Every reputable rescue or breeder is going to tell you the same thing - socialize your puppy. So will every trainer, neighbor and stranger. But they will also give you no direction or instructions on how to do so. Socialization is the most important thing you need to do when raising a Primitive type puppy. But done incorrectly, it can also ruin your puppy. So let’s have an honest conversation about how to do it right.
Socialization is not the same experience throughout your dog’s entire life. The vast majority of true socialization only takes place when your dog is 4-16 weeks old. After 16 weeks your dog’s brain chemistry changes and any experiences they has not been exposed to, now may be perceived with suspicion and fear. Also any exposure to new or novel things after 16 weeks is not automatically cataloged as a positive experience. In reality, depending on the dog’s early puppy experiences and genetic make up exposure to unfamiliar things after 16 weeks may actually create a negative association that can cause later conflict.
The Importance of Socialization
Many owners get mixed information from breeders, rescues and vets about the importance of socialization. In reality, the vast majority of behavior problems that lead dogs to being surrendered to shelters or euthanized, comes from insufficient or inappropriate socialization. To quote the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior “behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” (1)
It is easy to get swept up in the excitement of puppy raising. But it is important to be proactive about the flexibility you want your dog to have. If you want them to be able to travel, stay at a kennel, be groomed, examined by a vet, have guests over or even be walked in public, socialization must be your number one priority. You only get to do this once.
When Socialization Goes Wrong
When we are socializing a puppy, we are trying to make a positive impact on their emotional association to a situation. This requires that we make the experiences as positive to the puppy as possible. If we aren’t careful, and we overwhelm the puppy or expose them to something they perceived as scary, we can put a permanent stamp on that thing they were exposed to. That association is now colored by a conditioned emotion of fear. This can eventually evolve into shyness or aggression depending on how your dog responses to something they feel threatened by. This means that both a lack of socialization and inappropriate socialization can lead to the same outcome. This doesn’t mean keeping a bubble around your puppy and never letting them experience stress. Instead we must be careful and considerate in how we expose our dogs so that they can find success and resilience in stressful situations. This alone is all we have as owners to foster happy, behaviorally healthy dogs.
What Inappropriate Socialization Looks Like
Inappropriate socialization takes two forms. The first is the most common. Many well meaning owners expose their puppy to a myriad of people, noise or other novel things, without helping the puppy make a positive association. As the puppy becomes overwhelmed their brain becomes flooded with negative hormones that create a fear response. The second situation where puppies are inappropriately socialized is by exposing them to something that accidentally scares them. This could be interacting with a dog who bites them, a person who drops them, a bike that hits them, they fall down a flight of stairs, etc. Only the puppy’s genetics and brain chemistry can determine what will be traumatizing.
Appropriate Methods of Socialization
Ideal socialization gives the dog a voice in how they experience life situations. Without creating a line of communication, dogs are forced to eventually respond in aggressive manners. Therefore, we need to establish that line of communication.
When introducing your puppy to people, other animals and novel objects, plan ahead. Control the interaction as much as possible and apply high value food rewards such as meat or cheese to more challenging situations. Give your puppy the choice to interact with someone or something. If they are not comfortable, don’t force the introduction. Instead, remain the an area where your puppy feels safe for a few moments and then try again. Record the things your puppy struggles with and readdress them a day or two later. Take it slow, your puppy can get over fear or stress but they need to do it on their time. Giving your puppy the space and time to explore things they are unsure of will make them more resilient later on.
Plan out your puppy’s socialization period with a list of all the people, places, things, and animals they will need to interact with and try to get in as many as possible before their socialization window runs out.
If your puppy has a scarey experience during the socialization window, work hard to work on it as long as you can. But remember to still allow the puppy the time they need to get over it.
If you are beyond 16 weeks or trying to socialize an older dog - STOP - and reevaluate your methods. Expose alone will not create a positive association with the actors in their world. Any interaction in which your dog displays fear or discomfort needs to be addressed and it can take weeks, months, and even years, to create positive associations if there is fear displayed. If this is your dog, don’t despair! There are very effective protocols to address this. Hang tight and we will write an entire blog article on the topic in the very near future.
If you have a young puppy and want to make sure you are doing everything right - contact us with your info and we’ll be happy to let you know. We will likely ask for a video of you socializing your dog so please have that ready for when we reply.