What is Socialization?
Socialization is the process of habituating, or getting used to things in the environment.
So socialization is a broader concept than simply creating opportunities for your dogs to be social; it includes preparing them for all sorts of events they are likely to experience in their lifetimes.
While socialization is important for dogs of all ages, it is especially true for puppies, who have a socialization period, a time when they are more open to accepting things in the environment – starting approximately at 3 weeks of age and ending in the range of 12-18 weeks old.
Once this critical period ends, puppies will fight or flee from things they have not been socialized to. In an evolutionary sense, they have survived to their current age without exposure to these things, and consequently do not need to confront them to survive, thus their attempt to increase distance from them.
Socialize Dogs To…
Luckily, we know the most important things to socialize dogs to. These include:
- People of all kinds – men, women, babies, and children of all ages, etc.
- Other puppies and dogs – allowing normal canine interactions and play opportunities
- Veterinary clinics – the staff, vets with lab coats, sights, sounds, smells, body handling for examinations and any other procedures
- Body handling, including for brushing teeth, cutting nails, taking baths, or going to a groomer
- Places – neighborhoods, parks, pet stores, anywhere else your dog will go in life
- Riding in vehicles
- Loud sounds, fireworks, thunderstorms – not going outside near them, but making sure they do not scare your dog or puppy inside the home.
- And anything else your dog will come across in life.
How the Process Works
If you think of each novel event or thing starting out as neutral from your puppy’s perspective, then your work is to ensure you help your puppy form a positive association with the event/thing.
Exposing puppies and dogs to things can lead to: 1. habituation – getting used to them, or 2. sensitization – becoming more sensitive towards the them. In the latter case, they move from neutral to negative. This is the opposite of what we want to accomplish with socialization, and can lead to fear and aggression – two of the more complicated behavior problems to solve with training.
So while our dogs may habituate to sights and sounds around the neighborhood and we can take advantage of a passive socialization process at times, we also know certain things that are inevitably scary or uncomfortable such as veterinary exams.
To counteract these situations, we can simply pair things/events with super tasty treats. This will send these neutral experiences into a definite positive category.
- A stranger walking across the street could be scary, but instead you can make it equal a treat for your puppy. Over time, the puppy will start to love seeing new people approach.
- Every time the veterinarian exams a body part, deliver your puppy one of his favorite treats to turn a potentially scary and uncomfortable experience into something pleasant.
Checkout our Dog Socialization: Part II blog – answering questions about socialization.