Everyone wants to socialize their dog- and they should! Especially when they are puppies! Technically socialization should consist of introducing your dog in a controlled way to a variety of new situations (people, things, sounds, etc.), while simultaneously making sure he is calm and happy. By introducing your dog to these new situations you can develop confidence, and coping skills to deal with challenges they will face throughout their life.
Puppies have a very critical window of development which is between 4 and 18 weeks of age. Missing these socialization opportunities, can cause a puppy not only to be fearful, but not be able to cope with new situations without resorting to fear, fear aggression, or even completely shutting down. It is so much easier to make sure your puppy has confidence, and is desensitized to many things, than to try to help a fearful adolescent or mature dog later in life. Prevention, as always, is key!
Unfortunately – not all dogs have had proper socialization….there are many fearful, stressed out dogs in society, in homes, and in rescues and shelters. In most homes- and we see it commonly- most families desperately want to “Socialize” their dogs with the best intentions! They merely want to help their dog be happy, and play with other people and dogs. But there is a BIG difference between socialization, and exposure.
Here are 3 Common Socialization Myths:
Myth One - The first myth is that people think that to socialize a dog you just have to put the dog into new situations. This is NOT socialization, this is called exposure. Proper socializing requires exposing dogs to new situations in a measured and controlled way so that they can make a positive association with the new situation. He has to feel safe and in control while he is faced with the new situation. If you expose the dog to the new experience and the dog has bad or fearful experience, he will go on to equate the new thing as a negative experience. That is the opposite of a positive socializing experience.
Myth Two - Alone, the act of exposing a dog to fearful experiences will not automatically cause the dog to suddenly get beyond his fears. Behavior modification (changing how they feel about a situation) is used to help a dog overcome his fears. The purpose of socialization is used to present the dog with new experiences in the hopes that it prevents him from becoming fearful in the first place.
Myth Three - The third myth assumes that if you fully immerse the dog into the fearful situation (flooding) he will have no choice but to face his fears and he will be able to get past the fears. Not necessarily true. Think about it for a moment. If someone is deathly afraid of snakes, is putting him into a room full of snakes going to be helpful in them getting over their fear of snakes? Most likely this will not happen. They will probably just shut down with fear. Socialization differs from flooding because the exposure to the stimuli is fully controlled and adjusted to the needs of the dog by keeping him under his fear threshold.
Socializing an already fearful dog can be a painstakingly slow process, and it’s important to remember that socialization is a lifelong process – not a destination. Degrees of your dog’s comfort should be a work in process, and individualized to each dogs capability and threshold. Some dogs can progress more than others, and knowing your dog’s limits can be helpful.
Some key things to remember when working with a fearful dog:
- Go slowly.
- Distance is your friend. Stay at a distance where your dog’s body language remains relatively relaxed.
- Don’t go over threshold.
- Use food! Pairing things your dog LOVES when he is around things he doesn’t can ultimately change his emotional state, and therefore his reaction to them. TIP: Did know that you can use your dog’s willingness to eat food as a gauge for how well he is coping with a new experience? When a dog is overwhelmed and fearful he shuts down emotionally and will refuse to eat food. If your dog or puppy refuses to eat a treat that he normally loves, then this is a sign that you need to either create more distance, or your dog is not ready for this new experience.
- Go slowly.
- Make the sessions short. Sometimes the relief of pressure can actually be a reward.
- Find a trainer that is certified, and deals with fearful dogs. (terms you should listen for are; counterconditioning, LAT, BAT, desensitization, positive reinforcement.)
- Have realistic expectations.
Don’t be afraid to get help from a certified qualified trainer. And don’t feel bad- each dog is an individual just like you are, and your job as a pet parent is to provide a safe and happy life for your pet- and there is not ONE label that defines a safe happy life for your dog. They vary, and they vary greatly! Find your comfort zones, and work to broaden them on a slow and steady path of consistency, positive experiences and patience.
Kelly Legarreta is a certified Canine Trainer and Canine and Equine Massage Therapist who has been serving Southwest Florida with her company Healing Pawsabilities over the past decade. Kelly is a Doggone Safe "Be A Tree" bite prevention presenter, a certified Dogs and Storks/Family Paws presenter and consultant, an AKC Canine Good Citizen instructor and evaluator, an Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) member and APDT "My Dog has CLASS-Canine Life and Social Skills" instructor and evaluator, as well as a staff instructor at Camp Unleashed in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an Animal Behavior College Trainer Mentor - training other aspiring dog trainers through an externship program. Kelly has also been involved with Therapy Dogs Inc. for over 7 years, as well as volunteering with Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.)