Over the years I've learned, the hard way, what socialization really is and what it isn't.
I've also learned that most dog owners aren't completely keyed in on the important points of what it takes to "socialize" a puppy.
I'm going to go over what I feel is the proper way to socialize a puppy to live in the world we live in.
WHAT IS SOCIALIZATION ANYWAY?!
You've likely heard this term a lot. However, you may be asking -- what exactly is socialization anyway?! This would likely depend on who you ask. So sadly there isn't a black and white definition of it. However, as a professional, I'd like to discuss what I define as socialization.
My own definition of socialization is this . . .
Socialization — Exposing your puppy to things in brief, but positive ways, while keeping him/her safe, happy and making positive associations the priority without forcing or allowing over-stimulation. It also exposes them to other people, places, noises, and inanimate things without overwhelming them; keeping body language, thresholds and early stress signals in mind at all times.
It's important that puppies start socializing as soon as you get them (usually 8-10 weeks of age) up to about 16 weeks of age. This is the prime socialization "window". This means that outside of this window you are either just training in new situations or rehabilitating if the puppy is having poor reactions in certain situations and/or towards other people and/or animals. It's even better if a puppy starts with great socialization at the breeder's home. The Puppy Culture is my chosen program for this from breeders.
I prefer to take a puppy in the real world for socialization where the puppy is given food/treats/rewards (whatever puppy deems as highly rewarding) when puppy notices, comes near or sees a new/novel person, thing or situation. I prefer this over "puppy class" or "socialization classes". While I think these classes can be good as a part of the training, it shouldn't ever be the only training in the way of socialization for your puppy.
SOCIALIZING TO NEW PLACES, OBJECTS & THINGS
This would look like me walking through Home Depot with puppy on leash, treating with each steps puppy makes. Having puppy practice some "sits" while giving treats. When puppy looks at the strange bag of potting soil I click/treat and move on, or I may scatter treats on the ground and allow puppy to clean it up. Potting soil bag = yummy pile of treats to forage through on the ground! Win! The association becomes potting soil bags are cool and fun to be around.
I encourage puppy to climb on new surfaces and objects. I don't force it. I simply lay a pile of treats on the pallet of rocks in the landscape section and let him go get the treats. He may stretch really far to get the food because he's a little unsure. That's ok. I do nothing. I say nothing. I simply let him figure it out on his own. If he's too uneasy I start by putting the food on the ground near the rocks but not on them. Then slowly move him to the rocks. Then if he explores them on his own I reward heavily and then move to the next thing. I change up things. I might take some of the pavers off the pallet and lay them on the ground and do the same thing. This all lasts all of 30-60 seconds.
This can also happen at playgrounds (at times where they are not full of loud, boisterous kids!) I do this on a school day in the mornings when no one is usually there. Lots of surfaces to explore. Again, I force nothing. I simply give food to make associations and my own body language and behavior is relaxed, calm and I'm rarely saying anything. I don't say "Oh, go on, go on, that's good, look at this! Oh, look Rover!" I let the puppy do all the thinking and learning on her own. I'm providing the rewards to make the associations.
I will take puppy only a couple times a week to different places and feed while puppy explores, sees new things and people. Each look towards something new=food. I will also be using really high-value food.
BOTTOM LINE: 3-5 x a week, expose to new places, things & surfaces for short periods (10-15 minutes).
SOCIALIZING TO PEOPLE/STRANGERS
I also take into account that puppy should be meeting and seeing new people. However, this is where I differ with socialization from what a lot of "the books" and other trainers may suggest. I don't want people coming over to swoon and pet all over my puppy when I'm out with him. Does this mean people aren't allowed to pet my puppy?! No. It means I'm going to control how this happens and allow puppy to make choices that are respected while also forming a great association with people.
The second I notice a person — whether approaching us or just when puppy sees the person — I will begin feeding her treats continually (one treat at a time, right after the other). I will continue to treat while I'm conversing with this stranger if they approach. This makes puppy see people approach and then make the association that when people approach and we are chatting good things happen. So hopefully I'm building a behavior that she looks forward to people approaching. She will also do this without jumping because I'm rewarding while she's sitting and watching me interact with this person.
