The Specifics of Puppy Socialization
Target has a foyer area for customers to pass through. There are two double doors, then a long stretch of indoor space, and then a second set of double doors that enter into the store.
The other day I walked into the first set of double doors and was blocked by a small crowd of people interacting with a woman who was holding a puppy. As the owner smiled and explained all about the puppy, I watched the puppy’s behavior. Squirming, head turning frantically from one person’s hand to the next, nibbling, yawning, whining, and then finally settling into a lethargic demeanor in her owner’s arms while a long row of people took turns patting her head, rubbing her paws and telling her what a sweet dog she is. Eventually, she put the puppy down and asked her for a sit until the puppy plopped down for about ten seconds. The puppy walked to the end of the leash towards the door and began to chew the leash. The owner beamed and mentioned that she was doing everything she could to socialize her, just like the dog trainer told her to. The puppy was 13 weeks old.
I’m writing this article in an attempt to stop situations such as this from occurring to our puppies. For the purpose of this article, a puppy is a dog under the age of 16 weeks, though I feel these same practices should be considered for newly adopted dogs as well.
Somehow, in the dog owner world, the word socialization has become pigeonholed to experiences only involving the dog physically interacting with a new person or dog. This need to make sure the dog is interacting (instead of simply watching or playing with a toy solo on the outskirts of situations) is how a lot of puppies end up hyper, easily aroused and unable to settle in the presence of other dogs and new people.
I believe that over-stimulated adult dogs are made from over-exposure to overly-stimulated experiences as puppies and that many of the times our puppies are accidently being put into these situations under the falsehood of proper socialization. I’ve often seen owners bribe hesitant puppies with food towards new people or dogs to ensure there is an actual interaction. Bringing food into the equation can raise the stakes, adding to the arousal, or lure a puppy into a position it would rather not be in. If the puppy is small enough (which almost all are at some point) then they are simply picked up and given no choice but to interact.
Overly-stimulating experiences can also create overly shy dogs, overly defensive dogs who nip and growl, and dogs who become frantically, over the top wiggly at the approach of a person. I also believe that the root of this desire to hastily take a puppy from new place to new place comes from a perspective of caring and fear on the owner’s part. The owner is afraid that they will have an unfriendly, disobedient dog if they do not socialize properly. Unfortunately, putting dogs into the hands of strangers is just about the last thing we should be encouraging.
Telling dog owners to socialize their puppies to a variety of people and new places is proving to be too vague. Owners need specific guidelines, which I’ve done my best to provide here. First, I think it’s important to divide socialization into categories, separate socialization from obedience and explain the vital component of choice.
Categories of socialization for a puppy under 16 weeks.
Things the puppy touches, sees and hears.
As much as possible a puppy should be given the opportunity to inspect, sniff, paw at, roll on, look at and hear new things. What reaches the puppies feet, ears, nose and mouth should be given ten times the amount of hours that meeting strange people and dogs is given.
If the adult dog is going to spend the majority of their public life on a leash being told not to pull towards other people and dogs, then the majority of their public puppy life should set them up to expect this. Don’t convince a puppy that their job is to elicit attention from every sight they see. Go to the park or café, sit down, stay a while and let the puppy watch. Do not let them run up (or worse yet, pull you) towards kids, bikes, or other dogs if you don’t want them to do that as adults.
It seems almost everyone wants an adult dog that is neutral to the world around him or her, yet we spend a lot of time convincing the puppy to interact with things we want them to ignore as adults.
To be fair, choose “rest” times for the puppy, i.e. times when the puppy will be left alone by people and dogs passing by. I personally make “rest” time %100 of the time the puppy or adult dog is on leash, because it makes things so consistent and easy for them. The leash becomes a cue that tells the dog nothing interesting is going to happen, no one will be bothering you or giving you attention and you will also not be doing either of those things to others. I bring a chew toy and a mat and after a few weeks I have the most polite puppy around. If I want my puppy to socialize, I end rest time by taking the leash off, or attaching a long line. This is hands down, the easiest way to communicate that being on leash is not playtime, and translates beautifully into an adult dog that settles easily in almost all situations.
It’s entirely possible for a dog to grow up with a positive association of almost everything in a new place without having directly interacted with it. If the puppy is fearful of something, it is particularly important that they are not forced, with treats or otherwise to interact.
People and things that touch the puppy and always allowing the puppy to have the choice to interact.
“Exposure is socialization” should be the new mantra.
Puppies under 16 weeks should be off leash or on 15-30 foot long line when something, someone, or some dog is going to touch them. The main reason for doing this is to teach the puppy that backing up is an option. Backing away is the “flight” response to fear and confrontation. Even if the situation is mild, such as brushing the dog for the first time, this is the puppy’s time of life to learn how to appropriately deal with confrontation. Aggression is eliminated by always allowing puppies the chance to back away. Puppies who know they can back up and avoid confrontation turn into adult dogs with the same behavior.
If the puppy has chosen to back away initially, training the puppy with positive reinforcement, so they may choose on his or her own to allow the interaction will allow adult dogs to be vetted and groomed without aggression. Allowing the puppy to have a choice in scary situations will help them overcome the next hesitation more quickly in the future.
If you consider that each animal has a fuse, allowing the puppy to work through fearful situations gradually, gives the adult dog a longer fuse. Forcing the puppy into the situation shortens the fuse.
Picking up a puppy for other people to pet, to take a brush to, to meet another dog, to hold down for a vaccine, etc. will not give you a clue into how the puppy is feeling. Even feeding treats while doing this can be a bad idea, since they may find the restraint was not worth the food, devaluing the food (and the giver of the food) in the future.
