Socialization isn't just about introducing your puppy to new dogs - it's a life-long, multi-facet journey to help your dog view the world around him in a positive light.
You hear the term 'socialization' everywhere, and it's true, it is SO important to make sure your dog is well socialized. But what does that actually mean?
What is socialization?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of socialization is "exposure of a young domestic animal (such as a kitten or puppy) to a variety of people, animals, and situations to minimize fear and aggression and promote friendliness." If this leaves you with more questions than answers, you're not alone. Let's break that down into smaller pieces.
Let's start with the word exposure. Is simply seeing a new person or dog enough? Wouldn't it be great if it was that easy? In reality, simply exposing a dog to new people, dogs, and situations is just the start - to count as socialization, we have to go one step further and ensure that the experience is positive for the dog. If the dog leaves the situation feeling scared or unsure, we may actually be setting him up to be fearful of similar situations in the future. We'll talk a little more later about how to create positive experiences.
A young domestic animal (such as a kitten or puppy). The 'socialization window' for a puppy (the period of time in which it is easiest to shape a dog's future interactions with the world around him) is believed to be about 4-14 weeks. So that means that socialization ends at 14 weeks, right? Nope, not even close, but that's a good thing - we still have the ability to help our dogs see the world in a positive light even if we've missed that brief window of time.
A variety of people, animals, and situations. It's a common misconception that socialization only includes meeting other dogs and/or people. Socialization includes just about everything! Other animals, people, sounds, smells, places. Being handled, riding in the car, going to the park, being on a leash. While some dogs are innately optimistic about new things, we still have to help our dogs build positive associations with all of the things we want him to experience throughout his life.
Minimize fear and aggression and promote friendliness. It's what we all want, right? A dog who can do anything, go anywhere, and loves everyone. Socialization is a HUGE part of it! Keep in mind, though, that it's not the sole factor - genetics also play a role in how a dog views the world. Every dog is an individual, and each dog's journey with socialization will be unique. Check out the 'genetics' section of our free resources page for more information on how genetics play a role in a dog's overall disposition.
In summary, socialization is the process through which we help our dogs view the world in a positive light. Now, let's delve a little deeper.
So, how do I socialize my dog?
Remember that word "exposure" that we discussed earlier, and how it isn't quite accurate when it comes to socialization? The key to building a positive association with something new is to ensure that your dog loves the experience.
The quickest and easiest way to create a positive experience is through high value food. And when we say 'high value,' we mean break out the big guns! We're talking braunschweiger, turkey breast, liverwurst, sausage - all of that stinky good stuff that dog's naturally love. You can figure out your dog's favorite through a preference test. Present several options at once and see what your dog goes for first. Repeat several times, placing each option in a different spot each time - if your dog goes for the same location each time no matter which food is there, try placing the food closer together. Save that very favorite treat for socialization, recall, and any other super important training scenarios.
You've probably heard of Pavlov's Dogs, an experiment in which Ivan Pavlov used classical conditioning to form an association between the sound of a bell and food. That's exactly what we are doing when we socialize our dogs - building a positive association through classical conditioning.
When facing a new scenario, start at a distance at which your dog is comfortable and relaxed. Your dog should immediately accept food - if he doesn't, you are too close and should take more distance. At this point, we aren't asking our dog to do anything - we are simply feeding to build a positive association. If he is showing any signs of discomfort, increase your distance and make the situation easier. Understanding your dog's body language is vital - check out these resources to improve your communication.
Meeting new people.
Meeting new people can be so much fun, but some precaution should be taken to ensure a positive experience. While it is tempting to hand treats to the new person so that they can feed your dog, in the beginning, the food should always come from you. We can't always predict what people will do - quick movements, rough handling, or asking the dog for a behavior before he is ready can quickly turn a fun situation into a scary situation for the dog. A dog who really loves his high value treat may also approach a person to get the treat even though he is not yet comfortable with the person. Keep an eye on your dog's body language - as he feels 100% comfortable, you can move closer and eventually pass the treats off to your dog's new friend. You may even try incorporating other things that your dog loves, such as playing with a favorite toy - just be sure that the experience remains fun for everyone, especially your dog.
Remember to start slow. While many of us dream of taking our dog to a bar patio or inviting over the whole extended family, hold off on events with lots of people. Meet one new friend at a time and focus on making that situation tons of fun.
Meeting new dogs.
Just like meeting new people, we want to start slow when meeting new dogs. Throwing our dog into a situation with tons of other dogs can be very scary. Start with meeting one dog who has a solid, positive history with meeting other dogs. From a distance, feed your dog while the new dog is in sight. When both dogs are 100% comfortable, move in closer and allow the dogs to sniff each other for just one second. Call both dogs out with lots of praise and feed that high value treat. Repeat several times, increasing duration as the dogs are comfortable. If either dog shows any signs of discomfort, call both dogs out, deliver lots of praise and food, and increase distance. It is extremely important to help our dog understand cut-off signals to avoid conflict, which you can read more about here. Should the other dog bark, growl, or snap at your dog, immediately call both dogs out and deliver a jackpot of high value food.
A buddy walk is a great way to build positive associations with other dogs without direct contact. Walk parallel to another dog at a distance that both dogs are comfortable (across a street is a great place to start), feeding and praising your dog whenever he looks towards the other dog.
Group classes are also a great option for socialization with other dogs (and people). Learning to work and have fun around other dogs without direct interaction will help strengthen your relationship with your dog, too.
Most of our dogs will need to experience things like car rides and trips to the vet. You may also plan to take your dog on a boat, around bikes or skateboards, to the pet store, or any number of other situations. While each of these situations will look a little different, the basis is the same - start slow. Allow your dog to see a stationary bike or skateboard from a distance before you ask him to run alongside one. Practice jumping in the car when you have nowhere in particular to go before that hour-long ride to your mom's house. While we can't always predict everything that our dog will need to experience, planning ahead to the best of our ability goes a long way.
Is my dog too old for socialization?
No dog is too old for socialization, but what socialization looks like for an older dog may be quite different than socialization for a young puppy. An older dog is more likely to have had a negative or neutral experience with something than a young puppy who is experiencing everything for the first time. A dog with a negative association to something may take a significant amount of time and training to feel comfortable, and depending on the severity, may not be able to experience those things in the way that another dog might. If you are unsure about your dog's comfort levels, or if your dog has growled at, snapped at, or bitten another dog or person, your best bet is to consult with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer to develop a training plan before you attempt socialization.
• Go slow and keep sessions short. Socialization takes time, and trying to rush your dog may result in forming negative associations.
• Keep things fun. Remember, the goal here is to create positive associations. If your dog isn't having fun, it isn't socialization (and if you aren't having fun, your dog probably isn't, either). It's okay to take breaks or choose to train another day.
• Your dog chooses what is reinforcing to him. While high value food is the best option, some dogs may also enjoy play or attention as a reward. Be careful to watch your dog's comfort levels and adjust as needed.
• Understanding what your dog is communicating via body language is crucial. Even if you are well-versed in body language, study up before attempting socialization. A refresher course is always a great idea.
• When in doubt, consult a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. K9 Turbo is always here to help no matter where you are, and you can search for a CPDT in your area here.
Want to learn more? Check out our free resources page here.