Lisa Kerley BSc, KPA-CTP
For those of you familiar with my training or who follow my articles, you know that I dedicate a lot of time to socialization and emphasize how critical it is for puppies and young dogs. Over the last 18 years, the number of fearful and reactive dogs that I have seen has increased – a lot. The majority of my behavioural work now is working with 8 – 24 month old youngsters that are fearful, reactive or aggressive.
My statistics indicate there are 3 groups that these clients fall into:
- Those that haven’t formally socialized their pups, believing that the key to a ‘good’ dog is obedience.
- Those that waited to begin socializing their pup.
- Those that actively socialized their young pup, but didn’t get it quite right.
There has been so much valid scientific information in the media over the last two decades, that it’s hard to believe early socialization isn’t a part of every young pup’s life as soon as they get home. Unfortunately, people are still following outdated information or are the victims of misinformation.
I’d like to address the things that many parents should do differently when trying to socialize their pup. Even with the best of intentions, many parents still end up with a young dog that doesn’t act like it’s been socialized. After all those hours at the dog park and having met nearly every person in the neighborhood, how is this possible? The two biggest blunders most people make are over-exposing their pup and not pairing socializing experiences with something pleasant for the pup. Both of these are critical to being successful. Not including them will make many socializing efforts a waste of time.
In this article, we will focus on socializing with people. No one wants to have a dog that is fearful or reactive, but a dog that has issues with people is a game changer. Unless you are a hermit living in the middle of nowhere, your life and the way you live it will be impacted. For those of you who have chosen a ‘loyal’, ‘one-person’ or ‘stand-offish’ breed, an effective, well-thought-out socialization program is crucial. These breeds are designed to be suspicious of people outside their core group, so without good socialization they will be stressed or reactive around new people.
Don’t think that if you have chosen a ‘friendly’ breed that you don’t have to worry. ANY dog can potentially be fearful. It is the responsibility of every dog parent to ensure their dogs become comfortable and confident via a good socialization program.
Now I bet many of you are thinking, “What’s the big deal? Get out, find lots of people and get them to pet your dog.” Wrong. That’s why so many dogs end up being reactive or fearful.
Overexposing the Pup
This is this biggest fault in most people’s attempts to socialize their young dog. When meeting people one-on-one, most puppies are made to interact, being petted or handled in some way. This is not necessary to start with. For many pups it will actually make them uncomfortable and cause them to become sensitized to people. And although it is recommended to socialize young pups to lots of people, many also misconstrue this and expose them to too many people at once. Choosing a location or event with large crowds will often be too much for most pups, especially early in their socializing.
Remember that we do not want to flood or overwhelm the pup. It is vital for good socializing that the pup feels comfortable. Exposing the pup does NOT mean they have to actually interact – be patted by or sniff the person. They just need to be aware of people nearby to begin with. As the pup builds confidence, they can interact to a greater degree.
When a person approaches, ask them stop at some distance from the pup. Setting up this initial buffer zone will allow some time for the pup to check out the person from a safe place. This will also give you a chance to make sure the pup is comfortable with this degree of exposure. Keep the pup next to you rather than having them out front. This position will provide them some security and allow them to be assessed and helped more easily, when necessary.
If and only if, the pup looks comfortable should you let the pup get closer and potentially interact with a person. It’s vital that the interaction is not forced on them. They should not be restrained, being held or ask to sit and the person then invading the pup’s space. Remember contact is not the goal. It is to make each interaction comfortable for the pup. This means the pup may be fine to eventually go all the way up to some people and not others. That’s OK. The pup will gain confidence just by having a buffer zone with each and every person to start. They won’t feel rushed or over-faced. You will also gain the ability to read the pup’s body language and choose how to proceed more readily.
