Socializing Tips – our world can be a scary place!
By Emily Larlham
The world can be a scary place for a young puppy. This is especially the case if the breeder or previous caregiver did not take the litter of puppies out-and-about in the company of their own mother and littermates in order to socialize them to everything they will see and hear in their grown up lives.
It’s hard to know how much socialization is too much and how much is too little when you first get your puppy. The key is to look for signs of stress as well as coping skills. When something startles your puppy, does he recover and respond with curiosity, or does he panic and continually try to escape, look fearful or bark? Your goal as a trainer is to help your puppy become more relaxed and more confident as the days go by in the presence of the same stimuli or environment. If the opposite is happening, you need to readjust your socialization plan.
At first, your puppy might not take treats when outside your home at first because of the excitement and stress from being in a new environment. Keep trying different types of treats and working on calm behaviors at home- like a “settle” that you can use when out-and-about. If your puppy still is unable to eat in the same environment after multiple visits, it means you need to take a step back and work in an environment that is less stressful, with less distractions. This will give your puppy a greater chance of feeling relaxed enough to eat when on an outing. You can start in your yard, or just outside the front of your house. You can also try going on the outing when your puppy is hungry around a meal-time to see if that might encourage him to take food. When a dog is over-aroused or fearful the dog’s body will shut down the flow of blood to the stomach and make the dog not feel like eating. So when a puppy refuses to eat treats, it could be a sign that your puppy is stressed. The goal is that your puppy should feel calm and confident enough in all environments to feel like eating.
Besides using the information of whether your puppy can eat when out-and-about as a measure of how stressed or relaxed the puppy is, you can also use food during socialization to create positive associations to people and things you want your puppy to be comfortable around. You can use food to create memorable and highly reinforcing associations to other dogs and people you see and interact with, simply by feeding the puppy a treat for looking at a person or dog, or having a person feed your puppy high value treats. Some people think that just taking a puppy on many outings is enough to have a well-adjusted adult dog because the puppy will habituate to the environment. For some puppies this can be the case, but other puppies need highly reinforcing experiences during socialization or they can actually sensitize to the things they are simply exposed to instead of habituate to them. This means the puppy can start acting more fearful and reactive the more you take the puppy on outings, rather than feeling more comfortable as the amount of times you take your puppy out increases.
A lot of people like to keep moving when taking a puppy out for socialization, for example going on long walks. However, it can be very beneficial if you just stand around and let your puppy take in the surrounding environment, while giving your puppy reinforcement for seeing and hearing strange and new stimuli. Also, give your puppy the chance to explore safe environments using all his senses. Give your puppy chances to sniff as much as he wants at certain points on your outing. We are often in a hurry to move on as we cannot comprehend the extraordinary amount of information our dogs are “seeing” with their noses. Take caution not let your puppy sniff other dog’s feces and urine until he has had all of his vaccinations. It is important to socialize puppies in areas that are clean and not frequented by sick dogs.
If your puppy goes into an extreme state of panic or gets overly scared and can’t recover, abort your socialization trip and go home. Your puppy might be going through a fear period. For the next few days, keep things mellow and work on calm behaviors. Keep in mind even that even “good stress” like playing games with toys that cause your puppy to get over-excited, could also cause your puppy to be more likely to startle during socialization. So if you have a reactive puppy, you should work on calmness during socialization, rather than going on outings and getting your puppy revved up with games that over-excite him. This is not to say that you should never play with your puppy, but that you should be aware of how excited your puppy is getting during play.
Tip (especially for dog trainers): Make sure your puppy is not just looking at YOU the whole time when you are out-and-about. Yes it looks impressive to others at how great your bond is, but this type of fixed focus will stop the puppy from visually taking in what is around him.
Another tip: Play training games with your puppy when out and about as soon as you can, to teach your puppy to pay attention to you even with distractions, in conjunction with giving your puppy time to relax and explore the environment.
Pictured below is Lacey, our new rescue puppy, at 6 months working on leg weaving in a public place and then relaxing in a crowd. In the adjacent picture she is being fed treats for calmly watching dogs and people pass by.
When we first got Lacey (at 4 months old) she was barking at all dogs and people on the street, and was so panicked and frightened that she would just want to run home without going to the bathroom outside. To solve this, we kept outings very short and calmly fed her treats for looking at people and other dogs in the street. At first she did not take the treats, but we would still offer them to her. Then, when she was able to eat treats for looking at other people and dogs, we had friends and their well-trained, friendly dogs interact with her and create memorable, highly reinforcing experiences in the streets and in our home. Because we took the time in the first month to make EVERY person and dog she saw the predictor of something highly reinforcing, Lacey is now a very friendly and outgoing dog. Another huge factor in her overcoming reactivity was keeping her home environment peaceful and calm. At first, Lacey would bark at any sound in the house. By using classical conditioning- that is feeding her and telling her how good she was calmly after every weird noise that she heard in the apartment- after only 2 weeks she was calm and relaxed inside the house. If your puppy is overly stressed in your house, it can cause your puppy to be more reactive or fearful on walks. This is because your puppy never has a chance to properly rest and relax to help the stress hormones in his blood to subside. If you have a puppy that cannot relax in your home you can try these things until your puppy is showing signs of relaxing: you can turn on a radio to prevent your puppy from hearing things outside, prevent your puppy from seeing things out the window, try a dog appeasing pheromone collar, and teach your puppy to “settle” in the house.
A video tutorial on how to teach a “settle”:
Below you can see Lacey meeting one of our friends for the first time. She used to jump up on her handler and try to escape or bark at strangers when we first got her. To address such behaviors, you can get trusted friends to feed your puppy high value treats. However, for rehabilitating an adult dog or a highly fearful puppy, this is not advised as even your friend could suddenly spook your dog and get bitten. It is much better for you to approach, move away and give the dog treats rather than letting the person feed treats, approach and move away.