If the person wants to pet my puppy it would go like this ... "Oh! Can I pet your puppy?!" Me: "You can help me socialize him, that's what we are doing right now. Could you wait for him to sit, then put your hand under his chin and let him nibble these treats from your hand? [I put treats in person's hand] If you want to pet please do so under his chin and just for a count of 3... 1-2-3. ... Thank you!" Then I say thank you and move on by calling puppy to come along with me and then moving to the next thing.
I would also only allow a few people to actually pet her too much in one session, as this can be quite overwhelming to a puppy. So I'd likely only allow a maximum of 2-3 people to do this during that one outing. I'd prefer to just walk around and let her see people and reward her when we do see others but not encourage physical interaction unless brief and okayed by puppy.
The problem with greeting tons of people is that it can backfire. I think it's been drilled into our heads about socializing puppies that the more people they meet, the merrier. I don't find this to be true most of the time. Instead, it should be taken into account how puppy feels and reacts around the person. I'd put puppy down and have person make puppy sounds to invite interaction, "Hey! Pup! Pup! Pup!" (in a slightly high-pitched tone) or "kissy sounds". If puppy responds and goes to the stranger then I'd have stranger immediately begin to give rewards to puppy. If puppy doesn't immediately go to the stranger I'd practice sit and reward puppy for looking at stranger to make the connection that stranger=yummy food, but puppy doesn't have to go to stranger. This doesn't force the puppy to interact when they don't want to but will build a good association with people and likely teach puppy people are a-ok. They will then possibly decide to approach people on their own and more often OR maybe not. If not, that's ok. The goal is to at least make them ok with people around even if they don't necessarily want to interact with them. Not all dogs need to love everyone, but they shouldn't be afraid of them or become wary or anxious around them either.
The above would also apply to people entering your home to meet the new puppy. Have treats ready, stranger should somewhat ignore puppy and if puppy initiates greeting or bounds happily over then they can begin to feed puppy treats. They can ask puppy for a sit, if he knows this cue at the time, and then reward. If person wants to pet puppy they should go under the chin and give scratches there; and on their backside if they enjoy that.
After about 10-15 minutes I'd end the session and go home. You'll notice how exhausting this is for a puppy because your puppy will likely sleep well after these little "socialization" sessions. It's mentally draining, which is good ... when done in brief, positive sessions with a few days between each.
BOTTOM LINE: 3-5 x a week, expose to new people, dogs & other animals for very brief periods (10-15 minutes). Each session should be positive, short-lived & take puppy's body language & feelings into consideration.
Some of you may have just scrolled down to this topic. It's a popular question with puppies — how do I get my puppy socialized to other dogs?! This is also, as you have noticed by now, not addressed [by me] the same as most socialization ideas/techniques/whatever-you-call-it that you'll read or be told by others.
Here is the first shock you'll hear me say: puppy classes/socialization classes (at least the classes I've seen) aren't socializing your puppy and teaching them how to socialize with other dogs.
The best way to socialize your puppy to other dogs is to have them meet and hang around adult dogs that tolerate, play and/or properly correct puppies as needed. Puppies don't teach puppies how adult dogs act or how to act as an adult dog. Having puppies play with puppies of the same age is like having your toddler play with toddlers and assume they'll learn how to do independent and adult things from those toddlers. Yeah, nope.
So, on that note don't go out and toss your puppy in a dog park either — I mean there are lots of adult dogs there, right?! Nopety, nope. No dog parks. Actually, if you ask me, I say no dog parks for any age dog but at the very least never ever take a puppy to a dog park.
Find friends, family, neighbors with adult dogs that are 2+ years old and appropriate with puppies. I actually recommend you find a trainer that can help you with this process if you're not sure. Finding an appropriately tempered dog is vital to this as well. Some dogs over the age of 2 don't tolerate puppies well and become agitated, annoyed quickly or flat out aggressive towards puppies.
