With the advent of puppy kindergarten classes, the topic of socialization became a hot one. Based on the recommendations of the American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarians started discussing socialization and encouraging their clients to attend puppy classes. Proper socialization is critical to the long-term well being of your puppy.
Like many things in life, the act of socialization is often taken to an extreme. Owners want to see their puppies play with as many dogs as possible and meet every new person they can. In theory, this idea is great! But in reality, our socialization methods are often creating dogs that have a strong desire to interact with every person and dog they see. When denied this desire, dogs often become frustrated, leading to whining, barking, lunging, and sometimes even behaviors like growling.
Puppy Socialization = Exposure!
One of my favorite sayings regarding puppy socialization is the following: “Socialization is about exposure, not interaction.” I’ve been saying this so long I don’t even know where it originally came from. To further expand on this, socialization is about providing positive exposure and ensuring the puppy has a good experience. When a puppy is in the socialization period (often called the sensitive period, which lasts from 3-4 weeks of age until about 12-16 weeks), they experience what we call one event learning. It only takes one positive experience with something to have long-lasting effects. However, the opposite is also true. One bad experience can affect the puppy long-term. So it’s extremely important that we set the puppy up to have positive experiences!
Teach a Visit Cue
So back to that – socialization is exposure, not interaction. I want my dog to be comfortable around people and other dogs. I don’t want him fearful or nervous, and I don’t want him overly excited and pulling me to go say hi. So this is what I train! I teach my pup to keep his attention on me, rewarding for ignoring other dogs and people. I teach my dog a cue that means he can go say hello to another dog or person, only after I’ve asked permission and ensured that the dog is good with puppies. The focus is on keeping the interaction short, and cheerfully encouraging the puppy to come back to me, which I pay for! Calm behavior is rewarded, excited behavior causes me to put more distance between the puppy and the other person or dog.
It’s really important that your puppy be positively exposed to as many different people, dogs, and novel objects as possible. Many people think that if they have another dog or their puppy gets to visit a friend’s dog on a regular basis, that will tick off the socialization box. However, socialization is not about repeatedly exposing your dog to the same few dogs, it’s about exposure to many new dogs of all sizes and ages. During puppy socialization at Golden Paws Dog Training, your puppy will be exposed to a variety of puppies due to the open enrollment, meaning that pups can start any time. In addition, we offer “adult dog day” during which we bring puppy-friendly adult dogs to interact with the pups.
All puppies go through fear periods, which often happen during the socialization period. This causes owners great anxiety as their once-confident puppy is now terrified of mailboxes and bicycles. It’s important to remember that this is a normal developmental stage, and during this time the puppy should be supported. Trying to force interaction can often do more harm than good. Instead of obsessing over what the puppy is fearful of, allow your dog to choose the level of interaction. If he wants to observe a mailbox from 20 feet away, let him. Don’t encourage him to get closer. If he chooses to walk away, that’s okay! He will walk away feeling more confident than if you would have lured or forced him closer.
Often clients will instruct others to give their nervous puppy treats. The thought is they are pairing treats (good things) with exposure to people (something the pup is nervous about). While this is sometimes a successful approach, dogs who are food motivated will often brave uncomfortable situations in order to get the food. Once the food is gone, however, the pup realizes that he is very overwhelmed and nervous and backs away quickly. Overall, this does more harm than good.
If you ever see your puppy experiencing conflict going up to a person with a treat, have the person toss the treat away from them, behind the puppy. Reward your dog for simply looking at the person. Don’t try to encourage or force more interaction than the puppy is willing to confidently give. In the long run, this method of exposure will benefit your puppy far greater than trying to encourage interaction when your dog is a bit nervous. Always listen to your puppy!
One-Experience Learning – Make It Count!
Remember that pups learn very quickly, sometimes with only one experience. Try to minimize your pup’s exposure to barking dogs or dogs that may not be good with other dogs. It’s up to you to hopefully prevent your dog from having a bad experience with another dog or person. This won’t always be possible, but the more you can do this the better off your pup will be.
Above all, your priority is your puppy and ensuring that the experiences he has are as positive as possible!
AVMA Recommendations for Puppy Socialization
Based on research, the American Veterinary Medical Association has developed the following guidelines for puppy socialization.
- Owners should have a socialization plan through at least 16 weeks of age
- Exposures should be positive!
- Pups needs to be exposed to other dogs, animals, adults, children, locations, and handling
- Puppy classes should be “well-managed” to provide best socialization experiences. (In other words, classes should not be a free-for-all hour of playing with all the other pups. Dogs should learn to be calm around other pups and people. Puppy play groups should include appropriately-matched puppies in size and temperament.)
- If a puppy appears scared or nervous, do not force interaction
- Focus on setting up your puppy for positive experiences
- Dogs should be exposed to other dogs, people, stimuli, and situations throughout their entire lives
- If your dog was unable to have a normal socialization period, consult an experienced trainer to help you with a plan
At Golden Paws Dog Training, we run puppy classes designed to expose your dog to many different things, including other puppies, adult dogs, kids, adults, sounds, surfaces, common household equipment, and so much more. We start teaching the pup some manners, explore enrichment opportunities, and engage the pup in very short controlled playing sessions with other puppies. Focus is on teaching puppies to confidently ignore other dogs and be calm, rather than thinking every dog is their playmate. Each week includes positive exposure to grooming tables, crates, grooming and gentle restraint.
Puppy classes are offered on on Saturday mornings. Click HERE for more information and to sign up!