These days the term “Socialization” gets thrown around left and right. You can hardly say the word puppy, without the next sentence containing socialization. Socialization myths and misconceptions abound! Ask the average dog or puppy owner What is socialization and you’re really likely to get not only a mix of definitions, but also definitions that have to do with the human meaning, not what we mean when we’re talking about dogs.
The problem with this type of overuse is that the meaning as it pertains to dog husbandry and training, has been distorted, if not completely lost. Socialization for humans is a vastly different beast than what knowledgeable trainers mean when they use the word socialization.
For people it means “the activity of mixing socially with others.” This implies contact, direct interaction, and of there being a positive social benefit which in turn also implies need. This is not at all what we trainers mean when we say socialization, and socializing your puppy in this manner can have drastic consequences for you and your pup down the line. Fear, aggression, over excitement, poor coping skills, sensitivities to new things or surprises, these are some of the common issues that come up with socialization blunders.
So what is Socialization in training?
Socialization is safe exposure of your pet to any and all stimuli they could encounter in the world, done in a positive or neutral fashion. Properly socialized your dog will develop to be confident and savvy throughout their life, having little difficulty adjusting to new places, people, or things. The focus is on the dog gaining experience and exposure, existing peacefully, and being supported through any sort of stress they might encounter. It is done gently and incrementally. There is very minimal or NO interaction with the things that the pup is being socialized.
Why is this important? Shouldn't the puppy have fun too?
Exploring the world is fun for your puppy!!! They don’t have to meet every dog, child, cat, or squirrel while they’re out there, and we actually don’t want them to.
Let’s think for a moment about what your puppy is learning when they greet someone excitedly. Are they learning how to be polite? Are they learning what you’d like them to do as an adult? Or are they practicing impolite greetings, being rewarded for doing so, and then learning to expect a fun interaction with strangers? If they’re expectation is strangers = fun, they’re also going to be excited about just the mere thought of this opportunity. This can be applied to anything and everything that you puppy is allowed to play with or interact with during this stage. They’re literally learning that the world is an absolutely amazing place and EVERYONE is there to greet them and play with them. Imagine if you met a person like this. Sprinting down the street, racing from stranger to stranger, touching everyone, getting way too close….not how someone should behave even if they want to meet you. So why teach your puppy this?
It gets worse by the way.
So while your puppy is being rewarded by strangers, playing, interacting, and just having a ball, you’re unintentionally but completely removing yourself from the picture. You’re just the person holding the end of the leash that has to be pulled here and there by the puppy for them to get to where they want to go. You’re deadweight that they ignore for as long as possible, until you end the fun and force them to leave the object of their affection. Your puppy has become a hyper social butterfly and you’re the fun police.
This is not who you want to be to your dog and is painfully counterproductive to training and building a deep bond with them.
For some dogs it’s not as benign as the need to greet everyone frantically. Instead these dogs might have had one too many overwhelming experiences. They potentially didn’t get the support from you they needed, OR they were just too stressed to respond to the support given. These dogs don’t want to feel like this and often become sensitive to situations which look like they may include social interaction or other triggers that make them uncomfortable.
The goal that these dogs have is to avoid feeling uncomfortable, avoid the stress. On leash though there’s no where to run or hide, so these dogs also learn that their only remaining option is to try to go on the offensive. The bark, lunge, growl, snap, utterly determined to try to make the thing that’s bothering them go away. Bite them before they bite me. Try to intimidate the scary thing away. Trying in vain to create distance between themselves and a threat.
Any experience which leaves your dog anxious enough to bark, growl, lunge or otherwise act like a maniac on the end of your leash, is one that I can guarantee is stressful for them. What peace and comfort is there in a life where you feel constantly under threat? These dogs need help and rehabilitation. It isn’t fair to anyone to be going through this kind of cycle again and again.
This doesn't have to be your future or reality
Properly done, socialization mitigates or eliminates the chance that your dog will be reactive, anxious, or fearful in everyday situations. It helps teach dogs how to adapt and how to cope with the unpredictability around them. It ultimately keeps both dogs and humans safe, prevents bites, and prevents the need for rehoming. Truly it is one of the most important, yet often overlooked or neglected parts of dog husbandry and training. Take a look at how I started this process with my puppy Froot!
Dogs who have issues can be helped. With the right techniques, support, and strategy they can be rehabilitated and taught that the world isn’t full of monsters they have to be scared of, wary of, or aggressive towards. It’s not too late and everyone’s quality of life can be improved!