We wrote a blog post last week that discussed the various slices of the "dog behavior pie." Quick recap if you didn't read that post... There are essentially three main components that determine how your dog will behave: Training, Genetics, & Socialization. In that post, we discussed training & genetics because we feel that they are the two biggest factors affecting dog behavior. You might be wondering why, in our opinion, socialization isn't as important. Stay tuned, and we'll tell you!
When we say that socialization isn't as important as training and genetics, we don't mean that it's not important. It most definitely is. We just don't feel that it's as important as training and genetics for the following reason:
A well-trained, truly genetically stable dog is not going to have problems in social situations regardless of how much "socializing" you do. You could do a lot, or you could do a little, and the final outcome will be the same: A confident dog (this is the genetic slice) that listens to you regardless of distractions (this is the training slice).
So where does socializing come in to play? Socializing is needed for all of the dogs that aren't 100% genetically sound. It's needed for all of the dogs that didn't win the "genetic lottery." If you read last week's blog post, you'll know that those 100% genetically sound dogs are quite rare. Most of us don't have those dogs. Most of us have almost genetically sound dogs who might be prone to just a little bit of anxiety, uncertainty in new situations, etc. For these dogs, socializing can be that little extra "push" that they need to ensure those small bits of anxiety, uncertainty, etc. don't turn into issues. However, this brings us to the other reason that we don't feel socialization is as important as training and genetics:
No socialization is better than bad socialization.
For these dogs that are almost (but not quite) genetically sound who have a tendency to be nervous, anxious, uncertain, etc., not socializing them at all will yield a better-behaved dog than will socializing them incorrectly. Que mic drop.
Crazy, right? Ehh, not really. Let us explain...
The problem with almost genetically sound dogs is that, a lot of times, you don't know that dog has a tendency to be nervous, anxious, fearful, reactive, etc. until you do something wrong (like improper socialization) that triggers it. If you hadn't done that "something wrong," there is a chance that said dog might never even develop a behavior issue. Therefore, it's extremely important to ensure that all of the socialization you're doing with your puppy is productive vs. counter-productive. So, how do you socialize correctly? Check out these four tips:
Your puppy does not need to meet strangers. In our opinion, this is the #1 most important socialization rule. When your puppy has an encounter with a stranger out in public, one of two things can happen: The stranger will do something that makes your puppy a little uncomfortable (such as sticking their hand in your puppy's face, reaching over your puppy to pet him/her, etc.) OR your puppy will really enjoy the interaction. So why is this problematic? For starters, if your puppy has an uncomfortable interaction with a stranger and is just a little nervous, you probably won't even notice. Some puppies give super subtle signs when they're nervous, and many can even appear happy/excited. Overtime, these uncomfortable interactions forced on your puppy tend to compound and will lead to increased fear, reactivity and/or aggression towards people. On the other hand, if your puppy really enjoys the interaction, he is going to come to the realization that strangers are fun. Overtime, this will lead to overexcitement/arousal around strangers, and your puppy will struggle to listen to you and remain calm when strangers approach.
Proper socialization should create neutrality. Your puppy should be neither scared nor excited when strangers approach. Instead, he should remain calm and focused on you. We want you to be the center of your puppy's world, and he should view all other strangers as simply a part of the environment. So, how do you accomplish this? By not letting your puppy "say hi" to every stranger that comes your way. Instead, take your puppy out and about and work on training in the presence of strangers. Go to a park and teach your puppy to focus on you instead of everyone else. Your puppy will become comfortable in the presence of strangers, and you won't have to worry about any bad habits developing!
At this point, you're probably wondering how your puppy won't become antisocial towards your friends, family, etc... The answer is, let your puppy interact with those people! Anybody that will be in your puppy's life on a regular basis is fair game. The reason we don't want your puppy "saying hi" to strangers is because we can't anticipate what those strangers are going to do and how that might affect your puppy. When it comes to friends and family, they typically take instruction quite well (and you'll feel more comfortable giving instruction), and you can ensure that your puppy has a positive interaction with them. Inform the friends and family to let your puppy approach them for attention and not to force an interaction with your puppy. Ensure that your friends and family remain calm and quiet (soft voices) when first interacting with your puppy. Tell them not to reach over your puppy's head or pick your puppy up until the puppy is climbing in their lap, etc. Strictly managing your puppy's interactions with people when he's young will ensure that he's not put into a situation that could potentially trigger a chain of events that will eventually lead to behavioral issues.
Your puppy does not need to meet other dogs (for all the same reasons we just discussed regarding your dog meeting strangers). You can't anticipate how a dog that you don't know is going to react towards your puppy. Unfortunately, one dog attack is all that's needed to create dog-reactivity or dog-aggression. For this reason, we'd recommend steering clear of dog parks and doggy daycares as well. Contrary to popular belief, there are actually no benefits to letting your dog play with other dogs that your dog can't also get from you. In fact, the one and only benefit that dogs get from dog-to-dog play is physical exercise. You can achieve the same results by playing with your dog or taking him for a walk that won't result in potential behavioral issues. If you'd like for your dog to have some dog-to-dog interaction, stick with dogs that you know are trustworthy/friendly.
Environmental socialization is super important as well. Most people think of human or dog interactions when a dog trainer mentions socialization, but there are other aspects of socialization as well. Afterall, the simplest definition for socialization is "the process of acquiring the skills needed to function and behave in society." So, if your dog can't walk down the street without having a panic attack about a plastic bag blowing across the road, one could say he's not adjusting well to society. Exposing your puppy to a variety of different environmental challenges will ensure that he grows into a confident adult. Slick floors, loud noises, dark rooms, stairs, riding in a vehicle, etc. are examples of environmental challenges. Believe it or not, many dogs have issues with these things and become very nervous when asked to walk on a slick floor, ride in a vehicle, etc. If your puppy displays any nervousness/fear/suspicion towards something in his environment, give him plenty of time to investigate it (do not force it) along with tons of praise and encouragement. Teach your puppy that, when he's in your presence, he has nothing to fear.
The window for socialization begins closing at four months of age and, by six months of age, your puppy is pretty much who he is as far as socialization goes. Make sure you start this work (and do lots of it) early enough to get a feel for your puppy's personality, level of confidence, etc. so you can come up with a socialization game plan. If your puppy seems nervous when meeting your friends, you'll need to arrange more meetings with your friends/family before six months of age. If your puppy seems nervous around other dogs, you'll need to do a lot of work around trusted dogs before six months of age. If your puppy seems nervous in new/different places, be sure to do tons of environmental work before your puppy ages out of the socialization window. You can start socializing your puppy as soon as you bring him home (eights weeks of age), and a good rule of thumb is to take him to three new places each week! However, since your puppy won't be fully vaccinated just yet, be sure to keep him in areas that aren't frequently trafficked by other dogs (another great reason to avoid dog parks) to decrease the risk of exposure to parvo, distemper, etc.
Socializing your puppy does not need to be complicated or stressful (for you or your puppy). Take your puppy out and about. Limit his interactions with strangers and strange dogs. Work on keeping his attention/focus on you using lots of engagement, treats, toys, etc. As always, we also recommend consulting with a trainer so that you can be sure you're socializing your puppy correctly. Furthermore, socialization and training can be and should be combined to yield the best results.