Some dogs are more relaxed in larger groups of people as they may feel they ‘get lost in the crowd’ and won’t be noticed and have to interact. In this situation it is vital to manage the exposure. When exposing a pup to larger crowds, choose a position where the pup is not in the thick of things, at least to start. Pick a spot at some distance from the crowd or location. If choosing a busy retail location, for example, don’t start at the front entrance. That’s way too much to start. Instead let the pup watch people from a safe, quiet location – next to your car or on a bench away from all the activity. Make sure the spot doesn’t make the pup feel trapped. Eventually the pup can get closer. That may be able to happen in that session or may need to wait until a future one.
Along with distance, the intensity can be reduced and the pup kept comfortable by picking lower intensity exposures to start, gradually increasing the intensity as the pup shows they are able. Depending on the situation, you can choose locations or times of day when the place is quieter or less crowded. For example, the first time a pup visits a school playground shouldn’t be at recess, when all the kids are there at once and very active. Watching children going into school (from an appropriate distance) would be a better choice to begin with.
It’s Not Positive
Creating exposures that are comfortable and don’t overwhelm your pup is a crucial part of good socializing. If one really wants to maximize the benefits of a pup’s exposures, there is one more simple thing to do. Pair any and all exposures with something positive. This will create good memories and pleasant associations. Usually a tasty treat is the easiest way to do this. Apart from being convenient to carry around and provide to the pup, it also provides an additional way to assess how the pup is feeling (along with their body language). If a dog loses interest in an otherwise irresistible treat, or takes it with a rougher mouth than usual, these are both indications that the pup is not relaxed.
Remember the point about positioning the pup next to the handler when encountering passersby? Apart from support for the pup, it also allows for the reinforcement to be provided conveniently. It’s much easier to hand the pup a treat (or any other reinforcer) from this position. DO NOT HAVE THE STRANGER FEED THE TREAT. It is common practice, and all too often advised, to have the stranger provide the treat to the dog. By doing so it is believed the pup will learn that strangers are OK. What often happens however, is that the pup will be lured in by the food, with no chance to assess if they are ready to be that close. When the food is taken, the pup is now really close to someone that they may not have been ready to approach if the food didn’t tantalize them over. The important thing is that the pup is being provided with something they enjoy in the presence of the person. Again, it should not come from the stranger. This will also prevent the pup from learning that passersby are treat dispensers!
Although a treat or food is typically the best reinforcement when you are ‘on the go’, anything that the pup finds enjoyable can be used as a reinforcer. As long as they find it rewarding in that particular circumstance, it will be valuable. Any activity – play, tricks, treat searches – anything that they enjoy and can engage in, will work.
And one final point. Keep the sessions short. With some things the pup may only need a minute or two to get everything they need out of an exposure. Remember that flooding will have the opposite result to what is desired. If planning to ‘get a lot accomplished’ give your pup lots of intermissions, so their brain gets a break and they don’t overtire.
Anyone taking the time to socialize their pup does so with the best of intentions. By following these simple considerations, you can really make the most of your pup’s socializing time!
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Manners and More
Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP
One of the first things most people consider doing when they have a new dog is enrolling in an obedience class. If a class isn’t an option, a private trainer is often brought in to teach obedience in the home. Obedience seems to be the first thing on many people’s minds when it comes to training their dogs.
Teaching your dog to do some specific things when asked has obvious value. Obedience on its own however, does not provide the average dog with the skills they need to be ‘well-behaved’ day-to-day. We routinely have new dogs come to our facility that are already obedience graduates. Although they can perform their trained behaviours when asked, sadly, many of these same dogs are easily excited and unmanageable when not being directed. Even dogs from advanced classes often aren’t calm or settled unless they are put into a ‘down stay’ or they can’t politely meet a person without being told to ‘sit’ or are corrected in some way.
So what skills are our dogs often missing in regular obedience training?
