The good, the bad, and the ugly side of socialization
How to get it right and what to do when it goes wrong
I work with owners who are frustrated with their dog’s behaviors. Their barking at other dogs, growling at people, or chasing anything with wheels has become unmanageable and embarrassing.
They think that the solution to the problem is that their dog “needs more socialization” in these situations and they are contacting me because they need me to provide them with opportunities to do so. What I then inform them is something that owners do not want to hear:
Their dog is no longer in the socialization stage; he is in need of strategically designed behavior modification. These are two different things.
Socialization vs. behavior modification
Socialization is the exposure of a young dog to a variety of people, animals, sounds, and situations in a manner that does not cause fear. The goal is for the dog to be comfortable and learn that the world is a wonderful place.
With socialization, you are helping your puppy build great associations with something that he is indifferent towards. For puppy owners, the question becomes, “How do I make sure that my puppy grows into a social adult that I can take anywhere?”
With behavior modification, you are working on changing your dog’s emotions to something that he already does not like. For owners of adolescent and adult dogs (6 months and older), the question is “How do I make my dog stop behaving badly so we do not have to worry about him biting?”
Behavior modification is needed when a dog already has determined that the situation is one that causes discomfort. His reaction may be barking, lunging, cowering, avoidance, or biting. Simply throwing a dog into a situation where any of these responses are produced will only exacerbate his feelings that the world is a scary place.
First, we will take a look at puppies that are between 8 and 16 weeks old. During this time of their life, a puppy’s brain is more accepting of new experiences. After 16 weeks, a puppy begins to become wary of experiences that he was not exposed to previously. This is a natural part of development for any animal. Your puppy’s survival instincts kick in to protect him from situations that might be dangerous.
It is important to note that while a young puppy will not yet have all necessary vaccinations, the risk of waiting to socialize him until the vaccination series is complete at 16 weeks far outweighs the benefits in the long run.
As stated by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing overstimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.
If you socialize your puppy before he has all his vaccinations, as the AVSAB recommends, you’ll need to put some safety protocols in place.
- Have your puppy go potty while still on your property.
- Pick a location for your outing that is not overly crowded. Pick a quiet time of day as well.
- Carry him from the car to the new location. He can also observe new places from the car.
- Take a blanket on your trips outside of your home to act as a barrier between your puppy and the environment underneath his paws. It can be placed on the ground where your puppy will be relaxing, or in a shopping cart where he will ride. Make trips short so your puppy ends the activity wanting to do more instead of feeling worn out or overwhelmed.
- Make trips short so your puppy ends the activity wanting to do more instead of feeling worn out or overwhelmed. When Fisher visited our garage for the first time, he was encouraged to enter at his own pace and we did not try to lure him in with food. Once inside, he was reinforced with a treat and we showed him that he could leave. Going back inside was his choice.
- Schedule play dates with dogs that are up-to-date on their vaccinations and have a good social history. Socializing your puppy with just your other dog at home is not enough.
What your puppy experiences, how positive or negative the experiences are, and what he does not have the opportunity to experience, will have a huge impact on his behavior for the rest of his life. Starting with the breeder, and continuing with the owner, the puppy either builds relationships with the environment that contribute to a behaviorally healthy adult or towards a fearful/aggressive adult.
Let’s consider the commonly used piggy bank analogy. Each time your puppy has a good experience with a person, place, sound, animal, etc, you are depositing a coin into his emotional piggy bank. Each time your dog has a fearful or upsetting experience, a coin is withdrawn from your dog’s emotional piggy bank. The more coins that are deposited from a variety of situations, the better prepared your puppy is for when an upsetting experience occurs.
Simple exposure is not enough. To make sure that you are adding a coin into your puppy’s emotional piggy bank instead of withdrawing, you need to pair each experience with good emotions. The easiest way to do this is with special treats.
Here are the steps to take.
- Have your dog at a distance away, or a sound on a low enough volume, where your puppy does not show any signs of fear or nervousness. (Refer to the free online Deciphering Your Dog course to learn more about reading your puppy’s body language.)
- Let your dog see or hear a stimulus.
