What is socialization? The Merriam Webster Human Medical Dictionary states:
“the process by which a human being beginning at infancy acquires the habits, beliefs, and accumulated knowledge of society through education and training for adult status”
This definition is a great way of looking at animal socialization; the process of preparing a young animal to be a functioning member of human society, through training and education. The term socialization is used so freely in the animal world, with little informational basis. Common misconceptions are to expose your puppy to all types of dogs and let them “figure it out” and to bring your puppy to different places with lots of people so they can “work through their fears”. Even if a puppy is not fearful, repeated neutral exposure to a situation is not enough. Proper socialization requires observation and loving care for the emotions and mental state of the animal. Puppies should be exposed, in a positive manner, to as many new people, animals, objects and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing excessive fear, withdrawal, or avoidance behavior.
Critical developmental periods in canines in association to socialization are around 3 to 14 weeks old with some variations to different breed maturity rates. There is an additional fear sensitivity period at around 8-9 weeks old. Since typically this can be when new puppies are adopted into their new human homes it is crucial that owners are educated on proper socialization and signs of anxiety in dogs/puppies. Negative, aversive, or lack of experiences during this period can result in fear development that can resonate throughout the dog’s life with consequences such as difficulties learning and interacting socially with humans and/or animals.
First, Create Goals
Goals of socialization are to create a positive experience within the boundaries of each individual animal’s threshold for stress and learning. How do you know when your puppy is overwhelmed or stressed? Dogs communicate even at a young age with body language. Observing the puppies body language can give is a window into their emotional state and stress level.
Then, Recognize the Signs
Displacement behaviors are the first signs of stress. These are normal behaviors taken out of context. Similar to when people tap their foot nervously. For dogs this can manifest as yawning, lip licking, or abruptly stopping and smelling the environment.
Avoidant behaviors are often the next sign the puppy is uncomfortable and wants to avoid the situation. Examples include looking away, walking/leaning away, freezing/not moving, or doesn’t follow known commands.
Lastly your puppy can show signs of outright fear and growing anxiety. For example: tail tucked, wide eyed, ears back, low crouched postures, panting, shaking, not taking treats, taking treats roughly, hyper vigilant, urinating, whining, barking, growling, or snapping.
Next, Make it Fun and Positive!
To make sure your puppy has a positive fun experience, here are a few tips to get started.
Be aware of the environment that you are exposing your puppy to. With environmental awareness, it helps you to look at the big picture of the situation to be prepared for anything. Approach each new experience with caution and plan an escape route in case the puppy gets too stressed or overwhelmed. Start small and work up to more stimulating environments and situations. Make sure the exposure to other dogs is positive on both ends. Only use dogs with a good history of tolerance towards puppies. For example, take your puppy to a friend’s house with a few people there. Or take your puppy to a friend’s house where they have a dog that you know is friendly. Do this first before bringing your to more populated public places.
Also, Reward Reward Reward!
We want to be able to reward the puppy for being calm and acting appropriately in public. Bring a variety of rewards with you to new situations. There are many types of rewards to create a fun and happy experience for the puppy including various types of treats, toys, and balls. Puppies do enjoy attention from their owner but this can often be miscommunicated or misunderstood during stressful events so arm yourself with other food or toy rewards when out and about.
Finally, Educate Yourself
Lastly, there is also educational information to help get you on your way to raising a happy healthy adult dog. Dr. Sophia Yin’s book Perfect Puppy in 7 Days has sample socialization checklists. Continuing to train beyond puppyhood and into adulthood will further your dog’s socialization and manners. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has position statements and guidelines on their website created from the top animal behavior minds such as How to Find a Trainer, Importance of Puppy Socialization. (https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements)
Carly Crowell, RVT, ABCDT | Behavior Department | VCA West Los Angeles