Nov 242015


One puppy behavior that cannot be taught without help is how to meet new people.  Each of us needs interactions with novel people so that our puppies can practice appropriate greetings and learn that people are fun and not frightening.  I have wrestled quite a bit with whether or not to blog about this: I do not want to seem condescending or strident, and this is information most readers of this blog will likely be very certain they already know! However, for the past few months I have been taking a puppy around to socialize and meet lots of people, and I have been reminded over and over again how many people out there—even people with extensive dog experience and great intentions—interact with puppies in ways that are problematic.

So please do not take this as scolding, but as an opportunity for us all to pause and think about how we can help one another… And do not interpret any of this to mean you should not interact with puppies—it is very much appreciated when you take a few minutes to help us socialize! But puppies learn very quickly, and it does not take many bad encounters to have a significantly negative impact. So give a little thought to how you can be a positive influence.

Here are a few thoughts:

Things to do:

  • Have a conversation—the single best step you can take to making your interaction beneficial for the puppy is to have a conversation with the owner before you do anything with the puppy. 254313_10150204842632371_5903048_nAsk them about how they want the interaction to go, what things to avoid, what to encourage. No two puppies are identical, and what would be super helpful with one puppy might be quite harmful with another. You do not know their goals, their issues, you must ask!
  • Listen to the owner—no matter how knowledgeable you may be, you do not know what this owner and dog want. You must carefully listen to what they tell you.
  • Listen to the dog—observe the dog closely while interacting. If it is intimidated by what you are doing, back off. If it is pulling back or trying to avoid you, stop. If it is getting too excited and frenetic, slow your actions and reduce your energy. This is not a contest to get the dog to love you the most, it is a long process to get the dog to react to new people the way the owner wants.
  • Start easy, get harder—you can always increase the intensity and difficulty, but if you come on too strong it is very difficult to undo.
  • Be calm but friendly—almost  nobody wants a dog that goes crazy and gets frantic when it meets new people.
  • When in doubt, ignore—if you are not sure; if a puppy seems nervous or hyper or whatever, and you are not sure what the owner would like, the safest path is to ignore the puppy while you ask the owner.
  • You are not entitled—this is not your puppy. Sometimes the owner way not want the puppy to meet you at all. Or may want you to ignore the puppy. You do not know what that they may be working on at any given moment, so do not take it personally if it does not involve you…


Things to avoid:

