Most new dog owners have heard that they should socialize their puppy. The idea is simple. Bring your puppy everywhere you go so he or she gets used to different people, sounds, sights etc… Seems reasonable right? Well, like with most things in life, there is more than meets the eye here. There are several factors to consider when socializing a puppy or being instructed to socialize a dog with behavior problems to ensure we are helping and not hurting our canine companions.
Many people have heard of sensitive periods (formerly known as critical periods) in dogs. Sensitive periods are time frames in animals’ lives when experiences, or lack thereof, with certain stimuli (e.g. different people, animals, sounds etc.) can have a large effect on later behavior. One of these sensitive periods is called the socialization period. In dogs, this occurs roughly between 4-14 weeks of age. During this age range, puppies are learning about their environment (i.e. what is safe and good.) This is the reason people are encouraged to take their puppies everywhere with them and meet lots of different types of people and dogs. Here are some important details about socialization that every dog owner or pet professional should know:
1. Socialization will only have a positive effect if the socialization experience is positive. If you expose a puppy to people who interact with the him/her incorrectly, or introduce a puppy to dogs who are aggressive to other dogs, you will likely be teaching the puppy that people and dogs are scary and dangerous. This is in fact the opposite of what we want socialization to achieve! A dog owner should strive to make socialization positive for a puppy. Have people toss treats, pet appropriately, allow close interactions with other dogs who have good social skills or at least are not aggressive to other dogs, and use trainers who do not use physical punishment as a form of training. When it comes to loud sounds in the environment such as storms or fireworks, or traffic noises, associate them with something positive such as a playing with a toy or giving a treat or attention.
Take away: Socializing a puppy requires positive experiences when introduced to new stimuli AND the avoidance of negative experiences.
2. Some puppies and young dogs, for a variety of reasons, may show anxiety and or aggression towards many stimuli at a very young age in which case these are not the right candidates to take everywhere and expose them to many stimuli. If you take an already anxious or aggressive puppy/young dog and force them into situations that they find scary you are doing something called “flooding”. This is a high risk technique that could make a puppy more anxious or aggressive. For example, if there is puppy who is fearful of people and hides behind the owner when strangers try to pet the puppy and that owner decides to take the puppy into town and have everyone come up to the puppy and pet him even when he is hiding behind the owner, that owner is not helping the puppy feel less anxious if he is still clearly hiding while people are petting. This is a perfect recipe to teach a puppy to be more anxious or teach a puppy they may have to use a different strategy, such as aggression, to get people to stop approaching and petting. (We can not blame the dog because the humans were clearly not listening to the puppy’s behaviors that were screaming...”stay away from me, I am scared!”). If you have a puppy /young dog showing anxiety or aggression, there are lots of methods to helping your puppy feel less anxious. Reach out to a qualified professional for help.
3. Socialization is not a treatment for dogs with aggressive or anxiety disorders. Too often, owners of aggressive/anxious dogs are being told, "you just need to socialize your dog more.” This translates into, “take your dog who lunges at children to a children’s park and have him meet the kids.,” or “ take your dog who is scared of other dogs and take him to a dog park." This advice is fraught with risk for both people and the dogs. There are many options to modify a dog’s anxious or aggressive issues but flooding them to the stimuli they are scared of, under the guise of socialization, is not one of them.
Take away: Socialization is not a treatment for dogs with existing behavioral issues.
4. Don’t stop socializing at 14 weeks. Although the socialization sensitive period ends at approximately 14 weeks, this does not mean you can hang up your dog leash, hang up your treat pouch, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It is critical that we continue to reinforce that people, dogs, sounds etc., are good and safe. Think of it like this: Parents of human children do not stop feeding their kids protein after their maximal growth spurts. We know the body at certain developmental times needs more protein to avoid serious health problems; however, this does not mean parents stop feeding protein just because their child has passed that maximal growth period. Along those same lines, doggy parents shouldn’t stop reinforcing and teaching their dog that various stimuli are safe even though they have passed that maximal “growth spurt” . Perhaps the best way to look at socialization is to look at it like a behavioral vaccine. You are doing everything you can to protect your dog from developing behavioral problems. Like vaccines, nothing is 100%. Some dogs will develop behavioral problems despite the best attempts of socializing but the odds of developing a behavioral problem increase dramatically, if socialization is not done or is done incorrectly.
Take away: Vaccinate your dog against behavior problems by responsibly socializing your puppy but don’t stop your efforts simply because your puppy has outgrown puppyhood.
Dr. Emily Levine DVM DACVB