Young puppies are in a critical phase of development and have special requirements for their learning. Studies indicate that delaying socialization can have serious consequences on a dog’s entire life. Safe socializing can and must begin as soon as a puppy comes home and needs to be the focus of their early education. And just in case you were under the impression – socialization does not mean playing with other dogs. But that’s a whole other topic…
Vital lessons include developing a gentle mouth, acquiring good social skills and getting used to all the different sights and sounds that are part of the world a family dog will live in. By the time a pup arrives home at 8 weeks of age, the critical period to learn these things is already half over. Spending time on these critical skills while a puppy is still in this phase of development, will make the lessons (and other training) much easier and both parent and pup will have fun doing it. These pups will be set up for success by creating a more relaxed adolescent who already has some great skills started. It is not possible to make up for a lack of attention to these early lessons later. Many are time-sensitive, and once the critical early learning phase has passed, so has the opportunity.
For Every Dog
How to get things they want
For many dogs, the excitement of something they love is just too much, and they lose control. Depending on the dog, it may be a passerby or their favourite toy that sets them off. Parents often react to unruly behaviour with demands or corrections in an attempt to get them to behave.
Our dogs learn instead that polite behaviours work to get things that matter to them. Not only does this help the dog learn to be polite, but they will also learn to do it by default without having to be micro-managed (constantly told what to do). And we don’t want to always have to remind our dogs to be gentle or polite, do we?
Helping one’s dog learn that they have choices is a novel approach for many people. Waiting for polite stuff from our dogs, specifically waiting for them to offer it, can be tough. It’s hard for people not to just tell the dog what to do. The value in this style of training is that it teaches the dog what TO do by showing them the behaviours that will work to get them the things they want. No hints or corrections are needed – these will actually weaken the dog’s ability to offer the desired behaviour! And the polite behaviours we make ‘work’, will have a great reinforcement history and start to feel good to do, in and of themselves. So cool!
So how does it actually work? Simple. All you need to do is decide which behaviours you like. Let’s pick ‘sit’ as an example. It’s a great all–around behaviour. Start practicing this with any items your dog wants – toys, chews, dinner. Show them you have that thing they want, but don’t give it to them right away. Keep it out of reach. Stay calm and quiet, and wait. What do they do? If they do anything you don’t like – jump, bark, or paw – withhold the item. Don’t instruct your dog. Wait for them to offer the behaviour you like (sit, for example). Praise and offer the item as soon as they sit.
Bonus point of this method:
Not only will you be teaching your dog how to get things they want by offering calm, polite behaviour, you will also be training “in real time” by reinforcing sit with real life rewards.
Having a dog pay attention or check in with us is a behaviour that traditional trainers often have to spend a lot of time on, as it can be challenging when there are distractions present. In our “wait for what you like” approach, young dogs are regularly being reinforced for checking in when things they get excited about are around – things that are distracting. They have learned that being involved with us is part of their success. They want us to notice the great behaviour they are offering, to reap the reward.
Bonus point of this method:
Being able to focus and work through distractions is one of the biggest challenges in proofing or making training reliable. In essence, we are turning distractions into meaningful real life rewards.
There are even more benefits in waiting for polite behaviour. As if we need more! Dogs will develop impulse control, learn to manage themselves and deal with frustration, and build patience. These are skills that do not develop when a dog is always micro-managed. Dogs that have too much freedom and have free access to things that matter to them miss the chance too. These skills are sadly missing in many dogs these days. Helping a dog learn these skills can take some time, so patience and consistency is required. It will be worth it, as they can truly change the way a dog behaves and how they handle day-to-day life.
Bonus point of this method:
Once dogs are outside the home, many get over-excited by the big, stimulating world around them. A dog that is already learning the value of being calm and thinking about what is happening will be much better-equipped to deal with things in the real world.
An extra word about real-life rewards:
An obvious example of something your dog loves that you can provide is food, but there are so many more at your disposal. A chance to play a favourite game; getting let out into the yard; getting the leash on for a walk; being let out of their crate. The sky’s the limit. You have lots of opportunities each day to help your dog practice.
So if you have a young puppy, don’t wait to start socializing. A puppy’s brain is set up to learn certain things that it can’t later on. Please don’t delay!
Hopefully the benefits of this “wait for what you like” approach are enticing enough that you’ll want to give it a try. And as for obedience, with the skills your dog will already have, teaching obedience will be a breeze!
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