The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – An Exposé on Socialization
By Lisa Kerley
Many people feel the key to a well-behaved dog is simply obedience. Although developing manners and polite behaviour is a vital part of any dog’s education, the early focus for raising your puppy should be good socialization. Socialization must occur during the critical imprinting period, which is over by 14-18 weeks of age. Failing to take advantage of this period will have a negative impact on your dog and can be very difficult to rectify. Dogs that “aren’t good with new people”, “need a few minutes to get to know you”, “aren’t good with men”, “get over-excited” or “take time to settle” are the direct result of a lack of early socialization.
What is socialization?
When you hear the term socialization, what do you think of? Many people think socialization means playing with other dogs and being pet and cuddled by people. Socializing your puppy well involves so much more:
- street noises and activities at all times of day
- walking at night
- experiencing different weather
- visiting other neighbourhoods
- walking on different surfaces
- being touched and handled in a variety of ways
- learning to wear a collar, harness, coat and being on leash
There are over 500 items on the hipPUPS™ socializing list. Wow! I bet you’re thinking there aren’t enough hours in the day to get even a fraction of it accomplished. Most people routinely walk their dog for 30-60 minutes. Instead of focusing on physical exercise, use the time to constructively socialize your pup. Take your pup daily to different places for different exposures and experiences. With a little planning you can incorporate multiple elements from the list in one exposure. For example, in a box store parking lot you can potentially expose your pup at a safe distance, to cars, trucks, motorbikes, lots of different types of people, shopping carts, automatic doors, forklifts, people pushing and carrying odd objects, voices over a loudspeaker and buzzers. Pretty impressive for one session that takes less than 30 minutes! And don’t worry; your pup will still be tired from all the stimulation!
Socialization with people:
Although all aspects of socialization need to be included to create a well-balanced, confident dog, proper and thorough socialization to people cannot be emphasized enough. If you have a pup that you would label as ‘loyal’, ‘protective’ or ‘good with one person’, a specialized socialization program is even more critical. Having a dog that is fearful of people outside the family or their core group can have a devastating impact on the quality of their life and yours. It will effect you having guests or visitors to your home, entertaining, having trades people in, your kid’s having friends over, being able to go out for walks with your dog or taking them anywhere. In addition to having to adjust your lifestyle and cause unnecessary stress, it can also be a liability. All this can be prevented by taking advantage of your pup’s imprinting period.
Creating Your Own Socialization List
Exposure to things that are already part of your life is easy. What’s critical is to include things your pup ISN’T getting exposure to – things that are not part of your daily life at this point. You also need to go places that are not part of your usual routine and ‘set up’ extra opportunities. By doing this, you will help prepare your pup for things that might happen later in their life. Perhaps your kids are already in high school. Make an effort to socialize your pup to younger kids to get ready for grandkids. If you live in a house, expose your pup to elevators. You or a friend may live in a high-rise in the future.
The time of year can also effect socialization. Summer-reared pups are often worried about people in bulky winter clothing or outings in the dark or rain. Winter-raised pups may be fearful of a house fan or lawn equipment. Keep these things in mind when creating your pup’s list.
Even though the best socialization program can’t cover all possibilities, the good news is that the more positive experiences your pup has during their imprinting period, the more confident they become. The more confident they are, the easier it is for them to deal with new experiences as they mature. Pups that are well-socialized will be more flexible and able to cope with novelty in general, not just the specific things that they were exposed to. No exposures are a waste of time as long as they are positive for the pup.
Not all Socializing is Good
Variety isn’t the only consideration in a good socialization program – the experiences MUST be positive.
Let me share something I witnessed recently. A gentleman had brought his young puppy to a large public event with the best of intentions, hoping to take advantage of the venue to maximize the pup’s socializing opportunities. Let’s see – crowds, a large variety of people, other dogs, horses, music, voices over a loudspeaker, large displays, flags, people carrying all manner of things, trucks, trailers… This guy had the right idea. The problem was the session was way too long and he exposed his pup too intensely. He was there for the whole morning. And on top of that, he did his best to have everyone notice his puppy and come over and say hi. When the pup looked overwhelmed he made him stay where he was and even expected him to sit. After a few greetings, the puppy’s enthusiasm was waning. The experience was too much for him.
Providing pleasant experiences is crucial in a good socializing program. Without them, positive associations will not be created and there will be no value in the exposure. Overwhelming the puppy or having an unpleasant experience can actually be damaging, because the pup will be taking away a negative association. Ever had an unpleasant interaction with someone? Now you cringe any time you run into that person again. And too much of even a good thing can leave you not wanting more anytime soon.
So how do you make the experience positive for your pup?
It’s always best to begin the exposure as minimally as possible and gradually increase the intensity as the pup shows they can handle it. In some situations you may be able to adjust the intensity (turn down the volume or slow the activity). Often your only option is to increase the distance away. More distance will lower the intensity and give your pup an easier experience.
So what’s a good distance? Well, that depends. It will be different for each puppy. Observe your puppy closely. If your pup is showing any signs of stress or insecurity, you need to add some distance. If your pup looks comfortable, then you can move closer. For information on body language and signs of stress, refer to the resources section at the end of the article.
- Give your pup as much space as they need to relax and be able to notice the object without worrying about it. Position yourself so can always move further away.
- Keep the sessions short. Long let’s-get-it done sessions will be taxing and unpleasant for your pup.
- Don’t force your pup to get closer or encourage them to investigate. Remember the point is to allow your puppy to explore and interact at their own pace. Praise any curiosity or desire to interact.
You may have noticed that we did not include information on socializing with other dogs in this article. Exposure to dogs of all kinds – size, colour, coat type, age, sex, energy level, play style – is a necessary part of your pup’s socialization. To keep your pup safe, both from a health perspective and a behavioural one, they should only be contacting or playing with dogs that you know. No dog parks or areas where large numbers of dogs hang out. All unfamiliar or new dogs should be treated as an exposure opportunity only and be experienced from a safe distance. Even with dogs you know, unless you’ve seen them with other pups and are confident they will make your pup’s experience pleasant, you should pass on the close-up stuff for now. That’s what puppy class is for – your pup will get lots of playtime and close contact with other healthy pups in a well-run class. You will also learn what safe, appropriate play is, which will allow you to eventually set up outside play opportunities. By keeping your distance from unfamiliar dogs in the meantime, you can safely start your pup’s socializing early and keep the experiences positive.
To raise a puppy well takes time and commitment. Ultimately you are responsible for supporting and educating your pup in a manner that will allow them to be safe and well-adjusted members of your family, and the community. Creating appropriate, positive socializing experiences for your young puppy will be one of your best investments towards creating a happy, confident dog that can handle day-to-day experiences throughout their lifetime.
Being able to read your pup’s body language and recognize signs of stress is invaluable in understanding how they feel and the quality of their experience. Doing it well will make the difference between effective, positive socialization and ineffective or even damaging experiences. For more information on body language, signs of stress and maximizing your pup’s positive experiences, please visit https://www.facebook.com/dogdaysnorthvan.