What does socialization mean?

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Molly and Abby at our booth at the MD DogFest

I took my puppies to a big box pet store today. It took me about 2 minutes to walk in, pick something up off the shelf and pay for it. I spent about 25 minutes near the front door of the store, just standing there. My puppies, Molly and Abby who are sisters that are 5 months old, were given the opportunity to work on one of the hardest things, and the most important things, that I can have them learn- to be comfortable in any environment. In other words, I socialized them.

It’s critical that you socialize your dogs.

Most people don’t really understand what that means. People hear socialization and they think about having their dog play with other dogs.  It’s much more than that.  When I say socialization, I mean expose your dog to as many different sights, sounds, and smells as you can. And introduce them to all different types and sizes of well-mannered dogs, too.  You can meet up with your friend’s dogs and have puppy playdates.  It’s all about variety without overwhelming your puppy.  You want to introduce different people, places, things, and even floor surfaces.  You want runners, bikers, and skate boarders.  You want wheelchairs and crutches.  You want elderly people and kids.  You want them to be comfortable outside and inside (some Home Depots let you bring in dogs!).

During our outing today, Molly and Abby sat sill and stayed while:

  • people walked by
  • shopping carts rolled by
  • kids ran by
  • staff stood near us and talked to each other
  • dogs walked by
  • there was a loud noise from a box dropping near the register
  • birds were chirping in a near-by cage
  • hamsters rolled a ball in their cage behind us

Many people asked if they could pet my dogs (yeah for asking!) and I said yes, of course. They were pet by young, old, women, men, staff, and customers. Molly and Abby were not allowed to get up while the person approached to pet them, which was hard (they wanted to rush over to say hi whenever someone was approaching them). With a few tries under their belt, they mastered even that in such a distracting environment. Most people were impressed that neither of the puppies jumped on them.

Molly had a fearful reaction of a shopping cart when it rolled too close to where she was sitting (I don’t think the person pushing it noticed I had 2 small dogs sitting there!). I simply asked Molly to sit again and when another shopping cart passed us, a bit further away this time, I reinforced Molly for not getting up and moving away. By the time our 25 minutes was up, carts could roll right next to us and Molly was staying still.

Why am I sharing all of this with you?

Not only is it important to socialize your puppies, it’s also important to be sure that you have control over the situations that your puppy will be in. If there is something that your puppy reacts to, you need to be able to change the situation easily to accommodate for what your puppy needs (for example, when the cart being too close to Molly startled her, I moved Molly further from the aisle until she was more comfortable with the carts). Start small and slow. Don’t start on day one by going to a big box store pet store like I did today. (My puppies have had a wide variety of socialization, including spending the weekend at our booth for the MD DogFest pictured above)  Start by going to a small, quiet park where you may see only a few people. Work your way up the ladder until your dog is successful at each rung before you challenge him to more distractions.

By standing still with my puppies today for 25 minutes, I have set them up even better for a future of being calm in the face of distractions, and having the opportunity to enjoy an outdoor meal with my dogs lying calmly at my feet while people, dogs, and kids run by. It did not take me a long time, either. I was already going to be going to the pet store to pick something up, I just brought the dogs along and added just 25 minutes to the trip in order to have an awesome, long, training session. There would have been a benefit if I had just walked them into the store, picked up one item, paid for it, and left. The puppies would have just work their sit/stay for the time it took me to get the money out and pay for my purchase. However much time you have to invest in socializing and training your dog, it can work by just making the most of whatever time you have.

It’s critical to have your puppy exposed to meeting a variety of dogs from the time you bring them home until they are 6 months old. You need to be sure that you set up a safe environment for that to happen. Your goal is that every one of those social interactions go smoothly for your puppy so that your puppy can learn productively how to interact with other dogs. Do not take your young puppy somewhere there are too many dogs to interact with as your puppy could get easily overwhelmed. In situations like that, you do not have any control over the environment. Your puppy will do best interacting with a small number of dogs that do well with puppies. Teach your puppy to have good manners, too, so that he does not get himself in trouble with older dogs who will not tolerate a puppy jumping up at their face or on their back.

One of the best places to socialize a young puppy will be a trainer-supervised puppy socialization session so that you can assure the best possible experience for your puppy. Just check that the training company is qualified to be supporting your puppy through this critical experience.

During our puppy socialization classes at Paws and Possibilities, we cater the experience to what each puppy needs. Last week a new puppy came to class that was only 10 weeks old and had very little experience interacting with other dogs. We kept the environment calm and let that puppy off the leash while we kept Molly and Abby on their leashes. When the new puppy was ready, I let Molly off her leash (remember, she is the cautious, calm one of my two). Molly walked up to the puppy and the two just hung out together. Once the new puppy started feeling more comfortable, I let Abby off her leash, too. After watching Molly and Abby playing, this new puppy built up her courage to start to play, too. Nothing was rushed and we just waited for the puppy to show some interest. Now this puppy has a positive experience when it comes to socialization and will be more interested and more comfortable at the next session.

When searching for a qualified trainer to facilitate socialization, I recommend looking for a trainer that is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP). You can look up to find a trainer in your area on their website at http://canineprofessionals.com/FindAProfessional

There are so many different things you can do to help socialize your dog.  In the comments below, share some of the interesting places you have taken your dog and whether or not the experience was successful!

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