You will often see the words “training and socialization” when people are talking about dogs and their behavior. But what exactly does that even mean? And why is is such a big deal?
It’s a big deal because under-socialized dogs are at a much greater risk of developing bad, and sometimes dangerous behavior. In fact, the most common cause of unprovoked dog aggression is lack of proper socialization. An un-socialized dog can easily become a fear biter during experiences that a more social dog would take in stride. A visit to the groomer, boarding kennel or vet can become extremely stressful for a dog who has experienced little outside of his own home.
It is incredibly easy to socialize a puppy. You just have to expose him to new things, in a calm and happy manner. During the first few weeks of life, 8-20 weeks, puppies are instinctively open to new experiences. Mother nature has given them the ability to normalize things very quickly. But this is also the time frame when traumas can have the most lasting effect. So it is important that people expose their puppies to new things in a way that is not overly frightening or stimulating.
It is important to know what you are actually teaching your puppy. If you expose him to something new and he acts fearful, do not accidentally reinforce the fear. A little fear is natural and you need to give the puppy a few minutes to work through it, If you swoop in, cuddle and reassure him, he has just been rewarded for a fear based behavior.
Puppies need to be exposed to many different things:
- other puppies (once all involved have been completely vaccinated)
- other animals
- people of different ages, races, sexes.
- cars, bikes, motorcycles
- different sounds like traffic, honking horns, yelling children
- different places and surfaces: grass, pavement, gravel, stairs, ramps, elevators
- people who routinely visit your home like postal workers, delivery men, utility workers
The ASPCA has a great website with information about puppy socialization. But even better is a great checklist that Dr. Sophia Yin has put together. This list will help you consciously select what socialization opportunities your puppy is exposed to every single day.
But, what if you adopt an older dog who is obviously under-socialized? Or you rescue a dog like Ray, who comes from a traumatic background? Is it too late to teach the dog important social skills? No, it’s not…but it is more difficult.
Just as a puppy has been hard-wired to be open to new experiences, an older dog is naturally more cautious. Nature intended that as a dog becomes mature, he becomes more aware of things that might be a danger in his environment.
You can’t very well take an adult dog and socialize him like a puppy. It is too late for that approach. The brain has already decided what things are “normal” and which are not and could be dangerous. An unsocialized dog can be reactive to so many things that we encounter every day: strangers, bicycles, other dogs, running children…the list is endless. You can’t use “flooding” techniques and get the results you are looking for. You need to approach things in a much more systematic manner.
The most important thing to do before embarking on a mission to socialize an older dog is to have them trained in basic obedience. They need to have the commands down so pat, that the actions become instinctive. At the very least the dog needs to know sit, wait (or stay) and look (the dog is expected to look at his human for further direction). If these commands are well-enough ingrained, it will allow you to expose your dog to different situations is a safe manner.
The problem with many under-socialized dogs is that they become so reactive that they can no longer even think clearly. We need to help normalize things for them, slowly, while they are still attentive to us, and are not in reaction mode. Once that threshold is crossed, there is no way to teach them anything.
Say your dog is extremely dog reactive (just like Ray and many other fighting dogs). That isn’t a safe or comfortable behavior for anyone involved. It is incredibly stressful for the caregiver, and that stress translates through the leash to the dog, making a bad situation much worse.
Instead of concentrating on the behavior you don’t want to see (lunging, barking, growling) we need to identify the behavior we DO want to see: sitting quietly with attention on the handler. When you are walking down the street you want to be able to stroll past another dog on a leash without feeling like you are trying to control Cujo.
The smartest thing you can do is to enlist the assistance of a qualified, experienced positive reinforcement trainer. Make absolutely certain that the trainer ONLY uses positive reinforcement. Negative consequences used against a reactive dog can make the situation much worse in a hurry. A good trainer can help you slowly and safely teach your dog the skills he needs to be a good canine companion. Trying to fix things on your own can backfire…and you can actually damage your dog further. Let a good trainer teach you how to appropriately work with your dog.
Ray will probably never be able to freely interact with other dogs. But that isn’t really necessary. What is important is that he can be in public and pass by other dogs without reacting. His trainer worked very hard to teach Kevin and me the skills we needed to help him learn appropriate behavior. Now our little brown dog can walk within a few feet of a non-reactive dog without any obvious fear or aggression. He is always very aware of the other dog….he will give the dog a sideways glance, but he immediately shifts his attention to me, to see how he should react. He has learned over the past year and a half that he doesn’t have to fear all other dogs….that he is safe with us. And that is a beautiful thing.