How Do I Socialize My Puppy?
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
**Note** In some places, this post assumes that your puppy is clicker-conditioned (meaning, he knows that a click on a clicker announces that amazing delicious treats are coming, and he runs to you to collect them). Clicker conditioning your puppy is SO beneficial for so many reasons! It helps clarify learning experiences, and can even change the way your puppy feels about something (from being scared or uncertain, to being quite happy and enthusiastic). What IS Socialization? Let’s start with some things it’s NOT: * letting every human you cross pet and pick up your puppy * letting every dog you see greet and interact with your puppy These are the two biggest mistakes commonly made while raising and “socializing” a puppy.
Primary Objectives of Socialization: * We want to raise a confident, happy, and resilient adult dog.
This translates to a dog who is not easily fazed or startled, can handle unexpected or unfamiliar events, can withstand a reasonable amount of social and physical pressure (such as a vet examination) well, and can bounce back quickly from startling or frightening things. A dog like this is mentally sound, balanced, and healthy. If you do the “don’ts” listed above, you may inadvertently create an extremely nervous, defensive dog. A dog who, while young, had no autonomy over his own body. A dog who was overly manhandled, whose signals of discomfort were completely ignored or overridden because his fear and uncertainty meant “he just needs more exposure to this.” This can create a dog who is fear aggressive, or simply very afraid. * We want to raise an environmentally neutral dog. (This part is the MOST overlooked!) This means, we want our dog to see and experience things without losing their ever-loving minds. We want to be able to walk our dogs through a street market or fairground, and they show curiosity without feeling compelled to interact with their surroundings. They can watch and absorb their environment without losing focus on their handler. If you do the “don’ts” listed above, you could create a social MONSTER who, when he sees another human or dog, simply cannot be contained. This dog has zero impulse control, and has been raised to believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that every human and dog on earth is here especially for him to greet and interact with. “Oh, he’s just so friendly!” Yes… he is. But he’s also entitled and completely unable to focus, which makes bringing this dog into public very unfun. Additionally, his “friendliness” could start a dog fight quite easily. As this dog rushes in to greet another dog during his walk, his past experiences have led him to believe that all these dogs are perfectly happy to have him bowl into them like a little ball of enthusiasm, with no restraint. The thing is… he isn’t little anymore. And his enthusiasm is generally quite disrespectful of the other dog’s signals. This dog is so consumed by what he wants and expects to receive, that he’s not concerned at all about how the other dog is feeling. Dogs will put up with a lot from a young puppy that they absolutely will not stand for from an adolescent or adult dog.
Socialization vs. Flooding Flooding is a term that describes changing a dog’s behavior toward a certain stimulus by totally inundating him with that stimulus. It has many applications, but here are a couple examples (don’t try any of these on your own! please consult a trainer): Ex. 1: Resource Guarding This golden retriever is the sweetest, best dog his owners have ever had, but for one thing. He will attack any dog that comes near his tennis ball. Otherwise, he’s great with other dogs! A trainer might alter this dog’s perceptions by placing that dog in a yard with other dogs in a yard, and then dumping 200 tennis balls in. The golden retriever is swamped with so many balls, and he can’t even begin to try to guard them all from the other dogs. The tennis balls lose the “trigger” effect when the dog gets enough experience with this. (Don’t try this on your own!!!) Ex. 2: Fright Response You take your puppy to the hardware store and place him in the cart. He is scared of the cart, but you jump right into rolling it around and shopping. The puppy either gets over his uncertainty, or dwells deep in it and sinks into fear and helplessness throughout this experience. At that same hardware store, a dog is scared of the sliding automatic doors. His owner stands with his dog right next to those doors as they open and close over and over and over. The dog can’t escape the situation, and so must come to grips with the fact that the doors aren’t… actually… killing him. (I don’t recommend this technique, but it is something that happens.) Ex. 3 Dog on Dog Interactions Dog owners do this a LOT without realizing it! Without having properly socialized their dog beforehand, they take their dog to a dog park and throw him in with a bunch of new dogs. No criteria, control, or gradual introduction. This is flooding! And sometimes it works out fine, other times it doesn’t. Trainers sometimes do this as well in their play groups, but have means of control and criteria. Large dog groups can be a great way for a dog with dog-on-dog behavioral issues to learn proper socializing techniques, but this isn’t appropriate for puppies. In fact, I recommend staying away from the typical dog park altogether. There are better options! Flooding is NOT an appropriate approach for young puppies! So How is Puppy Socialization Different? Puppy socialization is about introducing your young dog to new things in a gradual and neutral way, and ensuring that the experience ends very positively. These experiences are intended to build your puppy’s confidence in himself and you, and to make him believe that pretty much anything new will end up working out great for him (this won’t always be true in life, but instilling that belief in your dog will make him very resilient in the future when/if something doesn’t go so well). Rule of Sevens Something that can help you ensure that your puppy has a well-rounded socialization experience is the Rule of Sevens. The Rule of Sevens is a guideline only, and basically states, “let your puppy experience at least seven types of things in each of these categories” (I recommend more!): 1. Surfaces, Textures, and Heights
Stainless steel, plastic, sandpaper, gravel, mesh (like a crate door), water, lanoleum flooring, towels, tarps, etc.
2. Foods and Food Containers
puzzle bowls, slow feeders, steel bowls, ceramic bowls, clear plastic containers, carrots, apples, cucumber, blueberries, sardines, etc.
