This article was first published several years ago; by request I am publishing it again.
I am often asked how we should socialize our dogs so that they will grow up as well adjusted as possible. I think the answer is both simple and intuitive: The same way you socialize your small children.
I know that many of you don’t have children but work with me here. Even if you do not have children, you certainly know what they are, and you have a pretty good idea of how parents raise them.
Parents take their children to all of the normal places of life. If mom goes grocery shopping, the child comes along. Same with the bank, the store, the homes of relatives, and the library. These are places that almost all children will have significant exposure to from early in life. Through small doses of exposure over time, our children learn what to expect and how to behave in different places.
The type of home a child is raised in will affect the type of socialization experienced. Some parents are highly social and have frequent parties or social events. Children raised this way will have an easier time at parties when they are older than children who are raised by parents who are not as inclined to host social events but always within the context of the child’s underlying temperament – a shy child may choose a more reclusive life as an adult, even if well socialized to parties as a youngster. That is where the interplay between temperament and socialization come together. For the most part, society allows for this – a range of personality types is well tolerated in society.
How about a child who is destined for a more unusual life? A royal baby, for example, will be exposed early on to crowds of thousands, proper table manners and to all sorts of expectations that will not be a part of a regular child’s life. A child born into a native tribe that still relies on hunting to survive will have a vastly different set of experiences. How successfully each takes to his role will rely heavily on proper socialization.
Rarely do we consciously think about socializing our children, but that is indeed what we are doing. As a result of this “quiet” approach, we have a good chance of making the right decisions. We don’t push. We don’t lump socialization into one day a week. And we don’t freak out when the child has a bad day and throws a fit over not much of anything. We simply get them out into the world – focusing on those areas that will be critical to their future.
And your dog? I’d say it’s about the same.
If you plan to walk your dog in the neighborhood, take the dog to a local park for exercise, or visit a local nursing home, then you’ll want to start early showing your dog those pictures and helping them understand what the expected behaviors are in those places. Exposure and familiarity will allow your puppy to adapt, assuming that the underlying temperament is suited for that lifestyle.
How about a dog with a more specialized future; a dog destined for performance competitions? This puppy should be exposed to crowds of both dogs and people. Noisy places. Loudspeakers. Travel. Training classes. And at some point, when the puppy is ready, he should learn to perform some basic skills in those environments – after all, that is the puppy’s future. If his temperament is within the range needed for success in these environments, then basic exposure should do the trick.
How should we treat a puppy that is nervous around people? The same as a small child who is nervous around people. It’s not a big deal most of the time – allow the puppy (or child) to hide behind you if they wish. It won’t matter. Children are notorious for hiding behind their mothers, and most parents (and strangers) understand this natural phase of growing up and just ignore it. If you want to make your child hate going out, force them to interact with people who they are afraid of or force them to enter places that frighten them. And so it goes for puppies. If they aren’t ready to meet your neighbor, let it be. If you allow them to explore the world at their own pace, they will learn to use you as a resource for safety rather than taking matters into their own hands by growling, barking, or becoming catatonic when threatened. They can meet the neighbor when they are ready; your job is to non-judgmentally support the puppy’s decision.
And the puppy that is exuberant? About the same as a child who is exuberant. Calmly redirect the behavior and remove from the situation if the behavior does not improve quickly. Allow the dog or child to return when the behavior is better, or recognize that the expectations of the situation exceeded what was reasonable at that time.
And if your child has a tendency to become aggressive with other children? You remove that child, calm them and try again…with much closer supervision. When you notice behavior escalating, you remove the child before it gets worse. You pay attention – no hanging out with the mommies on a distant bench.
And so it goes with your puppy. Assertive puppies need closer supervision while they learn how to behave. Leaving small puppies or young children unsupervised is a recipe for disaster because the bully will win; small children and puppies do not “work it out.” If your puppy is becoming too rough or excited with the other puppies, then remove him for a short period and supervise much more closely when you return, or change the scenario. Limit the total period of exposure since good behavior is exhausting for both dogs and kids. Good parenting is exhausting for us too!
Do you use a leash with your small children? Probably not. Instead, you pay attention to what the child is watching and you look for triggers that signal a potential problem (a ball rolling into the street will cause most parents to watch their kids carefully for signs that they might follow). If people had to manage their puppy without a leash in public spaces, their understanding of their dog’s needs and triggers would improve dramatically – they would have no choice but to pay attention and “learn” their puppy.
Pass the toddler? I’ve never heard of it. No one expects a toddler to go willingly to ten different strangers – with no choice – and to be happy about it. Sure, some toddlers would probably love the game, but most prefer the security of their caregivers.
And puppies? I’ll admit I do not understand “pass the puppy”. My puppies are allowed to rely on me, and they have 100% choice about whether or not to approach a new person. If they want to approach ( and if the person wishes to visit) then they approach. And if they don’t want to, then that’s fine too. We all grow up when we are ready. I never pass my puppy off unless he has indicated that he wishes to go. Some of my dogs grow into social adults and others are more reserved but I’m hard-pressed to believe that handing them off to random strangers while they shut down in fear would have benefitted them. I wouldn’t do it to a child and I will not to it to a puppy. Leave the puppy on its feet and it can approach (or avoid) as it is ready. If you give your puppy choice, as you would a human child, it’s much harder to put them into a situation that terrifies them.
And a few words about the rights of other people. Yes, people have rights, and they have the right not to like your dog or your children. If a person does not wish to visit, then it is my responsibility to prevent my rambunctious child or puppy from bothering that person. Over time, both children and dogs learn for themselves when a person prefers to be left alone.
Most puppies will do quite well if raised in this manner but some will not do well – those puppies may have specific temperament issues that will need to be addressed in a more systematic fashion. If your puppy is in the minority and their behavior appears to be deteriorating, go see a specialist and get help.