Socialization Without Socializing

Socialization Without Socializing

A guide to socializing your puppy while maintaining distance from the public

What is Socialization and why is it important?

 

Socialization means exposing your puppy to as many new people, animals, environments and other stimuli as possible without overwhelming him. Over-stimulation of a young puppy can result in excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior, so knowing how much is enough is important.  A lack of socialization can lead to behavioral issues later in life, such as fear and anxiety, so it’s critical to involve the concepts of socialization into his young life.

A properly socialized puppy is:

  • Accustomed to handling and comfortable being touched on all body parts

  • Exposed safely to as many people, other animals, places and situations as possible

  • Encouraged to explore and investigate his environment

  • Allowed to experience a variety of surfaces and other stimuli

  • Brought along often on car rides to new environments with his owner

 

Proper socialization will engage all of your puppy’s senses through exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of day-to-day life.  This exposure will desensitize and condition your pup so that he develops a comfort level with different and new situations.  Socialization also helps you train your young dog to handle new experiences and challenges with acceptable, appropriate behavior.

 

Everything can be new to a puppy.  We want them to experience things in a positive manner.  Allow them to explore new things on their own terms and at their pace.  It is important to never force them to approach something or someone they are wary of.  Your dog needs to know they can trust you and move at their own pace.  Reward your puppy for approaching new things to encourage the behavior.  If your dog shows fearful behavior around a person or item, do not scold them for the behavior.  Doing so can increase their fear.  Always encourage them to explore and build confidence.

 

As you work on socializing your pup pay attention to his body language.  Recognizing when your pup might be wary of something is important.  Common signs of fear and anxiety  in dogs are:  Shaking, yawning (when the dog isn’t tired), drooling & lip-licking (when food isn’t present), panting (when they aren’t tired or hot), turning away, lifting a paw, “whale-eye” (when you can see the whites of their eyes), tucked tail, cowering, looking away, attempting to hide or flee.

 

Due to the current state of health, getting your puppy out into the world presents new challenges, but it’s still possible for your puppy to have these experiences while maintaining social distancing guidelines.

Socializing isn’t just about being in contact with something.  It’s about building positive associations (combining new things with good things so that they associate those new—and potentially scary—things with happy & enjoyable feelings).  One of the easiest ways to build positive associations is to pair “new” things with food that your pup really likes.  Proper exposure & socializing is also about carefully monitoring these interactions to ensure they are positive ones.  Many puppies are sensitive and can easily become overwhelmed.  New things are often scary and can be perceived by your pup as a threat.  Your job is to gauge how she is feeling in new situations by reading her body language.

 

When thinking about socializing, remember the five senses:   

Sight, Smell, Taste, Sound & Touch

Sight:

  • Take your puppy with you on car rides. Try driving to new places (low traffic, high traffic, country roads, highways, intersections, near construction, semis, etc.).  Toss treats to your puppy periodically, especially if they seem interested in something they are looking at.

  • Take your puppy to the grocery store and park close to the entrance. Let your puppy look through the window of your car.  Reward her for looking at the new things.

  • If it’s safe to do so, stand at a distance from the entrance of a store and reward her for seeing different people.

  • Sit in your car at a dog daycare during high traffic times (call the daycare to find out when peak drop of & pick up times are as well as ask for permission to be there). Let your pup see different animals and reward her for looking at them.

  • Take walks in a subdivision (drive to one if you don’t live in one). Reward your pup often for walking at your side.  Let them also choose where to walk.  If they seem unsure about an area don’t force her to walk there.  If she shows confidence by taking a step towards something that made her nervous or unsure of, reward her for her confidence.  If you see kids playing outside let her watch from a safe distance.

  • If guests in the home aren’t an option right now, consider practicing entering the house in a low-key costume (think hats and different coats vs. something truly scary like a Halloween costume) while your puppy is behind a gate and have the “stranger” toss them treats (to build the association of guests entering the home).

  • At home practice carrying items around (such as boxes, bags, suitcases). Toss treats to your pup when he sees you carrying things.  Practice entering the home carrying these items and tossing treats to your pup as well.

Smell & Taste:

  • Dogs have approximately 300 million scent receptors in their noses (50 times as many as a human), and an additional organ called the vomeronasal organ above the roof of their mouths and under their noses. So, while your dog is licking the ground and tasting the air, he is acquiring extremely detailed information through his superior olfactory organ.