I LOVE puzzle toys for dogs. Go to Amazon and go nuts. I recommend letting your puppy conquer one puzzle toy at a time. Once he’s really good at it, put it away and rotate in a new puzzle toy. By the time you get to the end of your collection, you can start over and add some difficulty to it: if the toy is adjustable, make it more challenging.. if not, place the toy on or in or under something (like a cardboard box, or on a wobble board).
4. Smells I like to use essential oils but be careful! Oils like teatree can kill your dog. Do your research. Oils dangerous for dogs include (but are not limited to): Cinnamon, Citrus (d-limonene), Pennyroyal, Peppermint, Pine, Tea tree (melaleuca), Wintergreen. ** Note: Often the “smells” section will be taken care of while tackling the “places” section.
5. People One or two new people at a time. People you trust and can direct. People who will stay neutral if you tell them to. People who love and respect dogs enough to NOT pet the puppy if that’s what is appropriate.
6. Dogs Complete with extreme care! Ask if you need help. While your puppy was with me, he met several dogs, all under supervision. He only met dogs I know well, and can control. I not only hold my dogs accountable for how they interact with a puppy, but I hold the puppy accountable as well! If he is rude (jumping onto, or chewing on) the other dog, I will correct him or allow my dog to correct him, and reset the scenario. THIS IS IMPORTANT to prevent creating a disrespectful and overly rambunctious dog!
7. Places Safe, neutral places where dogs are welcome. Novel places, such as a pond/lake, or a playground at a park (at a time when it’s empty, preferably). I like going to Lowe’s/Home Depot. At such a visit, I can introduce a puppy to a rolling surface (the big metal carts, or a shopping cart), some heights, mulch bag obstacle courses, etc. It’s awesome! But BE PREPARED during those visits to say “no, you may not pet the puppy” or “please leave my puppy alone, thank you” far more often than you allow any interaction. Learn to advocate for your dog. If you can handle telling someone they can pet an adorable little puppy, you will be well-prepared for advocating for your adult dog.
8. Challenges Set up fairly simple to gradually more challenging obstacles and exercises for your puppy. Use your imagination! The sky’s the limit here. You can accomplish MUCH with items in your home and garage. Just be sure to watch and gauge your puppy’s feelings about things. Some frustration or uncertainty is fine! But too much means you should lower the criteria.
Example Sessions to Get You Started: Exercise 1: New Surface Set the new surface (like a wobble board, a crate door, a slick metal or plastic sheet) on the floor. Lure the puppy toward it, let him eat off of it, explore it. Lure him across it. Let him stand on it while you feed continuously. Praise sparingly. Let him fully experience the new surface in a very positive way, but also give him space to think and make up his own mind. Constant praise and verbal encouragement can stunt a puppy’s ability to face challenges independently. Repeat this experience several times over the course of the next few months. *Note: an unstable surface like a wobble board should be stabilized somewhat (you can use your feet) at first. Then gradually, slowly, let it rock a little more. Exercise 2: New People a) People You Know: i. Ask your friend to sit on the ground, relaxed, but stay fairly neutral (no calling to the puppy or kissy noises). Give them food to hold. Allow your puppy to approach them at their own pace. If the puppy is reticent, ask your friend to toss some food toward the puppy a few times, gradually shortening the distance until the puppy can eat from their hand. If the puppy crawls onto their lap, they may pet and chat with him. To end the encounter, click your clicker and reward your puppy. Place him in a crate for a bit to decompress. ii. Ask your friend to stand or sit neutrally. Allow puppy to greet. Correct puppy for jumping OR click and reward puppy for sitting politely! In this iteration, the puppy does not interact with the new person. Sometimes, we have houseguests who don’t much like dogs. Your puppy must learn to accept neutrality or rejection from people sometimes. But YOU reward him for polite behavior. b) People You Don’t Know: In general, people I don’t know don’t get to pet my puppy. Kids especially whose parents I don’t know, I will not allow to interact with my puppy. Some people will even become annoyed or indignant that you did not let them touch your dog. That’s ok! People who want to pet your dog are not interested in your dog’s training. They want what they want for themselves. That’s a reflection of how we view pets in our culture. The healthy, balanced truth is this: your dog is yours, not theirs. They don’t have a right to him at all. You are responsible for your dog’s education and experiences, and you will be doing him a HUGE favor when you learn to advocate strongly for him. They have no relationship with you, and are not invested in you or your dog. This means if they interact with your dog, you will have a very difficult time controlling how that interaction plays out. So prevent it altogether. Not only will you protect your puppy and empower yourself as a dog owner, but you will also teach your puppy that most of the time, humans in the world are not there for him and that YOU are the most interesting and important human in the world. And I honestly don’t know which is more valuable. Exercise 3: New Place In a new place, go slowly. Stay calm and neutral, and praise sparingly. Allow your puppy to absorb the new information around him. Allow him to sniff aroud, look, etc. Ensure other people also allow him to do this by telling them to leave him alone. If he is unsure or frightened of someth
ing, pause and let him look and think. (Sliding doors like at a hardware store is often one of those things.) Stand near the object, but far enough away that your puppy isn’t freaking out. Let him absorb. As soon as you see a change from uncertainty to curiosity, click the clicker and feed him. If he moves toward the scary thing, click and feed. Curiosity is the opposite of fear! Reward curiosity. Exercise 4: Challenge Place a bunch of empty plastic water bottles in a kiddie pool or large cardboard box. Throw his breakfast in there. Let him figure it out. This allows your puppy to innovate and think creatively!
** Note: If you set up a challenge, and your puppy doesn’t make progress within 10 minutes, it was too hard. Simplify the challenge (e.g. remove the empty bottles from the pool) and try again.