By Victoria Schade
Thorough socialization is one of the most important aspects of early puppy training. The goal is to give your puppy the tools to understand that “new and different” doesn’t necessarily translate to “bad and scary.” Having positive experiences with a variety of people, places and things during those critical few weeks of social development – roughly between eight to fourteen weeks of age – can help set the stage for a lifetime of confidence and appropriate responses to new experiences. Though the socialization checklist is long, working through it can be a joyful process of discovery for both dog and pet parent.
But what happens if a puppy doesn’t get the benefit of early socialization? How might that impact the dog when its fully grown? Behavior is a product of both nature and nurture, a mix of genetics and experience, but it’s possible that under-socialized dogs can exhibit any of the following problems.
A dog that hasn’t been exposed to positive new experiences is a dog that’s likely to be frightened of anything that isn’t familiar. That trash bag flapping in the breeze or garden statue at the edge of a neighbor’s yard might be enough to make the dog cower and retreat. These dogs can have crippling anxiety about anything that’s unfamiliar, which manifests in an unwillingness to approach new situations and environments.
Fearfulness often masquerades aggression, so even though it might seem like a reactive dog is in an aggressive attack-mode, it’s possible that the display is based in fear. Under-socialized dogs often don’t have the coping skills to appropriately respond to stressful scenarios, so they react defensively in an effort to maintain a buffer from the “scary” stimulus, whether it’s a person, another dog, a bike or an umbrella.
A dog that wasn’t exposed to handling exercises as a puppy likely feels uncomfortable with grooming since it never had a chance to learn that a comb isn’t a torture device. That makes basic husbandry, like nail clipping and tooth brushing, challenging if not impossible. Because the process is so overwhelming for both dog and pet parent, these nervous dogs have to go to the vet for basic grooming procedures that could easily be taken care of at home.
Many dogs are afraid of thunder and fireworks, so a lack of socialization isn’t to blame in those scenarios. However, dogs that are nervous about unexpected but everyday sounds like the whir of a ceiling fan or the beep of a fire alarm battery are at a disadvantage because of the prevalence of the noises. These dogs typically withdraw from the sound and display avoidance behaviors.
An under-socialized dog’s world is very small, because life outside the front door is frightening and unpredictable. Going in the car, stopping by dog-friendly stores and hiking new trails are out of the question because the dog isn’t comfortable in the new environments.
One of the most important steps in socialization is gently introducing the puppy to different types of people including children, people in hats, men with beards, senior citizens with walkers and people of different ethnicities. If a puppy doesn’t have the opportunity to meet friendly strangers at his own pace, he might react fearfully – whether retreating or barking preemptively – any time he meets someone he perceives as different.
We all want our dogs to have dog buddies, but if a puppy wasn’t able to meet a variety of dogs of all ages and sizes at a young age, there’s a chance he’ll be wary about making canine friends as an adult. Early dog-on-dog socialization is critical because it allows dogs to hone their communication skills. Without exposure to the language of play, it’s easy for a dog to misconstrue a frisky nip as an invitation to fight.
You can avoid the dangers of under-socialization with a well-constructed plan that addresses all of these potential problem areas. Sign up for a well-run puppy socialization class where your dog can meet new friends and learn the rules of friendly play. Take the time to explore your puppy’s body, including the paws (specifically the nails), mouth, ears and eyes using “touch for a treat” training. Create a checklist of different types of people to meet, but make sure that participants let your pup approach them on his own time. Gently expose your puppy to different noises at low levels. Carefully introduce household equipment, like brooms and unplugged vacuums. Allow him to explore different surfaces, like sidewalk grates and slick floors. Encourage him to check out objects like parked bikes, garbage cans on wheels and strollers. Although it’s critical to expose your puppy to new environments, avoid areas with porous ground where many unfamiliar dogs go, like parks, during the early stages of socialization.
Keep in mind, though, that it’s not just the quantity of experiences your puppy has, it’s also the quality. The secret to socialization success is to make sure that it’s always a positive experience for your puppy. Forcing him to meet someone he’s tentative to approach might actually backfire and reinforce any underlying fear. Similarly, plopping him in the middle of a sandpit when he’s only been on grass might cause undue stress. Work through your puppy’s socialization checklist slowly, always allowing your pup to move at his own pace, and always making sure that he has an escape route from the action should he need it. If you plan ahead and don’t leave anything to chance, your puppy will have a rich vocabulary of real-world skills.
Victoria Schade is a certified dog trainer and author.