Common Socialization Pitfalls and What to Do Instead
Many pet parents come to dog trainers with behaviors that stem from experiences during socialization. One example of how a single experience can affect an otherwise well socialized dog is Heidi, as shown in a story shared by Dr. Jen Summerfield on her blog1. Heidi was a typical, happy puppy who enjoyed playing with the neighborhood dog in her yard. One day Heidi came too close to an electric fence while playing and received a shock, which Heidi associated with the other dog. She acted aggressively to the other dog, who returned aggression, resulting in a full-fledged fight. That experience stayed with Heidi for life, and she slowly became more and more aggressive to other dogs based off one experience.
People know how important socialization is for other pets, but many do not know how common socialization experiences can be negative for pets. The following are all ways caring pet parents don’t realize they are sabotaging socialization efforts.
Starting with Too Much, Too Soon:
Once you bring your furry bundle of joy home, it can be difficult not to start toting them around with you everywhere. After all, you want to include them in your daily life and get a jump start on socialization, right? What many pet parents forget, however, is that puppies are just starting out getting used to our world and living without mom can be a huge adjustment in itself. For the first few weeks, even household experiences like carpets, tv’s, stairs and all the different smells, can be overwhelming for many pups.
Puppies who are introduced to too much too soon can develop negative reactions to new experiences just because it is more than they are ready for. Even if pet parents are doing exactly what is suggested for socialization (getting them out there as much as possible), the result of overwhelming a puppy not ready to experience so much can result in the same fearfulness that comes from lack of socialization.
Start your puppy off slowly by providing household stimulation with different textures, smells and sounds. When your puppy is very young, be sure to take structured breaks in a space where your dog feels secure before venturing out and taking in more of life’s adventures. Once they welcome these experiences with tail wagging and playful body language, move on to the more stimulating experiences of outside people, cars and animals. As they get older, you can pepper in longer adventure periods and more challenging environments.
Forgetting to Make It Fun:
Many parents forget that socialization is more than just exposing your pet to new things, it is also making sure they enjoy them. It can be difficult to keep an eye on Fluffy’s body language to make sure they are enjoying the experience, especially when you are learning to interpret your dog’s signals. We previously covered metacommunications in our article covering play behaviors, as well as ways to read a dog’s body language.
The reason why you should always be in tune with how your dog is reacting is because an experience that your puppy perceives as negative, even once, can change their reaction for life (just like with Heidi). Widened eyes, a stiffened body, and laid-back ears means your pooch is feeling fearful of that loud car nearby (or any other new experience). If not counteracted, that fear response can remain for the rest of their lives.
Fortunately, pet parents in tune with their dog’s body language can put extra effort into making the new experience fun, creating a positive association. By giving treats, praise, or interactive play, pet parents can create strong positive connections with potential phobias. Your dog may be afraid of that really big dog in the next yard, but they will still come to love exploring their lawn with you if you are sure to play plenty of games there. Remember that the scarier the experience, the greater value you should use with the reward. Bring out the bacon snacks for their first encounter with a passing train, leave the dry kibble rewards for encouragement to play fetch.
Tailor Experiences for the Puppy:
Just like with human siblings, puppies have all different sorts of personalities right from birth. There will always be one puppy content to sit in the corner, one who tries to climb all over you immediately, and others at varying stages in between. Even when adopting two puppies at the same time, you may find one ready and willing to adventure outside their comfort zone earlier than the other. This means that the socialization schedule and method of training for each puppy may be different.
Body language is equally important in this aspect of socialization as well. If you have a puppy who is hesitating to venture into the water at the beach, it is important to back off and let them proceed at the correct pace. This is still true if your other dog immediately jumped into the water at first sight. While it might be tempting to pick them up and force them into the water (creating a negative experience) or to lure them into the water with a food reward (making the dog override their discomfort just to get the reward), you should instead watch for body language cues that your dog is uncomfortable and back off to let them process the idea. Instead, create new experiences for your pet with their comfort zones in mind by
Stopping Socialization After A Certain Age:
The sensitive period, a term used for the period of ideal socialization in puppies four to fourteen weeks in age, can make it seem like this is the only time your puppy needs socialization. While four to fourteen weeks marks one of several critical periods of mental development for your dog, it is also true that they can forget experiences just like the best of us. Puppies who are excellently socialized early in life can still display fearfulness and aggression to environments that they were socialized to only a few times. This makes the process ongoing, but also guarantees you a sidekick for life.
For more information about the socialization process, take a look out our article.
Insisting on the Puppy Classes:
Puppy classes are only excellent socialization tools if your puppy is the right candidate for them. Many times, pet parents hear that puppy classes should be their first step to providing socialization experiences, but they don’t realize puppy classes are not appropriate for all puppies. This links back to the importance of watching for body language in your puppy and adjusting the socialization process for your puppy’s individual needs. Puppies who are already showing fear responses to loud environments, other dogs, or are not yet confident enough to withstand the stresses of a group class would only be harmed by enrolling them in a puppy class (or visiting a dog park) prematurely. Individual classes with a positive reinforcement trainer may help your puppy (or adult dog) more than group classes.
When considering whether to introduce your new puppy or adult dog into a group environment, reflect whether they are ready for the experience and if it would benefit them. Some puppies would profit more with individual instruction and a slow introduction to other dogs and the stresses of group classes. Puppy classes, dog parks, and pet themed businesses can prove to be too much too soon for many dogs.
Simply starting the process of socialization can be wonderful for both you and your furry loved one. If you keep these common issues in mind, you can build a strong relationship with your dog built on mutual understanding and learn to work within their comfort zone.
By Lauren Pescarus
1 Summerfield, J. (2016, July 08). The Dark Side of Socialization: Fear Periods and Single Event Learning. Retrieved July 20, 2018, from http://www.drjensdogblog.com/the-dark-side-of-socialization-fear-periods-and-single-event-learning/