  • While on walks let your puppy sniff things so that they have the opportunity to “learn” through their noses.

  • Sniffing is also a calming activity and helps dogs displace anxiety. So, when in new environments not only is sniffing important so that your puppy can “read” the environment, but the act of sniffing will help him feel less anxious about a new environment.

  • Trying different (pet safe) foods and treats can be a fulfilling experience for puppies as well. We can also learn what our pups like to eat by letting them try different kinds of treats as well.  You can even make a chart to record their responses!  Knowing what they like versus what they love is beneficial.  Feeding “high-value” treats during exposure & training can help your pup learn.  Think about it this way…a child is more likely to do something they may not want to if the reward is a cookie versus a piece of stale bread.

Sound:

  • New sounds can be just as scary (and sometimes even more scary) to puppies than new sights. Think about all the sounds they might hear:

    • hair dryers

    • kitchen appliances

    • vacuums

    • doorbells

    • yard equipment (lawn mowers, leaf blowers, etc.).

    • Power tools (hammering, drills, saws)

    • trucks backing up

    • neighbors in their yards

    • kids yelling

    • babies crying

    • dogs barking

    • wind and thunder noises

    • fireworks

    • semi-trucks/delivery trucks

  • You Tube is full of recorded examples (and more!) of the above noises. Practice desensitizing the dog to sound by pairing the sound with food

    • Play the sound at a low volume. As soon as they alert to the sound, give them a treat.  If they bark or become frightened of the sound, muffle the sound further.

    • Increase the volume of the sound slowly. Play the sound in short snippets.

    • Play the sounds in different areas of the home so the pup generalizes their response no matter where the sound is heard or experienced.

  • Puppies can be surprised by many things—sudden noises, things that suddenly appear or even an unexpected touch. When your pup is startled by something unexpected, it’s very easy for the heightened awareness and focus to cause the pup to become fearful or anxious.  To avoid this, help him to see that the unexpected thing or event is not scary, or, even better, help him to see that it is in fact good.  If pups are not given the chance to learn that unexpected things are usually positive, over time, he may begin to react fearfully (which could manifest as aggression) any time he is startled.

  • One way to help puppies to learn to cope with sudden noises and surprises is to set up practice scenarios.

    • Walk up to him suddenly, on occasion, and present something he really likes. Do this particularly when he is really engrossed in what he is doing so that he is slightly startled, but the surprise results with a positive outcome.

    • Make a sudden noise, such as clattering a pan or dropping a book from a low distance. The noise should be just enough to startle, but not frighten him.  Immediately following the noise, drop treats for him.  Doing this will help him associate sudden noises with good things.

Touch:

  • Get your puppy used to being bathed and brushed, having her nails clipped, her teeth brushed, and her ears and other body parts examined and inspected by routinely practicing these activities (sometimes daily). This allows your pet to get comfortable being handled, making bath time, nail trims and her future visits to the vet and groomer easier on all of you. If your puppy shows signs of stress during handling then practice desensitizing them to touch.

    • Have some tasty treats ready that your puppy really loves.

    • Gently touch your puppy and then feed him a treat. Focus on all areas of the body, paying particular care and patience to the ears and feet.

    • If your puppy balks at your touch make your touch gentler. You can also practice just reaching towards their foot (or whatever body part that was sensitive)  then giving a treat.  Try letting your them lick something (like peanut butter) or nibble on a treat while you touch them to learn that while these things are happening (your touch) that good things happen.  Once their comfort level grows you can go back to a touch-then-treat method.

  • In addition to seeing and smelling new things, and desensitizing him to human touch, it’s important to positively expose our puppies to different surfaces. Reward for their bravery when they step onto a surface that seems strange to them!

  • Outdoor surfaces can include:

    • Grass (wet and dry)

    • Gravel

    • Pavement

    • Mulch

    • Sand

  • Indoor surfaces can include:

    • Carpet

    • Shiny floors

    • Tile

    • The bathtub

  • You can also think about novel textures too

    • Bubble wrap

    • Tarps

    • Crumpled aluminum foil

  • If a playground allows dogs, let them explore the playground. There are many novel things to walk on (as well as see & smell!)

Though your options for socialization may be currently limited you can still be successful and have fun in the meantime!

-Robin Downing, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP

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