You are going to be looking for a dog that will possibly play with the puppy appropriately, i.e., play bows, bouncy/loose body language, running happily (not out of fear), chasing (preferably one chases, then the other chases, not one-sided), and a few others. Here is an excellent read on appropriate play between dogs and reading body language from iSpeakDog.
It's also ok if the adult dog snarks at the puppy and corrects her appropriately. The key word is appropriately. If the dog loses its cool and really lays into your puppy (read: attacks puppy or bites puppy much heavier than a correction) that's not a good correction, that's over-reacting. This is a video of a proper correction given to a puppy.* Please note in this video the older dog is not wanting the puppy playing with him. He gives an appropriate correction and nothing over-the-top.
*It should be noted that I do not condone the full interaction demonstrated in the linked video above. The puppy is allowed to pester the adult dog for too long. I simply want to use it to show what a proper correction from an adult dog to a puppy looks like. The video in its entirety isn't one I'd use to show how a puppy should interact with another dog.
When dogs give appropriate corrections humans shouldn't ever get onto the corrector or do anything. This is why it's also important to know what is appropriate and what is not, as well as if a dog will do the former or the latter. Don't test the waters if you don't know, it could have ill and lasting effects on your puppy! This is why a trained eye for this would be very imperative!
So, after you have chosen some appropriate dogs for puppy to play with then set up a time to meet in a big enough space for each of the dogs to get up and move around and away from one another as well as chase and run. Only set up these "play dates" once or twice a week for short periods — about 10-15 minutes. If you want to have it last longer, give lots of breaks (I'd recommend puppy goes to his crate for rest and then plays some more). But each interactive session should be short and sweet.
Other than these play dates I highly recommend getting into a group class to have puppy learn how to learn and cooperate when around other dogs. The class should not include playing and rough-housing amongst the other dogs. It should only involve learning. This concept goes along with how I have puppy learn to act and behave around other people, as listed above. Puppy should learn to work around other puppies/dogs and make great associations when around them but not necessarily go to them and interact with them.
Once your class is over you should take it upon yourself to get puppy out in the real world and training around other people, dogs, places, etc. It will look like this: puppy is out on leash, walking through town and a person with a dog walks by, you ask your puppy to sit and reward her. Then you keep walking while rewarding her for looking at and possibly passing by this dog. No interactions should occur and should actually be avoided. Advocate for your puppy when out and explain that you're in training and not allowing your puppy to greet other dogs when on leash at that time.
At some point you can set up a friend to meet you out and about with their dog on leash and you can train with leash greetings with other dogs. I'd also hire a trainer to help you with this. Actually I'd hire a trainer to help you through the entire dog-dog socialization process. Also, your trainer should be able to teach you how to read your dog, and other dogs', body language during all this work. This will be critical information to have for the life of your dog in just about any scenario and situation you can think of. Body language skills will save your life as a dog owner.
BOTTOM LINE: Hire a trainer to help you through the dog socialization process for best results and skills for real-world information you can use when on your own later down the road.
So, as you can see socializing your puppy is no easy task. However, when done properly it will pay tenfold for the life of your dog regardless of the environment and situation your dog is put into.
Also, all of the above should begin as soon as you get your puppy (no earlier than 8 weeks of age). Vaccinations can be a factor for many but you can adjust your outings to be safe and still get your training and socialization in with your puppy. Don't wait to start past the age of 10-11 weeks on most of these exercises. If your puppy has had a recent set of vaccines wait 5-7 days to take puppy out but do some make-shift work while puppy rides in shopping carts or is able to be carried, etc. Choose locations wisely and playmates wisely as well.
If your veterinarian is suggesting waiting for full vaccines I encourage you to share the AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) position statement on puppy socialization with them.
Please note that the AVSAB statement I've listed above doesn't align with all the socialization techniques I've described above (not 100%) but I like to share the paper for their stance of when to start socialization with regards to vaccinations.
This blog post are my opinions and statements alone. These techniques and protocols are mine and what I find are most effective and beneficial to puppies. Please move forward with training and socialization as you feel is best for you and your puppy.
Sunshine Dog Training & Behavior, LLC
servicing the Dallas/Ft Worth, Texas metroplex
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