Socialization is an important aspect of raising a puppy. We all want well rounded, social dogs…but is it just the process of socializing that creates a well rounded dog, or can we do more to ensure we are creating positive associations with our dogs and how they feel about the world?
To begin, we think it is important to be clear on what socialization is. Socialization is the process by which we expose our dogs to stimulus in various environments. The purpose of this exposure is to create a positive association with the world and in doing so hopefully avoid behavioural issues. The most misunderstood part of socialization, however, is that simply exposing our dogs to things such as other dogs, people, children or cats doesn’t always lead to a confident, well adjusted dog. For example, a puppy could be well socialized to dogs when young, and later in life develop aggression or fear reactive tendencies towards other dogs. Likewise, a dog that has been around people all of its young adult life could develop fearfulness towards strangers. The point these illustrations make is that socialization does not always mean behavior will change for the better. Rather, it is the way that we go about making positive associations for our dogs that has the greatest impacts on behaviour.
We all want social, happy dogs…but this process requires training.
THE DOWNSIDE TO SOCIALIZATION
Rather than just exposing your dog to environments and people, you want socializing your dog to be a training process. You want your dog to learn to be confident in new environments and not overwhelmed by them. A good example? If you bring your dog to the local pet store for a treat, your dog will likely be very excited and less focused on you, and although you are socializing her to the sights and smells and sounds of the store, if you are not doing anything to mitigate her behavior you are also allowing poor associations to be made with the store in general. This is the downside to socializing without a plan – excitement, over stimulation and over arousal all impede learning and too much exposure to new stimuli can actually cause more damage than good – in the form of flooding.
Kingston hanging out in public calmly. This is what we want!
*photo by Polaris Photography
WHAT IS FLOODING AND HOW DOES IT IMPACT TRAINING?
Flooding is a behavioural term that describes ‘information overload’ in our dogs. Flooding happens when we expose dogs to a stimulus at a very high intensity for a period of time, often causing the dog to cease responding to the stimulus (68, Barlow-Tick). In our previous example of your dog in a pet store, this would mean we would bring her into the store and keep her there until she was bored with it – which could take a while for most dogs! In between that span of time, your dog could easily urinate in the store, lunge at others, bark nonstop and steal a few treats. This is a problem!
Not only because your dog is misbehaving, but we have set up a poor environment for learning. How can she learn with all of that excitement, and even more importantly – is she enjoying and learning anything from this experience that will promote good behavior later on in life?
Flooding causes bad coping skills, which is the exact opposite of what we want. It causes poor responses because the dog is so overwhelmed that they can’t make good choices – including those that say “this is a good experience”. Often times, dogs simply ‘shut down’ and stop responding to the stimulus altogether. This may appear to some as a ‘well behaved dog’ but it is not; it is simply a dog who is overwhelmed. Alternatively you could have a dog that is fearful and shy around these environments and that would be creating an equally stressful scenario. Humans are also susceptible to flooding! Ever scroll through Netflix for an hour, trying to decide what to watch? Have you been on a vacation to Disney World and just felt overwhelmed rather than excited?
Instead of frantic excitement or uncertainty, we want to teach our dogs to be as neutral as possible – we call this trait ‘stable’. A stable dog in a new environment is curious but controlled. Not a whole lot should spook them or surprise them, and they should be confident in their environments. A good example is if you have ever seen a dog who hangs out at your local vet office, or your groomers parlor. They are likely calm and confident in the environment and don’t rush to greet every person who walks through the door.
HOW CAN WE SOCIALIZE WITH TRAINING?
Socialization should be carried out with the intention of rewarding good behavior and with boundaries in place. This means that the process shouldn’t always involve the dog interacting with every person, dog or animal they meet. There should be clear training expectations such as:
-Are they allowed to pull towards people or jump on them?
-Are they allowed to greet other animals without waiting politely first?
If not, then be prepared to manage your dog appropriately or train alternate behaviours.
We also want the dog to be confident and curious of his or her surroundings – but not so excited that they can’t think, learn or focus on us so choose your environments wisely. Start easy, such as your street or local park before building it up to the pet store or vet office.
We have created a little exercise for you to follow to make this as easy as possible!
Reward focus and calm behaviours and have fun with your dog!
*Photo of Alison & dog Kingston, taken by Polaris Photography
In your chosen environment, have your dog on a leash and allow her to explore the area on her own.
Let her sniff and walk where she wishes and allow her to look around. Your dog should be at a distance from people or other dogs but still able to view them. Your dog should exhibit curiosity and interest but should not be so overwhelmed they are barking, whining or pulling you, or jumping at others. They should also not continuously stare at distractions without breaks.
There is no obedience expectation in this exercise but you will reward your dog for remaining calm, and for offering you small glances or instances of focus on you. This is what you want more of later on as she grows, so you want to be sure to capture this behaviour as it happens.
When time permits and you have practiced the above exercise in locations that are close to home and quiet, take your dog to a location that is more challenging but that can still give you space to move around; an open field is a good option.
Put your dog on leash and have higher value rewards with you. Take your dog and allow her to explore the area with her senses (nose and eyesight). Once again our only goal is to ensure she does not react or freeze at sounds, and that she can return to you to receive her food reward. If she is checking in with you frequently by offering glances and eye contact, awesome! Reward that. The goal here is to have her enjoy exploring and increase her confidence in her surroundings – which will be incrementally more difficult as you practice.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
– If your dog is stressed out, panting, whining or trying to climb up your leg, end the training session and leave the scenario. Consider contacting a reputable trainer (or message us!) for help. Do not force a fearful dog into a scenario they are rejecting.
– If your dog is excited, over stimulated and uncontrollable, remove them from the scenario and gain some distance. For example, if you are at a pet store or a busy park and your dog is too close to others; move back to a more quiet location and practice this drill there.
– Keep your sessions of exposure short but frequent. The goal is to have a good response to novel objects and scenarios. Not to continue to expose the same things to the dog.
Does this mean no one can pet your dog, or your dog can’t meet another dog? Of course not. These are good experiences too, but the exercise laid out above gives your dog structure in the way they interact with the world and helps build their confidence too!