People are often aware of the need for puppy socialization but they often conflate socialization with exposure. First impressions are everything! The initial interaction you have with something new will dictate your associations with that individual or thing going forward, particularly if it wasn’t pleasant. You only have one opportunity to give your dog a positive first impression so maximizing this experience is vital!
SOCIALIZATION VS EXPOSURE
Good puppy socialization assumes that you have taken the time to ensure that a new experience has been enjoyable. Many people expose their dogs to novel stimulus without awareness of whether their dog is having a good time or not. Over time, exposure may result in your puppy becoming hyper sensitized to unfamiliar triggers making them less confident. Instead of becoming more confident and social your puppy becomes more fearful of the world outside their comfort zone. For this reason it is important to be attuned to your puppy so that you know if they are enjoying the experience or not. In general, we strive to avoid exposure without intentional socialization.
HOW WILL YOU KNOW HOW YOUR DOG FEELS?
A well socialized puppy is confident and stands squarely with weight balanced on all four feet. Their ears will be perked forward inquisitively. A scared puppy may hide behind you and stretch out as far as they can with their tale tucked low between their legs. Nervous dogs display tongue flicks and yawn in social contexts and may sit and scratch themselves a lot or even urinate at greetings or try to flee.
Aside from reading their body language, one of the simplest ways to identify when your puppy is under stress is to offer them food. Some dogs will eat under stress, but many lose their appetite. How hard your dog takes the treat can also indicated their comfort level. A dog with something on their mind may be less careful taking the treat from you and extra chompy in situations of arousal.
Try several different values of rewards and if you can’t find one your dog responds to enthusiastically then give your dog a little space and time to opt in to the experience.
CREATING POSITIVE ASSOCIATIONS FOR YOUR PUPPY
Pairing new experiences with food is a great way to help your dog form positive associations with new things. Go slow! Offer tasty treats frequently to assess if your puppy feels safe enough to eat. After they’ve approached to investigate give your puppy the chance to move away. Let them approach and retreat several times and encourage bystanders or greeters to keep their hands to themselves. You can have people toss treats while avoiding direct contact. If your puppy refuses to eat offer better rewards or move to safer, calmer environment.
Dog’s are neophobic, which means fearful of new things, by nature and often approach novel experiences with caution. Respect their communication signals and give your dog the option to opt in or out. Allow them to move away if they desire so they learn that avoiding conflict is an option. As a puppy builds confidence they will become more playful. Offer your puppy a chance to play but if they say ‘No thanks’ kindly respect their space.
PUTTING IT IN PRACTICE
Puppy owners are often concerned about the risk of contagious disease and therefore delay getting their dog the early socialization that they truly need. Illnesses such as Parvo and Distemper can absolutely be scary and deadly. Lack of proper socialization has also been a death sentence for many dogs so one must carefully weigh the pros and cons and act with intention. The American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior has released Position Statements on a variety of subjects that can help guide your decision making process. Delaying socialization can make it harder to teach your puppy that the world is an awesome place and drastically decrease you and your dog’s quality of life.
When socializing your puppy choose clean, calm environments, with easy access to a place to potty. Perhaps set a play date with your neighbor’s confident and tolerant adult dog. Have children sit down on a bench to greet your dog and place treats at their feet so your puppy looks down instead of jumping up!
Current and former training clients can also join in with the Alumni Walking Club! These bi-monthly meet-ups give you the opportunity to put the skills you’ve mastered with your trainer into practical application in the real world. We just love seeing the progress people make with their dogs and enjoy the community and updates. If you have questions about socializing your puppy you can also join us for our Weekly Q&A and Nail Trim sessions hosted on Zoom and streamed live through Facebook. We stream live most Saturdays at 11 am!
Have you found yourself in a situation in which your dog was hesitant to approach something or someone or wouldn’t take food? Would you respond differently if you had the opportunity to do it over again? Share your experience in the comments below.