benefitting your puppy instead of being counterproductive.
What socialization is NOT: Socialization is NOT forced exposure or “flooding.” This chihuahua is NOT being socialized to cats. His body language is tense and unhappy, with squinty eyes, pinned ears, and a tight, tense mouth. Because this is an unpleasant experience for him, he may actually be learning to dislike cats. Exposure by itself is not adequate socialization. In addition, socialization does not stop when your puppy reaches an arbitrary age; it is common for puppies to go through “fear periods” throughout their first year of life where they may suddenly seem to “forget” their previous socialization. Continuing to work through these periods helps solidify their earlier socialization.
What socialization IS: Socializing is a lifelong process of pairing new things with positive experiences. Socialization to something new must always start at a level of exposure that is not scary (as decided by your puppy, not you), be paired with a positive reward (such as food or toys), and exposure gradually increases with increasing confidence. This puppy is being properly socialized to cats:
Her body language is relaxed, she is not forced to interact with the cat, and she is receiving yummy treats for being around the cat. (The cat is also being socialized to the puppy!)
Here is my puppy Toast being socialized to my neighbor’s dog. At first, Toast was afraid to even be in the same room with Jaeger. We spent a lot of time in the yard just allowing them to move around however they wanted, playing with them separately and giving both of them lots of treats. Soon, Toast began to form positive associations with Jaeger and didn’t mind being around him. In this picture my neighbor is handing out treats.
In this picture, Toast is being socialized to my scooter. It is very important that he not be afraid of it because he will be helping his big brother and sister pull it someday! I left the scooter in the yard, scattered delicious treats around the ground and the platform of the scooter itself and let him explore at his own pace. Soon, he was climbing happily on it. Later, I would throw him a handful of treats before moving the scooter around the yard.
To review and expand, the key points of socialization are:
- Do not force your puppy! Let his/her comfort level guide you. Stressed, fearful brains do not learn well, or learn the wrong things. If you ask strangers to feed your puppy treats and s/he seems afraid to take them, start over by approaching strangers only as closely as your puppy is still comfortable, then feed treats yourself. If your puppy is afraid to pass by an object like a fire hydrant, approach only as closely as your puppy is comfortable, then feed treats and walk away. Over time, your puppy should gradually be able to approach closer and closer to things s/he was previously afraid of.
- Pair new experiences with positive things. If a fire truck goes by, toss your puppy a handful of delicious treats or engage in a fun game of tug. For thunderstorms, give your puppy a favorite chew toy like a bully stick or stuffed kong.
- Think about all the things your puppy might be expected to do throughout his/her lifetime: Riding in the car, going to relatives’ houses, walking on various surfaces, etc. Try to ensure that your puppy encounters as many different people (tall, short, different genders, different skin colors, different haircuts or facial hair, even different outfits such as skirts, hats, or glasses), surfaces (grass, concrete, wood chips), pets (dogs, cats, small pets), etc. as possible.
- Dog parks are not good places to socialize puppies! There tend to be groups of rowdy adolescent and young adult dogs that are overwhelming for puppies, and you have no control over the personalities or play styles of dogs that other people choose to bring to a dog park. The risk of inadvertantly causing a fear of other dogs from negative experiences at the dog park is high. Instead, take your puppy to an age appropriate, supervised play group or visit one or two known stable adult dogs (friends’ or neighbors’ dogs) at a time.
- There is always a concern about whether puppies should be socialized out in public before their puppy vaccinations are completed. There is no one right answer to this question, because there are two opposing concerns that carry equal weight: 1. Before the vaccinations are completed, there is a risk of infectious diseases such as parvovirus and distemper 2. Waiting until vaccinations are completed delays socialization beyond what is usually considered the “critical window” when it has the greatest benefits for puppies. In general, in our immediate area the rates of vaccination are high and the incidence of diseases like parvivirus and distemper are very low. In our area, then, I tend to come out strongly in favor of socializing puppies before their vaccines are completed because it is so important. We see far more behavior problems, particularly fear-based behavior problems, than cases of parvovirus. However, neither approach is really wrong. Each of us has to assess our comfort level with the different risks for ourselves and our own puppies. If you are uncomfortable with taking your puppy out in public, it is even more important than usual that you enroll in a puppy class (a more controlled environment with extremely low risk of disease transmission).
- People sometimes worry that by using positive rewards during socialization, they will inadvertantly reward fear. Studies have shown that you cannot reinforce emotions. You can reinforce behavior – that is, if when your puppy is afraid, she paws at you and then you reward, your puppy may learn to paw at you more the next time. But you cannot reward the fear itself. Take care to only reward your puppy when s/he is exhibiting calm behavior and you cannot and will not reinforce fear, even if s/he is experiencing fear at the time.
- Take your puppy’s breed and individual personality into account. Genetics plays a large part in adult temperament. If we consider two puppies, their genetics may give them each a range of potential temperaments from very fearful to very confident. Even with absolutely perfect socialization, Puppy A may never be as confident as Puppy B has the potential to be. And even with no socialization whatsoever, Puppy B may never be as fearful as Puppy A has the potential to be. This is a gross oversimplification, but is just a reminder that you should not expect every puppy to have a cookie cutter personality, nor should you beat yourself up over doing something “wrong” if your puppy doesn’t grow up to be as confident as someone else’s dog. My puppy Toast, because of his breed, will never be the kind of dog who happily greets every stranger he meets in a friendly manner. However, I am socializing him to ensure that he will also not ever behave inappropriately when meeting strangers even if he feels suspicious.
There is so much more to socialization than exposing puppies to new things. Pay attention to your puppy’s body language, make sure these experiences are always positive, and as usual if you have any questions please feel free to contact the clinic to speak to one of our doctors!