It's a nice, sunny day out and it seems like a good day to do something for your dog. So, you head to the dog park, the equivalent of doggy Disney World. You get there and everyone is ignoring that there is a "big dog" side and a "little dog" side since the "big dog" side is muddy, and everyone congregates on the "little dog" side. Your puppy is about 30 pounds, so you go in anyway. Your puppy finds a buddy to play with in this group of medium and large dogs and things appear to be going well. Then a new person joins the group with her puppy. She introduces herself and says this is Lola and she is an 8 week old pomeranian. She puts little Lola down and suddenly all these larger dogs congregate around her and Lola is clearly not having a good time. Her ears are back, tail tucked, and she keeps backing up into her owner. Finally, Lola lets out a screech like she has been stepped on and finally her owner picks her up. Her owner then explains, "she can be a little dramatic sometimes". She puts Lola down and there are less dogs around this time since Lola isn't as novel to some of the other dogs anymore. Still Lola tries hiding between her owner's legs and is not looking like she is having a very good time. Her owner said she started puppy classes at (big name pet store) and the trainer there suggested taking her to dog parks to socialize her to other dogs. It is only when Lola squeals that her owner sometimes defends her and picks her up for a minute. Lola continues to endure this "socialization" because her owner says, "I need to socialize her more".
Now that you have left the dog park, you take your dog to the pet supply store to pick up some treats and dog food. As you are walking through the aisles you see someone with a cute little golden retriever puppy and you walk up and ask to pet it. The owner says yes, so you bend down to pet this little ball of fur. The puppy backs up between the owner's legs and tries to get away. The owner says, "sorry, we need him to socialize more" and pulls the puppy out between her legs and pushes him towards you so he can't back up again.
The next week, you go to the dog park again since it is still phenomenal weather. Again, people still choose to ignore respective sizes for the dog park areas, but alas, you go in. It's a bit more crowded compared to last week, but you walk in and immediately some sort of lab mix runs up to you. Your dog seems a little apprehensive, but goes out to play anyway. Then, this lab mix runs down your dog body slamming it to the ground and won't let your dog up. Your dog lets out a little yip and you go over to separate the dogs. The owner apologizes and explains that Finn, the lab mix, is 10 months old and they bring him here to "socialize him more" to other dogs. The only thing Finn is learning is how to bully other dogs in the dog park.
What do these three stories have in common? These are just three extremely common scenarios that surround the perception of what socialization actually is. I will give credit to the fact that people are actually hearing the term "socialization" and are trying to properly do it. However, if you don't have an actual understanding of what socialization is, many well-meaning owners, and even uneducated "trainers" may be doing things that can actually harm the dog behaviorally and emotionally. So, let's delve into what socialization is, what each of these owners did that should be done differently, and another way they could properly "socialize" their dogs.
Let's start off with some clarification about socialization. Socialization is about puppies learning to experience and handle the world around them without being fearful, reactive, aggressive, or overly aroused. It is about instilling confidence in your puppy in the face of new experiences and situations. Socialization is also about choices. Dogs go through two socialization periods in their lifetime. The first is from 3 weeks of age through 7 weeks of age. In this stage, puppies socialize with the other puppies in their litter and essentially learn to be dogs. They learn how to communicate, play appropriately, and bite inhibition. This is one of the reasons why you should never bring a puppy home before 8 weeks of age. The next socialization period is from 7 weeks until 12 weeks. This is where they learn to experience the world around them and create positive or negative assocations from those experiences. In this period, you want to expose your puppy to as many animals, people, places, surfaces, sounds, textures, objects, etc that you can and help create positive associations for those things. This does not mean you force your puppy into anything in the name of socialization. Give your puppy a choice and if the puppy is uncomfortable, figure out a way to try to make your puppy more comfortable and give your puppy the option to end the interaction if it is too scary.
In the first scenario, there are many things wrong with how Lola's owner is trying to socialize her. First of all, it is NEVER recommended that a puppy be taken to a dog park at 8 weeks old for socialization. First off, while all dogs there should be vaccinated and free of parasites, who there is actually checking the proof of vaccines at the dog park? You are setting your puppy up for more risk health-wise than is needed. Secondly, a dog park is not filled with dog behavior experts or trainers, so most owners cannot read inappropriate body language, warning signals of a potential altercation, when play is too rough, when a dog is being bullied, etc. You also get many people that start taking their dog to the dog park to try to correct behavioral issues and think if the dog is socialized to other dogsat the dog park, it will get better. You are setting your puppy up for a number of potential bad things to happen that can result in either a health issue or create a severe behavioral issue. Do NOT use the dog park as your first act of "socialization". Secondly, when a puppy is scared, always be your puppy's advocate. Do not force your puppy into an interaction. If the puppy wants away from a situation that is overwhelming, give the puppy the choice to get out. When you keep pushing your puppy towards whatever it is scared of, you are just creating a stronger negative reaction to that object. You also teach the puppy not to trust you to save it when it is scared because you will literally just throw her to the wolves, so to speak. That is not a good way to build a solid foundation for a relationship built on trust and respect with your new dog. What Lola's owner could have done once she was there is saw that her puppy was petrified and just left. If she was there on a calmer, quiet day with one or two other small and calm dogs, then I would still be an advocate for the puppy and protect as needed, but try to find a way to slowly introduce her to the other calmer dogs at a pace Lola is comfortable with and find a way to make it a positive experience for her. But again, the dog park should not be your first destination for socialization.
In the second scenario with the golden retriever puppy, what the owner should have done is be the puppy's advocate. If a puppy is scared, don't force your puppy to interact with what it is scared of. Let it make a choice. This is one of the reasons you will never see a game like "pass the puppy" in our puppy classes. If a puppy is forced to interact with people when it is scared, anxious, or stressed, it can create negative associations to people. If it were my puppy and it were scared, I would ask that person to slowly get lower to the puppy's level, probably back up a little bit, avoid direct eye contact, and wait for the puppy to make the choice to interact. As the puppy gets more confident, the owner should give calm, soothing praise to the puppy, and can even use treats if available to reinforce the puppy's correct decision to explore and learn that exploring is a rewardable behavior. This does not need to be accomplished in 15 seconds; go at the puppy's pace, not yours.
In the third scenario, Finn should not have been at the dog park. Once the dog is past the socialization period, you are no longer dealing with a dog that needs socialization; you are dealing with a dog with a training or behavior issue. Unless you are an expert in canine play, behavior, training, and body language, consult with a true professional to work out this issue. If your dog falls into this category, you are doing your dog a disservice and potentially causing behavior issues for everyone else that your dog comes into contact with at the dog park.
Now that we know what socialization is and what mistakes well-intentioned owners commonly make, what can you do with your dog? If you have a puppy in the socialization period, start a puppy class that focuses on socialization. Do your research for a good trainer. If you can't start a puppy class right away, find a good trainer who can work with you through developmental milestones and help you set up a plan for successful socialization. If you have an older dog, consult a trainer or behaviorist to work with. If your dog has a behavior problem, do not try to solve it yourself. Behavior issues can quickly become worse if not handled correctly and with a strong, educated background in that area. If you need a professional dog trainer to help set up socialization plans or assist with behavior modifiication for your dog, contact our certified dog trainer today.