Ah socialization! I hear this word probably a hundred times a week by owners. "We need to socialize him more." "It will be good for his socialization." "We went there so he could get socialized." These are just a few of the phrases I hear from very different owners with very different dogs constantly as if it was a catch phrase that should be said around dog trainers. Unfortunately, a lot of the people that use this phrase don't actually know the meaning behind what they are saying because it is said incorrectly. Some people would think I'm just being picky with my phrasing, however, I am picky for a reason. These well-intentioned owners use this phrase because they think what they are doing is "socializing", when in reality they may not be doing that. When you know and understand the meaning of what you are doing with your dog, it changes your training/behavior modification plan. This is where the clarification needs to be made.
So, where does this confusion come from? It comes from a few areas. One is because we assume human socializing is the same as dog socializing. When we go out in public and hang out with people we know or go somewhere to try to meet people, we say we are socializing. Technically, spending time with people in a group or learning how to work with people in your society could be considered socialization, but again, this is in the human realm, which is not exactly the same as the dog realm. The other area this can get confusing is for the well-intentioned owners that may have attended a puppy class or group class somewhere. One of the major benefits of a puppy class is the benefit of socialization; we will talk about the difference a little later. However, if it is ever mentioned, it becomes a buzzword for all group classes, even though it may not be the correct term to use. In fact, thinking you are there to "socialize" your one-year-old dog with other dogs in a group class because your dog doesn't like other dogs, could be detrimental. However, this word pops up and is highly overused.
Let's start with some clarification on socialization. In the dog world, here is what socialization actually is: socialization is creating positive associations with a variety of stimuli when a puppy is in their socialization period from 7 weeks-12 weeks of age. One note to make is that some are saying with larger breeds that it can last until 16 weeks, which is the camp I fall under. Socialization also has that window start to close, but it is not so cut and dry where the day the puppy turns 16 weeks old they no longer are able to receive socialization. It does mean that the window for socialization is closing. Basically, socialization can be looked at the same way as conditioning. In the learning theory world, conditioning is taking something that has no association and after a certain stimuli is paired with it, creating an association. This is what occurs for anyone that has ever heard of Pavlov's dog; ring a bell before the dog receives food, and eventually the dog associates the bell ringing with food. There is classical conditioning at its finest. The difference on why we say take puppies to puppy class for socialization as opposed to conditioning is because of this socialization period. When puppies are in this period, they are more receptive to making these associations. If we were to think of this from a behavioral side, it make sense. The dogs are young enough their mother will still protect them and help them learn what is safe and what is not, but they are also old enough they can go out and explore a little more to see what is safe in the world and what is not. Ultimately what occurs is the puppy is taking in all of these new things and trying to figure out what is going to help them survive and thrive, what should they certainly avoid because it could mean pain and/or death, and what doesn't really apply to them and makes no difference whatsoever. What also plays a role in this socialization equation is the fact that genetics also has a hand in it. If the mother is more fearful or experienced some sort of trauma or stress during pregnancy, there is a correlation of that being passed on to the puppies. Even beyond that is where some dogs are more genetically predisposed to be cautious and wary, whereas some are predisposed to be spunky and outgoing. You see this within certain breed standards as well as further down with specific individuals. Now where this comes into play is the puppy is categorizing things: see the stranger over there, they gave me a treat, they are good. See the person over there, they stuck their hands all over my face and I didn't like it, they are not good and the leash on me is not good either because I couldn't get away from them. That chair over there, didn't do anything, so I don't really care about that. Puppies categorize all of this into good, bad and neutral. This means that a puppy in the socialization period is more willing to explore some of these novel things and makes a choice on if to interact with them and based on what occurs in those choices, will categorize accordingly. Again, this socialization period does not last very long. The other thing that comes into play is socialization in this period is not just to people and dogs, it is also to noises, textures, surfaces, smells, other animals, other places, etc. In working with fearful dogs, I tend to notice overlap in many of these areas. The dogs may be scared of other dogs, noises, and novelty. It usually isn't ever only one thing that the dog is scared of, even though an owner may only notice a fear for the most blatant and obvious fear. But originally, associations needed to be created.
Counter-conditioning is the other big definition I want to discuss. Counter-conditioning again deals with associations, but differently. If conditioning is associations being created with something that has no association than counter-conditioning is the opposite. Counter-conditioning is when you work to change the association that is already there with a particular stimulus. In other words, the animal already has an association with something and we want to change that to a different association, whether it be good or bad. For example, a dog that doesn't like other dogs does not need socialization; the dog needs a counter-conditioning (and desensitization, but we won't talk about that here) protocol to help change the association the dog has with dogs from something bad to dogs being good or at least neutral. If your dog has issues with (insert problem here), your dog does not need socialization because an association has already been created; your dog needs a counter-conditioning and desensitization protocol drawn up by a professional to help you work through this issue.
So why does this distinction matter more than just a slip of the tongue or an owner not understanding the general terminology? The issue is in the fact that what you call it has an implicit meaning in your understanding of it, which also manifests itself in how you work with your particular dog. When I am engaging in a socialization exercise with a puppy in their socialization period, the puppy is essentially taking the reigns, within reason. They get to choose to explore new things, people, animals, if I deem it safe to do so and believe it will yield a positive outcome. If they choose not to engage I let them choose not to and if they want to work through it, most of the time they will when given the choice and the free time to do so. When I engage in a counter-conditioning protocol with a dog, yes the dog gets some choice, but I am the puppet master yielding all the invisible strings, setting the dog up for success slowly and gradually working to change that association from a negative one to a positive one or at least a neutral one focusing on one stimuli at a time and making sure I decide when the dog is showing success so I can end it, rather than let the dog get himself overwhelmed. The 9 month old dog that doesn't like other dogs does not need socialization; this dog needs behavior modification work with a professional.
Socialization is not an umbrella term. Socialization is about creating positive associations for puppies in their socialization period. Socialization is not about changing an association your adolescent or adult dog has with something. If you have a puppy and would like to learn more about socialization, we highly recommend enrolling in our Puppy Elite classes. If you live too far to come to class, we highly recommend the "Puppy Culture" DVD'S by Jane Killion as an excellent starting point to your puppy's journey. If you have a dog over 5 months of age that is already showing some issues, consult a professional immediately. It will not go away on its own and you do not want to inadvertently compound more into those negative associations. Excellent resources would be a veterinary behaviorist, or someone with a CBCC or CPDT accreditation.