Written by Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA
Puppy socialization is a double whammy. It’s perhaps the most important thing a dog lover can do with their dog. And, it’s probably the most misunderstood concept in all of dogdom.
There are entire books about puppy socialization. So, we won’t be able to cover the entire topic here. But, I want to highlight three very common misconceptions about puppy socialization. My hope is that this will help us think a bit differently (and more clearly) about the topic and avoid some mistakes.
First, what is this thing we call puppy socialization. Puppy socialization is the process of teaching our puppies emotional resilience and behavioral flexibility. Dogs who are emotionally resilient are less rigid (think: less aggressive or fearful). Dogs who are behaviorally flexible are able to make functional choices about how to act in a variety of situations. Basically puppy socialization is teaching our puppies:
- You (puppy) are safe.
- Here’s how you make good choices on your own.
Here’s what puppy socialization is not:
Puppy Socialization is not all about puppies running around and playing. We often hear that we need to get our young puppy into a puppy socialization class. These experiences can be good. But not always. In fact, they can sometimes be disastrous. Some puppies are traumatized by the raucous play of six or more puppies running amok. Don’t let that happen to your puppy.
Yes, a very small part of your young dog’s socialization is about learning how to interact with other dogs. Some of it can be off leash play with other puppies who are well into the process of being vaccinated and who are playing in a controlled environment. Some of it can also be with vaccinated and behaviorally stable adult dogs (dogs you actually know). None of this should occur at a public dog park with unknown dogs. There is no value in that and things can go wrong in a hurry. in fact, some of the best puppy socialization is about teaching your puppy to calmly observe other dogs (Teaching your puppy he’s safe) without running up to them and going bonkers (Puppy learns to make good choices on his own). Teach calm behavior with gentle praise and food. Let’s learn right from the start that not every interaction with a dog is a headlong leap into the mosh pit.
And wait, there’s more. Puppy socialization is about learning emotional resilience and behavioral flexibility around all the experiences life has to offer. This includes new people, new places, new activities, all the things that happen to and around dogs.
Puppy Socialization is not just about getting our puppies “used to things.” Remember, we want to teach our puppy he is safe while we also teach him how to make good decisions. Simply exposing our young dog to Uncle Harry’s loud voice and laughter won’t do that. Letting the kids pull on our puppy’s tail (please don’t) will definitely not do that. Throwing our dog into the craziness of human life with the wish that he’ll get used to it is just that, a wish.
Puppy socialization is about politely introducing our puppy to the human world around him. Use food. Also use calm encouragement, but never force him. Let your puppy explore his own limits while he expands his bravery. Use food. Teach Uncle Harry how to greet a puppy. Teach the children how to play safely without hurting or scaring the puppy. Use food. Lead your puppy through all the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile experiences of life with humans. Did I mention, use food?
A good puppy trainer and behavior consultant can help you do this thoughtfully and well. Puppy socialization is as important as your new puppy’s health check and vaccinations. Choose your dog trainer with the same diligence and care you would choose your veterinarian.
Socialization is not just for puppies. Our dogs are learning throughout their entire lives. And, with every passing year it remains our responsibility to teach our dogs the lessons of socialization: You are safe. This is how you make good choices.
Life is full of change. Perhaps the greatest lesson we can teach our dogs (over and over, year after year) is how to navigate those changes with grace – and perhaps even a little style. We can teach our dogs a lot. We can also learn a lot from them. Making it in this crazy human world is about emotional resilience and staying flexible with our decisions – how we act, when we act, if we act.
I guess that means that socialization (the smart kind) isn’t something we do to our dogs. It’s something we do with them.
Michael Baugh is a certified dog behavior consultant specializing in aggressive behavior. He leads Michael’s Dogs Behavior Group in Houston, TX.