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 Unfortunately, people are still following outdated information or are the victims of misinformation.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!