When You Should NOT Socialize Your Dog – Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series When You Should NOT Socialize
puppy with toy

“Holy cow, that thing flies?!” Photo by Eva Holderegger Walser CC-BY-SA-3.0

That’s a typo, right? I mean, a professional trainer would never advocate against socialization, right?

You’d be surprised.

Of course the problem isn’t with socialization itself — that’s always a good idea! The problem is with many people’s understanding of the word and their assumptions. Good socialization introduces a puppy or dog to something new, maybe even challenges them a little, and gives them a good experience with it. Yep, it was a weird floor surface, but we learned how to play on it. Yep, that guy had the weirdest hat ever, but he knew how to play the target game for treats, too!Socialization is vital for proper mental and social development. In fact, I think it’s probable most dog trainers would say that the lack of socialization is the single biggest cause of problems in their clientele. The dog who growls at strangers, the dog who gets frantic and greets visitors too roughly, the dog who nips at kids, the dog who needs muzzled at the vet, the dog who goes ballistic at the sight of another dog on walks — all of these are often rooted in a lack of good socialization.

We have all heard — at least, I hope we have — about the importance of socialization for puppies. There’s a lot of research and discussion on exactly what week of development is best for what types of experience, but those are fairly fine points of debate, and no one is disputing the importance of socialization itself.

The Socialization Conversation

FRUSTRATED DOG OWNER: “I don’t know why he’s like this. He’s never had any bad experiences with [scenario].”

TRAINER: “And how many good experiences has he had?”

FRUSTRATED DOG OWNER: “….”

FRUSTRATED DOG OWNER: “…So, how are you going to fix it?”

How Not To Do It

So what do I mean, when not to socialize?

The problem is, as mentioned above, not with socialization but with many people’s understanding of the word and their assumptions. Remember that socialization is showing a puppy new things and letting the puppy “win” in whatever challenge was presented. Too often, though, people think only of showing the puppy new things. Thus, sometimes what they intend as socialization in fact creates far more problems than it prevents.

This is easy to do with puppies or with dogs who show stress by growing quiet instead of loud.* One owner, who couldn’t understand his dog’s threatening behavior toward any child they passed, explained to me how he had taken care to socialize his young puppy to kids. Every few days he had taken the puppy to the nearby elementary school, letting dozens of children gather around the pup and pet and hold and shout excitedly and run around it. “She never minded,” he said. “She liked it. She just sat still while they rubbed her all over and everything.”

What had seemed a perfect socialization opportunity to this well-meaning owner had in fact been a nightmare for his puppy, overwhelmed and without any means of retreat. Because she was quiet and still, and probably even exhibited some tail-wagging and licking and other please-I’m-just-a-puppy-don’t-hurt-me appeasement behaviors, it looked like the pup was learning to like kids. As she grew older, however, she ceased the puppy appeasement behaviors and began exhibiting more defensive behaviors, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that the best defense is a good offense.

Several dozen children at once is an extreme example, but I actually see variations on this scenario too often. Any time the puppy is not actively enjoying the socialization experience, at least by the end — it’s okay if he learns to overcome a short challenge — you’re potentially doing more harm than good.

If the Puppy Wins, You Win

To avoid future trouble, check this list:

  • Does the puppy have an escape route? (Can he move away from the motorcycle or the funny hat or the other dog?)
  • Is he using the escape route repeatedly, or is he reluctant to come back to the challenge? (If so, the challenge is probably too challenging at this point.)
  • Is he coming back to the challenge of his own volition? (That’s a good thing, keeping the challenge at a level with his curiosity!)
  • Are you using food to lure him back? This is very common, but in my opinion it’s a mistake; what’s demonstrated there is not the puppy’s comfort level but the magnetism of the food. I sometimes see puppies drawn into an uncomfortable location by food, focusing on it to avoid seeing the scary bits, and then when the food is gone they look up and suddenly have a fear reaction. I use lots of food in training, of course — but food is for rewarding, not bribing!

Next time we’ll talk about a very common and very dangerous socialization mistake with older dogs. Have you seen these socialization mistakes with puppies, or solved a similar problem? Tell the story in the comments!

*There are two main categories of stress reaction. Dogs who stress “down” slow their movements, get still, and are often mistaken for “good dogs” or calm dogs. This is what Shakespeare naturally does during a thunderstorm, and a casual eye might think he’s just taking a nap. Dogs who stress “up” get frantic and vocal, and they draw far more attention to themselves. These dogs are much more annoying, but they often get help first!

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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26 Comments

  1. I agree, it needs to be on the puppy’s terms, we do a lot of shooting and our GSD has been exposed to it since the day she arrived, and the first month or so she was content to be about 100 yards away, then after a period of time she headed to the range (on a leash) and when she got to about 75 yards she sat down and watched till she got bored. then it was 50, then 25 yards. Now at 7 months she comes to the firing line when we are not shooting, and when live fire begins retreats to about 10 yards behind the line and watches. Which I think for her hearing is more of a comfort issue than a fear issue.

