In the first part of this series, we'll discuss what good socialization is- and isn't! In a subsequent blog, we'll talk about how to socialize a puppy even in unusual times, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Socialization: it is something new puppy owners are told to do a lot of and they definitely should! Socialization helps puppies learn that the world is a wonderful and optimistic place, if done correctly. So let's talk about what makes good socialization and some things we want to avoid when taking our puppies out and about.
Critical socialization occurs when puppies are roughly between the ages of 7 and 12 weeks. During this time, they enter an important stage in their life where they acquire the skills that will allow them to live and thrive in our human world. During this period puppies learn what is normal, acceptable, and safe in the world ... and what is not.
As puppy owners, our job is to ensure our puppies are making positive associations between all the things they will encounter in their day-to-day life and beyond. Exposure isn't enough: if I want a puppy who says "woohoo!" to new and novel things, we need to make sure the experiences are positive for them. We need to be making many, many, many deposits in the "Bank of Good Experiences" (and very few withdrawals).
What Does Smart Socialization Look Like?
1. I'm aware of what my puppy is telling me: Not all puppies are going to be social butterflies (there will always be breed and individual differences), but I always want to make sure my puppy looks relaxed/inquisitive when socializing. Ideally, I want my puppy's body and face to be soft. If I see a puppy that looks tense or worried (ears back, tail tucked, closed/hard mouth, stiff body), I am going to create space for them to help them feel better or I'll remove my puppy completey from the situation.
2. It's on the puppy's terms: In attempts to get puppy to view something as safe, I'll often observe puppy owners forcing the puppy towards something that the puppy is clearly not comfortable with. If you have a puppy at the end of the leash with splayed legs, trying to get away from whatever you are trying to show them is safe ... ABORT MISSION! This is not socialization and, very likely, you will undermine your puppies trust in you.
Yes, you know the garbage can (child, balloon, Uncle Jim, insert random object here) is safe but your puppy has deemed it scary. Let the puppy explore the scary thing on their own terms: you can pair the presence of scary things with high value treats to help (you won't reinforce the fear- that's a myth!) but let them move away if they need to. This is called classical conditioning, where the presence of something, predicts good things (treats)! Just make sure you do not use treats to bribe/force the puppy to interact with the object. Simply let the presence of that object/person predict good treats.
3. Socialization excursions are just that: During that critical socialization period, remember your main goal is to put deposits in the "Good Experience" bank account. The socialization period is fleeting, so I want to make sure my puppy's world is rainbows and unicorns during that time.
I come prepared with easily accessible, extremely yummy treats and a great toy, and my focus is 100% on making sure my pup is comfortable with what is going on.
If I take my puppy out somewhere to socialize and things aren't going as planned, I get out: I want to expose my pup to a variety of people, places, and things but if it appears it is too much for my pup, I will leave and rethink my socialization plan. My sole purpose of being where I am with my puppy is to make sure they are learning good things.
4. Choose locations wisely: You've got your puppy and you are ready to get him out and seeing the world (and have the world see him!). You start thinking of places where he can meet lots of dogs and lots of people - the dog park would be a great choice, wouldn't it?
Dog parks are sometimes seen as the perfect venue to socialize dogs, but they aren't ideal for our young dogs. For starters, your puppy does not have all their vaccines at this age, so they are potentially being exposed to bugs their bodies might not be able to fight. Additionally, the dog park can be a rough and tumble place. While some dogs love this "party" atmosphere, others can find it downright scary. Throw in some other inappropriate dog behaviours (chasing smaller dogs, humping, fighting, etc), the experience can be traumatizing for a young puppy.
A better idea would be a get together with a small group of well socialized dogs. These dogs have some solid social skills and can help introduce your puppy to appropriate dog behaviour. Offleash play and hikes are great for this as the dogs are able to move away from each other. Monitor and be prepared to step in if your pup looks overwhelmed. Paths, parks, and the vet's office (just for some treats), and just around the block are some good places your pup can see a variety of different people and things.
5. Be an advocate for your puppy: If your puppy is clearly uncomfortable with someone trying to interact with them, it's perfectly okay to ask the person to change or stop how they are inteating. After all, these experiences are going to shape your puppy's view on the world and we want that view to be a good one! Puppies are making generalizations about things right now: if my puppy is getting roughly handled by a young child, I want to change the interaction immediately so my puppy isn't worried about all children going forward.
So get out there and socialize that puppy! Remember to vary the locations and always keep it positive. If you keep the above tips in mind, you'll put your puppy on the path to be a confident and happy dog in the future!