Let's get rid of the term, "socialization."
“Sociallzation.” It sounds lovely, doesn’t it? When humans talk of socializing with each other, it carries a connotation of “party” or at the very least icing on the cake of the day-to-day routine. “Socializing” when referring to puppy development is, however, so crucial to their long-term well-being that it should be renamed “survival training.”
Unsocialized or improperly socialized dogs tend to be fearful. Fear is the primary cause of aggression. Aggressive dogs have a hard time thriving in human society. It’s plain and simple.
“Oh my gosh, he’s afraid of the food bowl!” This may sound odd, but I’ve heard it many times in my puppy classes over the years when puppies shy away from what seems to us to be a perfectly normal-looking bowl. We do a food bowl exercise in class, but puppies who routinely eat from a ceramic bowl can be fearful of the shiny stainless steel bowl in class. Why? They hadn’t been “socialized” to eating from anything except ceramic. I assign my students the task of offering meals from as many different objects and places as possible (such as the lid to a pan, a wok, a baking pan, in the shower stall, etc.). What better way to create a positive first impression than with a good meal?
What is “socialization?”
Socialization is the “exposure to novelty.” Positive and numerous dog/dog and human interactions are very important, but they are just a drop in the socialization bucket. We tend to underestimate the power of experiencial socialization, e.g., positive exposure to “new and different” in all its nuances, from walking on slippery tile floors to the sound of flapping banners, sudden noises, strange smells, etc. Puppy socialization is like a marathon: we need to cover a lot of ground in a very short amount of time.
Did you know that over half of a puppy’s critical socialization period is spent with the breeder (or, for the rescue dog, with the foster or shelter home)? That’s right, the critical period of time when a puppy will absorb new experiences and process them as normal and safe ends when Puppy reaches about 3 months of age. Even a young 8 week old puppy is already more than halfway towards this 3 month window-closing milestone.
The Power of First Impressions and Positive Patterns: avoid “Uh Oh Moments.”
First impressions can be made positive by combining them with treats, games, fun. If the first exposure is negative (as is common with grooming, a visit to the vet, an elevator), this simple first impression pattern easily sets “in stone” and can result in long-lasting fear. It’s important not to wait for our young pups to have an “uh oh” moment before we pair good stuff with potentially scary things: our goal is to set him up to be amazed at how wonderful new things can be so he says, “yippee!”
What to do?
Assume your puppy will be fearful of the new situation. Be prepared: have good stuff at the ready so that you can introduce the new situation and pair it with this good stuff.
Back off if he shows any signs of fear.
Don’t push Puppy through because he ultimately will need to “deal with it.”
Think proactively. Pair potentially scary things with good things. Assume things will be scary. Be creative!
When a dog barks in the neighborhood, toss your pup a treat - he’ll be less likely to react with fear later on.
Vet visits. Take your dog to the vet for brief play sessions throughout his life.
Take a walk in the woods where your puppy has to problem-solve his way through, over and around obstacles and negotiate his way over varying terrain. A good problem-solving mind means less tendency for frustration.
Live in the city? Take your dog to the country.
Live in the country? Take your dog to the city.
What not to do:
Never force your puppy to interact with something he’s showing fear of in the hopes that “he’ll get over it.” Instead, allow him to approach and retreat on his own terms. It is difficult for a puppy to get proper socialization on leash as it limits his options, so be sure he doesn’t get into situations over his head where he feels trapped.
“My vet tells me I shouldn’t socialize him until he has all his shots. What should I do?”
The official position of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is to get puppies socialized very early:
"While veterinarians are appropriately concerned about infectious disease in young puppies, the fact is that behavioral issues—not infectious diseases—are the number one cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age, according to the AVSAB. Veterinarians contribute to these behavioral issues when recommending pets be kept away from possible germs until their vaccine series is complete, the AVSAB stated."
AVMA statement on Puppy Socialization