Dog Socialization: Part II
Don’t socialize your puppy?
There is a relatively new message spreading around the dog world claiming you should not socialize your puppy, or that you should not actively socialize your puppy; just let life happen.
Here is why this is bad advice:
As discussed in our Dog Socialization: Part I article, if you simply take your puppy and expose him to sights, scents, and sounds, he could habituate to these things (which would be excellent!), or unfortunately, he could sensitize to them and start to fear them.
Knowing that behavior problems are one of, if not the top reason dogs are relinquished to animal shelters, as a professional dog trainer it should be mandatory to recommend socialization to all puppies, especially the type of socialization that actively targets forming positive associations with things and events they will have to experience during their lifetimes. This is literally preventative measures against fear and aggression, the two big behavior problems that lead to bites of other dogs and people, and which can ultimately lead to euthanasia of the biter.
Don’t use treats during socialization?
Don’t actively socialize your puppy may also be framed as don’t use treats during the socialization process.
Not all situations will need treats. The main priority is for our puppies to form positive associations. Playing with other dogs can be a naturally positive experience. We don’t need to feed treats during the play, although we could after each break taken by the pups, or after encouraging them to disengage for a quick break, then release them to play again (it’s like a double-reward: treats + play).
More importantly though, if one puppy bullies the other, after separating them you can feed your puppy some treats to offset what would otherwise be a negative experience.
And while we can allow passive socialization to occur in situations like walking through a neighborhood and allowing your puppy to take in all sights, sounds, and scents, there are also situations that left without any obvious intervention from us will become negative or scary experiences, so we’re much better off delivering treats to our pups to intentionally create as many positive associations as possible.
Therefore, you definitely should use treats during the socialization process.
Using treats during socialization is a distraction?
For proper socialization to take place, following correct training order of events, we want our puppies and dogs to observe a thing in the environment so that they can get used to it and form a positive association with it, if needed. This means, they should notice the thing (usually making eye contact with it, but we can also work with any of the senses), so that we can pair it with something good – like treats, play with a favorite toy, and happy praise. None of these things is a distraction.
Rather they are rewards and positive events, so that a behavior (like your puppy making eye contact with you and standing quietly), is rewarded and thus repeated in the future, or…
A stimulus/event (like a person approaching), now predicts a positive event occurring (treats, play, and praise).
So yes, definitely use treats during socialization, especially if there is something your puppy is showing uncertainty or fear towards.
If you’re worried that your puppy will start to enjoy people and other dogs after having positive experiences with them and pull towards them on walks, then you can simply train behaviors like calmly passing on leash when it’s not a good time to meet. Using this strategy you’ll get a dog that likes other people and dogs, is not afraid of them, is less likely to bite them, and can still behave appropriately following your cues.
We shouldn’t desire an asocial dog simply because he might be less motivated to pull towards others.
Exposure to things is bad?
This one seems to be a misunderstanding of proper socialization/training technique. Never during the process should puppies be exposed to things to point of creating fear. Forcing them to walk onto surfaces they are scared of, or allowing people to manhandle them, or forcing them to get trampled in a group of dogs that are over-matching them in size and play style are all poor attempts at socialization, and any good dog trainer knows this, however, this is completely different than abandoning socialization altogether.
Puppies should get to learn and play with other puppies and safe adult dogs. It could even be argued that intentionally withholding these experiences is inhumane.
Teaching puppies that strangers predict good things, either directly from their guardian or from the strangers themselves is only going to lead to better outcomes in the future. The alternative is a dog that potentially learns to distrust people and is at higher risk to bite.
Moral of this part of the story: don’t flood your puppy with negative experiences that lead him over his fear-threshold. Instead follow correct socialization protocol by exposing your puppy to novel things and situations, at a pace he is comfortable with, while simultaneously pairing those things with positive consequences like treats.
Because of genetics, we don’t have to socialize our puppies/dogs?
The notion that social puppies will grow into social dogs and asocial puppies will never advance to adulthood to like others simply because of their genes, is absurd. Yes, genetics plays a huge role in any individual’s behavior, but it is because of genetics that it is even more important to socialize our puppies and dogs. If a puppy was born fearful, we have to work extra diligently to help him become more comfortable and confident.
There are plenty of dog breeds that have been selectively bred with fear towards strangers.
Dog behavior and training expert, Jean Donaldson, has identified several key words used to describe breeds that translates to: “these dogs are uncomfortable around strangers.”
These terms include:
- Wary of strangers
- One-family dog
- Reserved with strangers
- Takes a while to warm up to people
- Great with the family
- Protective (1)
In addition, before we even acquire our dogs, they can also have fear from:
- A mother that was stressed during pregnancy, and/or
- “Parenting” from a skittish mother.
That leaves us with opportunities to prevent or try to eliminate fear by actively:
- Working to provide a stimulating/enriching environment for our puppies’ growth and socialization.
- Avoiding negative life experiences that will scare our puppies and dogs – including avoiding the use for force-training methods, which can directly lead to fearful/aggressive behavior; instead we can use positive reinforcement training methods.
Socialize your puppy! Just do it correctly: avoid causing fear, and instead actively work to help your puppy form positive associations, and build up protective “padding” with plenty of positive experiences, so that if/when a novel or potentially negative event occurs in his life, he’ll be able to handle it with resiliency and confidence.
- The Culture Clash: A revolutionary new way of understanding the relationship between humans and domestic dogs by Jean Donaldson. 2nd Edition. 2005.