Bringing your own stable, adult dogs on walks with your puppy can really speed socialization up, but bringing a fearful, reactive adult dog with you can cause your puppy to start acting similarly.
You want your puppy to have at LEAST 20 memorable and highly reinforcing experiences with human beings in his first few weeks at home- in your home and in other environments. You will know if the experiences were reinforcing when your puppy sees a person a second time and wants to happily greet the person immediately. A general rule is that your puppy should see 100 different types of people in the first month in your care. Obviously if you have rescued an older puppy you may need to take things slower. But be wary: if you go too slow with socialization, your puppy can habituate to only seeing a few people, in extremely set up situations and it might be harder to move on to harder situations your puppy will encounter on the street.
Make sure that your puppy meets and has highly reinforcing experiences (rather than punishing experiences) with children. This means interacting with calm children who feed your young puppy treats, NOT children who yank on, hang on, or are too loud and rough with your dog. Manage the children and the parents or say “Goodbye!” If you have an older or fearful puppy, work on helping your puppy to feel relaxed and happy around calm adults first before socializing your puppy to children. Then when you socialize your puppy to children, avoid having your puppy interact with children younger than 5 years old or children who can’t follow orders. In fact, no dog should have to interact with young children at all. However, if you have a young 8-week-old puppy, you can take advantage of the situation by having children feed your puppy where both child and dog are safe.
Socialization to other dogs is another story. This can be potentially dangerous, as a lot of adult dogs do not like puppies and can easily scare them, or even seriously hurt or kill them. Make sure that your puppy meets only calm, relaxed and stable dogs (and puppies). Puppies learn from each other, so if your puppy has adult friends and puppies that are rough and “hyper”, he can learn to be that way too.
I believe it is better to socialize your puppy to calm, stable adult dogs more than with other puppies. If puppies are just socialized to other puppies, they could possibly learn to either bully each other, become fearful, or dislike other dogs because they were bullied.
Calm, safe adult dogs teach puppies how to relax and hang out calmly in each other’s presence. The Belgian Malinois puppy in the picture to the left is learning to hang out with large and small adult dogs. If she were allowed to play only with other puppies, she might spend all her interaction time with other dogs in over-excited play.
Instead of putting your puppy with an adult dog or another puppy and just “seeing what happens,” set your puppy up for success by teaching your puppy the correct choices first before letting them interact. You can choose to walk your dogs next to each other without meeting, or feed them for settling next to each other at a café, until they are calm, relaxed, and happy just being in each other’s presence before they get to meet, interact, or play.
Tip: When your puppy is meeting a person or dog, make sure he has the choice to escape and back away. Don’t restrain your puppy while people and dogs come up to him, as he might feel trapped. If this happens, the puppy may learn to snap as a first defense, rather than to escape from situations that are too much for him. You can also call your puppy away or remove him if you think he is becoming overwhelmed by something.
Tip for shy puppies:
If you have a puppy who is very shy of strangers, at first ignore your puppy’s jumping up on unfamiliar people- as shown above with a Staffie mix puppy whom I was fostering. If you reinforce your puppy for keeping his distance and not jumping up, you can give your puppy the wrong message, to not go near other people. Instead, allow your shy puppy to jump up on strangers if he suddenly feels confident. This will help the puppy have a positive association with strangers. Once you see that your puppy is confident, you can start working on calmer greetings. However, if you have an overly-friendly or excitable puppy, then you should do the opposite: from day one, prevent reinforcement for jumping.
Tip for puppies reactive to weird objects:
Teach your puppy the cue “Go check it out”. Watch the video tutorial below on how to train this:
Another tip: Nip barking in the bud
From the very first day that you get your puppy, reinforce the absence of barking in all the situations that can cause dogs to bark. Reinforce your puppy for remaining calm in frustrating situations, such as being trapped on a leash while other dogs are playing, or when something your dog wants is just out of reach. Reinforce your dog when faced with startling sights and sounds before he even thinks to bark. You will not only be preventing your puppy from finding barking reinforcing; you will also be conditioning the emotional response of calmness in all these situations.
1 People- Tall, short, fat, thin, loud, quiet, fast, slow, crippled, bouncy, young, old, hairy, hairless, with all types of weird clothes, hats, on all types of weird objects like bikes, roller-skates, walkers, wheel chairs, and carrying all types of weird objects like umbrellas, garbage bags, canes, crutches, babies, and guitars.
2 Dogs- Large, small, fast, slow, furry, loud, calm, over-excited. Your puppy needn’t have to meet the other dogs he encounters on walks, but be fed treats for calmly walking by or looking at them.
3 Funny stuff- Trash cans, traffic signs, water, parked trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. (the world is full of weirdness for a puppy). Obviously, don’t let your puppy interact with things that are dangerous!
4 Surfaces- Man hole and drain hole covers, grass, gravel, tarmac, concrete, metal, wood, carpet, plastic, linoleum, etc.
5 Noises- Garbage trucks, loud crowds, city noises, forest noises, the sound of farm animals, a balloon popping in the distance, doorbells, dogs barking, knocking, jingling dog collars, etc. Can you think of more noises that exist in the places your puppy will visit in his lifetime?
6 Nighttime- Take your puppy out at night and get him used to the sights and sounds of different environments at night.
If you have adopted a puppy who is older or who has not been socialized at all by the breeder, you will need to avoid packing in too many things into each day when socializing, as you could easily overwhelm your puppy.