  2. Greta Kaplan, CDBC, CPDT-KA

    Fan-freaking-tastic, Laura. I see OVERsocialized puppies all the time — about as often, now, as the undersocialized ones. Looking back, we always hear “well, she let the kids pet her but she didn’t enjoy it” or “he played with a ton of dogs at the dog park. He hid a lot under the bench, but he was socialized to a lot of dogs!” It drives me mad. I will be referring people to your blog, you bet.

    • Oh, yes, the dog park! A nice idea which is too often abused, and you’re right, a lot of problems are created by “socializing” in such an overwhelming environment. Yipes!

      Glad you liked it!

  3. I definitely fell “victim” to the dog park due to my own ignorance and inexperience. I began taking my first dog as soon as she was old enough–thinking it was the best way to introduce her to multiple dogs and socialize her to proper dog-to-dog signals. It went well enough for the first year, but altercations here and there led to her becoming a reactive, stressed out bullier of other dogs, who definitely believed the best defense was an offense whenever she was unsure of her standing…or, eventually, whenever any other dog showed signs of “weakness.” Ugh. I am still working on the issues that developed out of my mistakes in handling her early experiences.

    • We’ve all been there! Ain’t nobody who’s not trying to fix some problem that NOW they know how to prevent. 😉

      The good news is, many times we can recover at least somewhat from those mistakes. I hope your training is going well!

  4. Wow, Laura! Great post! I’m looking forward to the next installment. Thank you so much for pointing out that stress isn’t always acting out, but can often be shutting down. I have a dog who just shuts down when she’s stressed. And, unfortunately, it’s been intrepreted as she’s just a good, calm dog by the vet and the groomer. It’s hard for me to understand why dog pros don’t read her behavior as stress…I cut them some slack because they’ve never actually seen her NOT stressed. But those wild eyes – that’s a big clue! Anyway, I’m encouraged that I seem to have been doing things the right way. Your checklist rings of familiarity!

  5. Thank you for the ariticle! I loved it, so I have a question, I have an eleven year old dog that used to be fine with other dogs and then when she was two a dog went after her and bit her pretty good now I cannot go near other dogs with her at all. Is there anything I can do this late in the game?

  6. Laura Holder, CPDT-KA

    Beautiful article and this makes me think of Grisha Stewart’s “Organic Socialization” concept – which admittedly I need to get educated on more. I’m guilty of not recognizing stress signals when my puppy was younger and having known then what I know now, would have done things sooooo differently.

  7. Excellent article! As a groomer I see a lot of dogs that stress down. If you don’t give them the time they need to adjust to the process the next label they get is ‘biter’.Corine

  8. Lovely, thank you! I’ve shared this. We always emphasize in puppy classes that socialization is POSITIVE experiences with new things. Simple exposure is not enough.

  9. I can’t wait for your next article about older dogs. My dog is about 2 and she is starting to bark at strangers on a walk, a new behavior for her and she’s reactive to other dogs. I may have made some mistakes with her as a puppy but I also got her a little bit older so not sure how her younger months went. I hope some of these things can be fixed.

  10. I see this a lot with people trying to sociliaze a dog or puppy to “like” other dogs/puppies. I’ve seen people in the dog park hold onto the dog and let it be overwhelmed by all the other dogs so he can “just get used to it.” Recently, I’ve had clients who had very shy puppies and the owners were both trying to force their puppies into the puppy play group rather than let their puppies watch from the sidelines, which is what both puppies were content doing. I told them both to just leave their puppies alone for a bit and watch. One of the pups took a few tentative trips into the play, retreated, went back, retreated and then suddenly joined in the play and never looked back. The other pup I switched to a different play area all together because she was just too overwhelmed and let her meet a low-key older dog who just wanted to ignore her. (poor Batman). After watching Batman ignore her for 15 minutes, she went up and sniffed him and then just started following him everywhere. The owner is still worried that she should have forced her puppy into the puppy play and I’m hoping when she isn’t in class she isn’t forcing the pup into being overwhelmed.

  11. Pingback: When You Should NOT Socialize Your Dog — Part 2

  12. Hooray! This is such a GOOOOOOOD series, and one I unfortunately learned first hand. . . the wrong way. It makes perfect sense now, but at the time, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Let’s see, how can we plaster this info EVERYWHERE? Is that possible??

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  15. I like this article very much, but………. Where is part 2?

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  17. Hey, this goes for people too! If only us introverts had such perceptive handlers as tots…

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  20. I agree with you And Take them everywhere. When our dog was a puppy, we tried to take her somewhere in public every day. We even took her to our busy downtown area when she was too little to walk far and sat on a bench with a sign that said, “Hi, my name is Summer! Please pet me!” She got really used to all kinds of people, strollers, bicycles, other dogs, etc.

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