Fear is shown through fight, flight or freeze. If you take away flight, you are left with freeze and fight. Almost all puppies this age will freeze, so when holding an unmoving puppy, keep in mind this may not actually be a calm, happy puppy, it is most likely a nervous puppy who has run out of options. As the puppy grows, they may decide to use their teeth to get the point across instead.
Time should be spent socializing the puppy to equipment such as collars, harnesses and tags. Allow the puppy to sniff everything before you’ve put it on them. If the object makes noise, let the puppy hear the noise first. Puppies can be taught to put their heads into their collars through targeting and can be taught to give into the pressure of a leash or harness through collar cues.
People the puppy needs to know.
I’m just going to say it; puppies under 16 weeks of age do not need to meet strangers. Unless the owner does not have at least 10 friends or family members, including neighbors, groomers and the vet staff, the puppy will gain all the socialization she needs from multiple encounters with these relevant people. Spending the time from 8-16 weeks focusing on relevant people is the perfect situation for both the owner and puppy.
This method works because the puppy will have the chance to build a solid history of appropriate behaviors whilst almost ensuring that the situation will become easier and less stressful for the puppy each time. The owner will also feel more comfortable dealing with people they know, and most often will not feel rushed or anxious. Focusing on the puppy’s behavior can take precedent instead of worrying about small chat with new people.
The idea that we must find 100 people to expose our puppy to is based on the idea that 100 people will look and smell differently, do different things and thus at the end of the 100 people, our puppy will have a solid history of being exposed to enough variety that they will calmly and happily accept touch from the general public. The problem with this is that we are guessing and hoping our way through a vital time in puppy life.
We are also expending a lot of owner energy on non-relevant people. Dozens of owners come to me having completed stranger orientations yet the puppy hasn’t met the neighbor’s three doors down. I promise, it’s much worse to have an adult dog that’s barks at the neighbors than it is to have an adult dog that barks at strangers at Target. In the same way, dealing with an overly fearful or aggressive dog when grandpa comes over once a month, when the UPS guy comes every other day, when at the vets or groomer, or when visiting family out of town is a nightmare. Think of the relevant people who will be around your dog and focus solely on socializing with those people as much as you can during these 8 weeks.
Strangers may pet the puppy for a few minutes and then leave. In this brief time the puppy may or may not have peed, rolled over, jumped on, chewed on, barked at, ignored, or calmly accepted the stranger’s affection. The puppy may or may not have had time to sniff this person, watch this person make weird noises such as coughing, sneezing, ride up on a bike or skateboard, carry lots of swaying plastic bags, carry a baby around, etc. The puppy may or may not have had a good experience, or even enough of an experience to repeat it willingly. We won’t know if the puppy would choose to approach that person, or allow that person to approach them again in the future. Simply put, interactions with strangers do not allow us to fully access what impact the experience had on the puppy; only multiple encounters can do that.
When you choose 10-15 specific people, including the groomer and vet staff, you don’t have to guess what exposure you have achieved, because you will know. The puppy will have multiple chances to gain confidence, to accept touch without chewing, to play a game that teaches them sit, down or stand, to see and smell familiar things while discovering non-familiar things.
The experiences will be exciting without being frenzied and the puppy and owner will both benefit. Within these 8 weeks, the puppy should have logged enough hours with these people that they are pretty cool and collected when it comes to seeing them. The goals of these encounters at the end of 8 weeks should be a puppy who confidently walks or trots over to the person and stands or sits, accept touch without jumping up, rolling over or peeing. They should not be barking, biting hands or batting their paws around. If on a leash, they should not be pulling towards the person frantically. If the puppy is still doing these things with these 10 people, keep working within this relevant group until success has been achieved. A calm and collected 16 week old should be a pre-requisite to taking the puppy to meet strangers.
Separating socialization from obedience.
It is alluring for the owner to train a 10 week puppy to sit and lie down, though the success of those two things can set the owner up to feel discouraged when every thing else in the obedience world of a 14 week old puppy seems not to come as easily.
Owners should be told that is not normal for a 15-week-old puppy to heel for a one-mile walk, so they don’t spend their time trying to train it and feel discouraged when the puppy inevitably pulls. They should be told it is normal for puppies of this age to chew every thing, including hands so they are prepared to keep a fleece toy with them.
Puppies should be taught to proper play with a tug toy, how to get food out of a toy, how to drop an object, how to follow a treat that is either thrown or being used as a lure, and how to follow a target stick. Training them a balanced stand and how walk onto a scale is important. Using collar cues to prepare them for the pressure of a leash is vital yet often over looked. Each of these behaviors is the foundation for raising a confident, obedient adult dog.
0-16 weeks. The imprinting period.
During this time the brain is most impressionable. This is the critical learning period in a dog’s life.
0-7 weeks. First socialization period and awareness period.
Puppies open their eyes, grow teeth and learn to walk and eat on their own. They should remain with mom and siblings during this entire time. They begin to explore and find comfort in a stable environment. They become aware of the differences between canine and human interactions.
8-11 weeks. First fear period.
Scary experiences have a huge impact in these weeks. Bad experiences during this time are likely to resurface after the dog is mature. Avoid taking the puppy to the groomer, vet, or any place new and potentially scary during these 4 weeks.
7-16 weeks. Second socialization period.
Puppies now have the brain waves of an adult dog and are ready to go to their new homes. Socialization experiences should be thoughtful and varied. Puppies learn to respond to cues and learn by association. Strong human bonding begins and puppies should also learn to have downtime and relax when alone.