In the past few years, puppy socialization has become a hot topic among dog owners and breeders. This is a very good thing because socialization can significantly improve the life of any dog. Numerous studies have been performed on various species, and the results are consistent—actively socialized animals have greater brain mass and dendritic branching, have far superior problem solving tendencies, are friendlier and more playful, and are more confident and less stressed in new situations.
Unfortunately, many people have recognized that socialization is important and so they are doing more of it, but have not spent much time contemplating or researching “how” to socialize and so they are actually decreasing their dogs’ confidence through hours and hours of negative or incorrect exposure to new stimuli. If you are doing it well, you pretty much cannot do too much socializing, but if you are causing stress or fear it takes very little to overload your dog.
This post is going to address the general principle of how to socialize a puppy from around four weeks to fifteen years old. While earlier socialization is also very important, different principles apply.
Your goal in socializing is to show your animal that the world is not a frightening place—that it is a fun place full of delight and joy and that new sights and sounds mean good things are coming. Socializing is not a discrete activity—it is a never-ending process. Sure, some days you will set out to socialize and others you will not, but ever moment your animal is with you he is learning how to react to the world and it is up to you to always see the people and things that might be scary and take the time to introduce him to them in a manner such that he comes to relish novelty.
There are many, many different techniques for socializing, and you should utilize them all at different times. In fact, how I work through each socializing opportunity is slightly different depending on the stimulus, the animal, my mood, his mood, etc. The real art lies in deciding which technique to use when, and while I can offer a few suggestions on that, the truth is that it requires a great deal of intuition and empathy on your part— sometimes he is going to need your gentle understanding, other times he is going to need your strong almost forceful leadership, and you need to feel and read what your animal needs at each moment and that can be challenging. But it is a skill that can be developed! If you are not sure about it, consider having an experienced trainer or behaviorist or even an observant friend come watch and offer a second opinion. Or video tape yourself working with him and go home and watch in slow motion and try to see what your animal’s body language was saying in the moment…
Before I outline some useful methods, here are some general principles to keep in mind:
- Enable your animal to control his own destiny. There have been some very interesting studies on this, but the basic truth is that for most animals, confidence derives from knowing they have control, so if you take away their ability to modulate distance and intensity of the stimuli you induce fearfulness. You can also work on this at home before you head out to socialize by creating as many response contingent stimuli in his environment as possible. The more he learns that he can push, pull, dig, advance, retreat, and change the stimuli, the more confident he will be. (One of the most interesting studies on this issue involved two groups of rats raised in identical environments. Each group had levers to pull and buttons to press. In Group A, the levers and buttons caused lights, sounds, food, water, etc. In group B, the levers did nothing–their water, food, lights and sound were controlled by the levers and buttons in Group A. So both groups had identical rewards and stimuli, but only Group A could cause the changes. At 60 days, they were tested in novel environments, and Group A was interested, curious, and un-stressed, whereas Group B was stressed and did not explore. Similar studies have been done on several species with corresponding results. These studies gave rise to the now popular dog training term “learned helplessness”.)
- Somewhat contrary to the notion of letting your animal control his own destiny is that you do not want your animal to drag you away from something in fear or panic. They key to this is not to take him too close too fast so he never gets panicked. Let him have the option of retreating a few feet, but do not let him drag you away either. Avoid any situation in which you would have to restrain him—he needs to see you as an ally and a leader, not an adversary.
- Be secure and calm. You are a leader and you should exude relaxed confidence.
- Do not reinforce fear. If he is afraid, support him, but be very careful that you are not reinforcing his fearful state. Do not sit there and give him treats and attention for acting fearful. Decrease the stimulus until he is not fearful and reinforce the confident behavior you are trying to achieve.
- Do reinforce relaxed confidence. When socializing, you are conditioning a psychological state much more than a particular behavior. That means you need to pay attention not only to what he is doing, but to how he is feeling. When his eyes relax, his muscles unclench, his breathing deepens that is what you want to reward.
- Take along a confident dog for him to imitate
- Do not correct or yell at him for anything during this process
As I said, there are many different techniques, but most of them derive from a few basic methodologies:
1. Expose your dog to a novel stimulus at a distance just outside the range at which you believe he might be bothered by the stimulus, and play calm but animated games with him. Whenever he gets closer to the stimulus, reward with food or play. You also move away (this is where many people make a mistake). You do not lure the animal one step closer to give them a reward—you let them take a step closer and then you give the reward away from the stimulus. By doing this, you are accomplishing two things—you are releasing the pressure to reward their choice, and you are putting the onus on him to essentially move you towards the stimulus in order to get the reward. You do this for a little while, letting the animal take you closer and closer, and you stop before the animal has a problem. You come back the next day and start a little closer than you started yesterday, and end a little closer than you ended yesterday. You do this over and over and over with many different stimuli until your animal will essentially pull you towards any loud noise or strange looking object or person because he wants his treat or toy or praise.
2. Closely related to the first method is the treat/retreat game—have a person on the edge of his comfort zone, and have them toss him a treat. When he steps forward to get the treat, have the person step back. He learns that as he steps forward, he gets the reward, AND the social pressure of having a person too close is relieved
3. Almost opposite the first—you just ignore the stimulus and walk right by. The key to this technique is that you want to walk one millimeter closer than the distance at which he would not notice. You do not want to go so close that he fights you, you just want to get close enough that he is aware, and you want to be resolute enough that it never occurs to him to balk. You briskly and confidently walk right by as though there were nothing there.
4. A combination of the first two—you sit somewhere at the threshold distance and you just play with your animal and possibly with another animal until he forgets all about the stimulus. You do not try to get any closer, you just saturate his brain with the stimulus at a safe distance.
5. Train your animal incompatible behaviors when away from stimuli that you can practice at a threshold distance. I particularly like activities like spin and rollover that require his mental, visual, and emotional involvement.
6. Actively train your dog to relax on cue and practice that in novel situations.
Once your dog is doing well, repeat the process in as many places as possible—vet’s office, mall, airport parking lot, elevator, vacuum, fan, blender, loud noises, flashing lights, school playground, be creative and teach him that every new experience is fun and safe!