  • Too much energy—many dog lovers coming rushing in and start frenetically playing. This is overwhelming to some puppies, but to many it simply creates an expectation that greetings are supposed to be super-high-energy, which is almost never what an owner wants. Calm, friendly, thoughtful greetings are far more desired by most owners. After the initial greeting is over, many owners will appreciate your having a good play session with their puppies, but initially calm is much better than too energetic.
  • Telling them to sit, sit, sit—this is a very well-intended recent trend. Lots of pet owners and Petco trainers, learned the idea that a great way to avoid jumping up is to reinforce an incompatible behavior, and so they ask every puppy to sit. And in truth, this might be a fine trend, except that most people do it poorly. Their timing is awful. 427393_10150948043917371_571527743_n
  • Approaching too directly—when you see a puppy and immediately rush straight towards it, think about how this looks to the puppy.
  • Petting them on the top of the head—some dogs love this, some owners want to work on this, but in general, most dogs would prefer if you do not start out petting them on their heads.
  • Grabbing them or pulling them towards you—most dogs have a natural opposition reflex, especially to being pulled towards a stranger.
  • Petting them roughly—many puppies do not want to be whacked, tousled, slapped, etc.
  • Correcting them—unless we have discussed it, you do not know the rules I have taught my puppy. So if he paws at you that may be exactly what I trained him to do. If he jumps up on you, or mouths your hand, or lies down, or stands, whatever he does, you should not correct unless you know it is something he is not supposed to do…
  • Pushing them too far—I was at a seminar recently with my puppy, and he was having a great time meeting new people in a new place with lots of dogs and commotion. And a lady came over, sat down, and started harassing him. Grabbing his feet, lifting him up, grasping his testicles… And she kept it up until he was trying to get away from her and she would not let him get away. All the while she was explaining to me how much people appreciate her playing with their puppies, how she desensitizes them to lots of strange things, how she is beloved as a molester of puppies. It is not your job to torment my puppy. If I want or need my puppy to have that experience, I will ask someone I know and trust. I might even ask you, but it is not your place to decide to push my puppy.
  • Your adult dog correcting them—unless we have discussed it in advance, I do not want my puppy to have negative experiences with other dogs. If you are not 100% sure that your dog is great with puppies, please stay away. Many people bring their dogs over to meet my puppy and when I ask if their dog is good with puppies, they tell me they do not know. @#$^$%&#&!! Do not experiment with my puppy. A bad experience can cause issues that will take years to resolve or may never be undone. Oh, and noise counts. I have had several people tell me their dogs are good with puppies, then their dog reacts negatively and growls, barks or otherwise tells off my puppy, and they say, “See, she doesn’t ever make contact…” Contact is not the issue—I am far more concerned about psychological trauma then physical trauma, so if your dog is not welcoming and benevolent tell me so I can keep my puppy away!
  • Your dog being too forward—If your dog loves puppies and people and comes rushing up into my puppy’s space, there is a good likelihood that my puppy will be frightened. MAny puppies are sensitive to pressure, particularly from adult dogs. Keep your dog under control and a bit away, and let me bring the puppy over. This way the puppy can approach at his pace and not get overwhelmed.
  • Your dog being too interested in me—many puppies are a little insecure and even jealous about their owner. If your dog comes running in and greets me super enthusiastically, it may be negative for my puppy.
  • Your dog making things negative—I was practicing tunnels with my puppy when someone else came in and let their puppy say hello. Which was great. But every time my puppy tried to go into a tunnel, theirs would blast in after him, sometimes same direction, sometimes opposing, and would either knock my puppy over or just startle him. Later I was working my puppy on a table, and she encouraged her dog to jump up and essentially knock him off the table. These actions made my puppy far less confident about tunnels and tables—he is not sure another dog will not come knock him down…
  • Playing keep away—I am a little flabbergasted when people come up and take my puppy’s toy and don’t give it back. What is this game supposed to be? It is just obnoxious. Sure, you can tease the puppy, move the toy quickly, but the goal is to get the puppy to try harder and when they do try hard, they should win! If you want a toy, go get one, but that toy is my puppies, so if you are going to play with it make sure you do it in a way that is pleasing to my puppy.
  • Pretending to throw something—much like keep away, I am not really sure what people think they are doing. Yes, if you try you can fool the puppy. Bravo for you. But you are diminishing the puppy’s desire to fetch and decreasing his inclination to trust humans. 11226080_10206399172931203_4726228965782265055_o
  • Tugging on their toy too hard—although it may not always feel like it, puppies have small teeth and weak jaws, and we do not want tug to be unpleasant.
  • Intruding on training—if I am not looking at you, and am clearly working on something with my puppy, do not talk to me. Do not talk to my puppy. Do not call my puppy. Leave us alone, or wait until we are done and approach you.
  • Following—if you are approaching and I head the other way, don’t chase me down. It likely means that my puppy is not in the mood to meet you, or that your dog is frightening my puppy, or that for some other reason I do not want to interact with you right now.
  • Picking them up—I cannot believe how many people think it is ok to run in and pick up a puppy that they hardly know. How would you like it if someone did this to you? Being held is an act of trust. Do not pick up a puppy until you have cleared it with both the owner and the puppy.
  • Making lots of baby noises—a surprising number of people squeal and grunt and goo-goo and screech when they see a puppy. This is probably not a huge deal to the puppy either way, but it is really annoying to me, so please stop it.
 November 24, 2015  Posted by at 5:30 pm Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Jan 032009



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!