Socialization is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the dog world. Many dog owners believe socialization means their dog is social — that she likes to meet new people and other dogs. It would make sense then that in many people’s minds “socialization” means opportunities for their dog to interact with other dogs and people. However, when it comes to dog training and canine development, socialization means something a little more specific.
Dog trainer and author Zazie Todd, PhD, explains, “The sensitive period for socialization is a time in a puppy’s life from 3 weeks until around 12 to14 weeks when the brain is very malleable. You can teach obedience at any age, but you can’t get the socialization period back, as it is a special time in puppy development.”
Essentially, only puppies under 14 weeks can technically be socialized. If your dog didn’t get well-socialized as a puppy it doesn’t mean your dog’s behavior might not improve or that your dog can’t become more comfortable around strange dogs and people.
Why you should socialize your dog
Before bringing a dog home from a responsible breeder, rescue or shelter, ask about what kind of early socialization a puppy has received because that critical window for socialization begins weeks before puppies are able to leave their mothers. “If you miss the window, it could cause issues down the road,” Dr. Opyt says. “Incomplete socialization early in life can increase the chance of behavioral challenges later in life including fear and aggression.”
Don’t equate socialization with playing with other dogs or people. Many dogs, especially as they reach adulthood, become less playful with dogs they don’t know. This can also have breed-specific components, with many breeds being more reserved or wary around new
people or animals.
As a trainer, I define a socialized dog as one who is comfortable with new experiences and places and being near/around other dogs and new people. Note: Being comfortable and politely behaved around dogs and people does not mean excited to play or interact with. Dogs of all ages need continued training and exposure to new experiences in order to remain comfortable, confident and friendly. In addition, regular exposure to new places, people and other dogs for most dogs is highly mentally stimulating and rewarding and thus contributes to an overall better quality of life for the dog as well as her owner.
Does your dog need help?
A dog who is unsocialized or under socialized will “act scared or anxious around other animals, people or in new places.” says Dr. Opyt, who notes that in these situations, you’ll see them shaking or they may even act out aggressively toward other animals or people.
This behavior is not only stressful for your dog and potentially embarrassing to you, but it can also be life threatening. Unfortunately, behavioral issues like aggression is the No. 1 cause of pet owners sending their pet to shelters for re-adoption.
Behavioral issues are also a common reason dogs are euthanized. If at any point you find yourself feeling concerned about your dog’s behavior, worried or overwhelmed about how best to support your dog, connect directly with a positive reinforcement-based trainer. Dr. Opyt suggests working one-on-one with a qualified trainer to set up an individualized socialization plan for you and your dog.
How to socialize your dog
When socializing a dog, especially a puppy, ask yourself what his whole life will look like. “Think about everything and everybody your puppy might meet later in life. The aim of socialization is to give the puppy a very wide range of experiences, making him as positive as possible and always giving the puppy a choice,” Zazie explains.
Expose to all sorts of people: Give a puppy experience seeing people of different sexes, races, people with beards, people wearing hats, sunglasses and costumes as well as people using wheelchairs, walkers and strollers. “It may sound a bit tricky during the pandemic, but your puppy does not have to interact with these people; he can just see them from a distance,” Zazie says.
Attend a training class: Get hands-on guidance from a trainer as your dog safely interacts and, just as importantly, learns to ignore other pups and people in age-appropriate ways. Find a trainer who uses only reward-based methods commonly referred to as positive reinforcement. This is particularly important for a puppy.
“Ideally, the class will include sections on getting puppy used to being handled (like at the vet) and for puppies to play together,” Zazie explains.
“Always keep an eye on your puppy to ensure he is happy and not overwhelmed. The trainer should do consent tests in play where you separate the puppies so they can stop playing if they want or return to play if they were enjoying it.”
Move at the dog’s pace: When working with an older dog who wasn’t properly socialization as a puppy, move at your dog’s pace. Do not
overwhelm or flood her with new experiences, people or other dogs.
“If your adult dog is afraid, help him avoid the thing he is afraid of and work out a training plan that uses very yummy treats to teach him to like it instead of fear it (the technical term is counter- conditioning),” Zazie advises.
Create positive association: Have lots of small pieces of “high-value” treats (anything your dog is very excited about, usually the smellier the better) whenever you go out to train. When your dog sees another dog or a person at a distance, give her a treat. Repeat over several training sessions.
Anytime your dog sees another dog or person she gets a treat. Soon your dog will begin to associate the sight of a person or other dog with getting the reward and will look to you instead of getting worried or overly excited about the presence of a person or dog.
Over time and many training sessions, decrease the distance between the person or dog and your dog. If at any point your dog becomes uncomfortable or struggling, take a few steps back (literally) and add distance between your dog and the person/dog. The goal is to work at a pace your dog is comfortable with and, even as we begin to decrease distance between our dog and the other dog or person, to stay at a distance where our dog is still able to focus on us and comfortably take treats.
Don’t tense up that leash: When working on socialization, keep your dog leashed and close to you. Use a 6-foot leash and keep it slack so your dog doesn’t respond to or become stressed by leash pressure. For many dogs, this can create a feeling of being trapped and exacerbate anxiety about seeing other dogs or people.
Choose the right location: Pick training spots that are as controlled as possible, meaning you can keep your dog at distances where he can be successful. Avoid off-leash areas, especially dog parks. The key with socializing a dog is to build comfort and confidence, getting closer to people and other dogs and giving your dog the space he needs to stay safe and comfortable.
“Outdoor, dog-friendly restaurants and bars are good places to keep your pet on a leash and near you while exposing them to sights and sounds as well as other people and other pets” Dr. Opyt advises.
Make time for play dates
Once your dog is comfortable seeing other dogs or people, he is ready for the next step. “You can start with a controlled environment like a 1:1 interaction with a person and dog you know, in a neutral area, on leash,” Dr. Opyt says. “If things go well, schedule regular playdates with individual dogs or small groups, and gradually give your dog more freedom to interact. Structured training classes can be a good option as well, although availability may be limited during COVID.”
It’s not possible to do too much socialization, but it’s very easy to get socialization wrong. Zazie notes that a common mistake is to do too much too quickly and “to accidentally frighten” the dog. To prevent this, particularly with puppies, Zazie encourages owners to, “Always keep an eye on your puppy’s body language. Don’t play pass-the-parcel with puppies for example, because it doesn’t give the puppy a choice, and he might be afraid of being handed to a stranger.”
Instead, allow your puppy to have the freedom to approach new people — or not. The idea is to not flood or overwhelm your puppy with potentially stressful or overwhelming stimulation. The same approach of not forcing interactions should be taken with older dogs who lacked key socialization.
If at any point your dog becomes overwhelmed or starts to react to the other dogs or people just add more distance until your dog is able to focus on taking treats again.