Socialization. It is a word that you hear a lot, especially when you get a brand new puppy. What exactly is socialization and what does it mean for our puppies?
The true definition of Socialization is ‘the activity of mixing socially with others’ and ‘the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society’ and that’s honestly pretty accurate to what it means for our dogs. It is all about introducing them to the world so that when they grow up into adult dogs they are less likely to be afraid, aggressive, or annoying when out in public and interacting with the world at large.
The major pitfall of socialization that we tend to fall into, however, is fixating on just the first definition. Socializing with other dogs and people. Now that’s not to say that we don’t want our dogs to be around other dogs or people or anything like that. They absolutely should have time with other dogs and meeting new people, but there is so much more to it as well. They need to experience new things, as well as learn how to not meet new dogs and people. Personally, I prefer to focus on the second definition of socialization as the one to fixate on. Learning how to behave in society and social situations. That is the point of focus that is more likely to lead to a calm and good natured canine citizen of the world.
So let’s break this big word down into the different components and talk about each of them. What are the different things that we need to socialize our dogs with?
Objects with Wheels
It’s a lot of categories! So much more than just people and dogs. Let's break it down.
People & Dogs
When it comes to people and dogs, as I mentioned before we do want to make sure our dogs get exposure to them and have good experiences. Generally when we are addressing these exposures we want to focus on quality over quantity. This means good experiences with dogs and people are better than tons of experiences with dogs and people. One bad experience, especially with other dogs, can set a tone we really don’t want for our pups future life.
When we are socializing our puppies with dogs and people, we also want to focus on variety where we can. With dogs this means experience around big dogs, small dogs, female dogs, male dogs, spayed and neutered dogs, intact dogs, smush faced dogs, pointy eared dogs, a variety of breeds, poodles and doodles in different stages of haircuts, and anything else you can think of! We also want to spend time just hanging out and observing other dogs, not necessarily playing or interacting with them every time we see them. The same goes for people! We don’t want our puppy to grow up thinking they get to say hi to absolutely everyone, because sometimes we don’t want to say hi. You also want to get a variety of people experiences in your socialization time. People of different skin tones, children, babies, teenagers, older people, tall people, short people, loud people, large people, small people. There’s a lot of difference out there in the world and we don’t want our puppy to suddenly be scared the first time they meet a particular person.
With people we also want to introduce our puppies to the concept of changing silhouettes. This is also why we recommend experiencing poodles and doodles with different stages of haircuts. A silhouette that changes is an odd thing for our dogs. This means experiencing people in hats, and the hats coming on and off. Sunglasses, heavy coats, scarves, shoes, and anything else you can think of that alters our appearance.
This may sound like a bit of an odd one, but trust me it is something you want to make sure your puppy can handle. That way the first time you try to take them in a store with a shiny floor you don’t end up sitting in the doorway throwing treats as people step around you. (I definitely haven’t been in that situation in a Victoria’s Secret…). This also is something to keep in mind if you like to hike and explore with your dog. Bridges on hikes are often wood slats with openings between them, which can be a strange experience for our dogs. This also applies to surfaces which may be unstable, like bridges that swing, the car, or chilling in a hammock.
So how do we introduce our puppies to different surfaces? There’s a few different angles you can approach from. One of the easiest ways to start is to set up different surfaces around a room and sprinkle treats for your dog to explore. So an area with a rug and wooden floor, then add in a trash bag for them to walk across, aluminum foil that has been crinkled up so that it has an odd texture, a cardboard box laid flat, and other strange things you can find lying around your house. You can also practice when you go on hikes and walks. Encourage your puppy to climb on logs and ledges. Remember to go slow and treat them for being brave. Sometimes you might only get one or two feet on the thing and that’s okay! Find areas that have bridges and go without the intention of fully crossing, just practice stepping on it for cookies.
Set up some quasi-agility equipment! Use a wooden board set on a couple of bricks or something similar and set up your own balance beam/bridge. Put a big stick underneath the board instead and you’ve got a wobble board/teeter setup. Get creative!
Handling is a BIG deal that we often tend to gloss over. A lot of the time we expect our dogs to just be okay with however we want to manhandle them. A lot of the time we also get lucky and they are, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put in some work to make it more enjoyable for them. Especially with our puppies, we set the tone for what handling is going to look like for the rest of their life and it is important that they are comfortable being handled for the vet, nail trims, baths, and especially if you have a pup that will need regular grooming.
So it is important to pair handling with lots of yummy treats. A licki mat that you can attach to a wall or similar surface is a super helpful way to keep your puppy engaged in yummy treats while you practice handling. It is important to be gentle with our handling, and if our puppy fights to pull away that we respect them and reset and reevaluate the moment. We don’t want them to feel forced into the situation.
If you feel you need extra guidance on handling for a puppy who just isn’t handling it well, reach out to a professional! Trainers are always happy to help with these behaviors.
This one is a bit more vague depending on your lifestyle, and a little harder to do setups for sometimes. This is also one of our socialization items that is less about exposing your puppy to the thing, and more about starting early to teach them how to respond. If we start teaching the correct response early, we are often able to bypass a big extreme reaction in our larger grown up dogs.
If you are primarily going to experience other animals like squirrels, deer, birds, and other wildlife it is not really something you can do to set up a predictable exposure. All you can do really is walk in the spaces where you might see them and be prepared. My preference when my dogs see any other animal, even other dogs, is to check in with me first. Then, if it’s something that we can go say hi to or chase, I can tell them to go, or to keep moving. So when we see a squirrel or deer I will stop, hold my ground, and wait for my dog to glance at me. When they do, I mark and treat! Sometimes I scatter a few treats on the ground facing away from the animal, sometimes I just hand them a treat. It kind of depends on the vibe of the moment. But basically I’m looking for that turn away moment to mark and treat.
For livestock type animals I do the same thing, but generally this is a bit more of a setup. If your dog will often be around these animals and you have easy access, hanging out outside of their field at a safe distance and doing this work and letting your puppy smell them is a great way to start. If this is not something your puppy will have regular exposure to and you don’t have easy access to, I wouldn’t worry about it. Set the foundation of “check in with me when we see animals” and lean on that if the experience ever pops up.
Whew! That’s a lot to chew on right off the bat. I will be back with Part 2 and the other 5 categories next week. And as always, if you have questions, reach out to us and ask! We are always here to help.