- Praise and reinforce with treats.
- Stop when the stimulus is gone.
Sound sensitivity is a common problem among dogs. Here you will see my husband, Rich, and me working with Fisher at Rich’s job. Fisher is hearing random noises and being reinforced for it.
Socialization should not end once your puppy reaches 16 weeks of age. It should continue regularly for at least the first year of life.
Behavior modification is generally done when a dog is over 16 weeks of age and finds situations, sounds, people, animals, etc to be aversive. Your dog may display its discomfort by barking, lunging, crying, cowering, retreating, or refusing to take food. By placing your dog in situations that evolve these feelings and reactions, you are not helping your dog to “get over it” by showing him that nothing bad will happen. To your dog, something bad is already happening.
Using spiders in an analogy might help you put your dog’s emotions into perspective. My fear of spiders started when I was a child. I saw the movie Arachnophobia and even though I was not harmed, the bad experience has stuck with me for life. During a laboratory midterm exam for my college Invertebrate Zoology class, I found myself face-to-face with a live tarantula. The tarantula was contained in a plastic container but being forced to sit in close proximity to it instantly caused my anxiety to rise.
I was experiencing “flooding,” which is what your dog experiences when he is exposed to stimuli that he finds aversive and can’t escape. Your dog’s emotional piggy bank is running low on funds and without a solid “balance” of emotional currency, he is losing trust in the situation and in you to keep him safe.
Behavior modification sessions are similar to socialization sessions with one main exception: the dog already has negative feelings about things in the world. With a puppy who is not fearful, you are usually starting out with neutral responses and moving towards positive. If the dog is already afraid, he can learn to feel comfortable about the stimulus but it takes additional time, effort, and it is easier to be accidentally set back and have a bite occur.
Below is a general outline of a beginner behavior modification session for a dog that barks and lunges at the sight and sounds of another dog.
- Keep your dog feeling safe by starting out enough distance away from the other dog so your dog is not showing any signs of stress (refer to the Deciphering Your Dog course to learn more). For one dog this distance might be 20 yards while for another dog it could be more than 100 yards.
- If you are able to, have a friend bring their dog to a training session. This “decoy” dog should be calm, stationary, and facing away from your dog. It might be easier to start off with a realistic stuffed dog because you can control its movements.
- When your dog sees the decoy dog (or hears it) praise and feed some of his favorite treats. These treats have to be extra special and only given when around other dogs. You are pairing the decoy dog with the endorphins, the “feel-good hormone” which is released when your dog eats.
- Remove the decoy from view and stop reinforcing your dog.
Carefully controlling your dog’s environment so that he is not exposed to other dogs unless during a structured training session is crucial to the behavior modification process.
The above is a general outline. There is not a cookie-cutter approach to changing your dog’s emotions, and each dog will need modifications to its individual training plan to ensure that he progresses. I highly recommend practicing behavior modification under the guidance of a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant such as myself. You can schedule a free 30 minute phone consultation here.
Here is a video example of Vivee, a 1.5 year old Miniature Schnauzer, being handled by her owner, Shelly. Shelly contacted me to help with Vivee’s barking and lunging at other dogs. You can see how stressed Vivee gets at the end of the video.
After a few sessions, Vivee and Shelly were able to progress to the advanced stages of her behavior modification plan. They easily walk past the previous “hot spot” where Vivee barked and lunged, they are using fewer treats, and Vivee is happily engaged with Shelly.
There’s No Such Thing as Blank Slate
Helping a puppy turn into a well-mannered adult starts with proper socialization. The critical period of socialization is from 8 to 16 weeks and it is crucial for owners to take advantage of the opportunity. This stage in development is a time that a puppy can never get back, and bad experiences can create lifelong negative associations requiring behavior modification.
Puppies are not blank slates. Their genetic background is a contributing factor in how they will respond to their environment and the socialization work that their owners implement. Some puppies will naturally be cautious while others will be resilient. If you would like help with your puppy or have a dog that is exhibiting signs of fear or aggression you are welcome to sign up for a free 30-minute phone consultation. In-person and remote training is available to support you.
“American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. (2008). AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf”