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!