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I think one of the most common questions we hear are often about socialization in one form or another.  New puppy owners are anxious to get their puppy out socializing with other dogs and people.  Or on the flip side, we get many, many calls about leash aggression in their dog and how they weren’t able to socialize it properly as a puppy.

For us, we like to create a dog or puppy who is socially neutral.  Meaning, they are not triggered by external stimulus such as other dogs, or bicycles, or children playing, squirrels, etc…  We find that a dog who is socially neutral or indifferent, is the most pleasant type of dog to handle, for obvious reasons, but also a pleasure to share space with, socially.  The dog is relaxed, and observant of its environment, without acting on its inherent sense of curiosity.

That being said, here are 5 tips to help you socialize your puppy, or dog.

1.  Have a system of interaction

Before socializing your new dog or puppy, make sure you have a reward based, clear system or method of training.  Marker training with either verbal marks or the use of a clicker is suggested.  Reward based training always creates a dog or puppy more willing to interact with you, as opposed to other people.  You will need to mark and reward desired behavior in your socialization training, and it is ultra important the dog or puppy has an understanding of why it is being rewarded.  Thus offering the behavior again, seeking another reward.

2.  Socialization is not about interaction, it is about experience

To socialize my dog does not mean that I’m going to let it play and interact with every dog and human that I meet.  In fact, it is the exact opposite.  The idea is to teach the dog to comfortably share space with other people and animals, without interacting.

The more we can repeat this experience, the more comfortable the dog will be in these experiences, knowing that there is nothing to get either excited, or worried about.  Many dogs finally feel safe and secure once they understand this way of life.

3.  Only socialize with those you know and trust

Imagine your walking in the park with your Black Lab puppy, who is a little timid in new environments.  Coming up on the path is a person with an older Cocker Spaniel who seems pleasant.  As in most cases, the two of you decide to let the dogs meet.  When your Lab puppy finally musters up the courage to submissively crawl up to the Cocker, the Cocker then decides it is not happy with this arrangement and bites your puppy in the face.  The person with the Spaniel then says, “He’s never done that before”

It may sound a bit extreme but this happens more often than not in the dog world.  So of course you have to ask yourself, how did this benefit your socialization process?

By socializing with dogs you know and trust, as well as handlers who are willing to help and also comply with your approach, you will have a much higher rate of success.

But, if your puppy meets the wrong people, and the wrong dogs in new environments, you could run the risk of creating an experience which will be very difficult to recondition.

4.  Do not let anyone and everyone pet your dog

One of the most difficult parts about socializing your dog is the constant disruption of people asking to pet your dog.  For whatever reason, people think because you’re walking a puppy, it must be available for them to pet and enjoy at their leisure.  For me, this concept is socially unacceptable.  Much in the same way I don’t ask to hold your baby, or drive your car, or try on your shoes.

But lets imagine you do decide to let anyone pet your dog while out on walks.  If we can look at this in a very black and white kind of way, the dog will either like it, or it won’t.  If the dog likes being pet by strangers, it will start to seek out strangers for this.  And if you let the dog then be pet by someone, that feeling is then reinforced.  In a very short amount of time the dog will start to demand this.  The will manifest into excessive whining, pulling or even lunging on the leash.  This behavior creates conflict between you, the handler and the dog.  Thus resulting in you most likely needing to correct the dog in some form or another.  As with all dog training, we want to avoid conflict as much as possible.

Now lets imagine the dog doesn’t like it, and more or less becomes annoyed at the fact that it has to experience forced interaction with total strangers around every corner.  The dog could very easily begin to growl, which causes the stranger to back off.  This feeling of defense is then rewarded with the stranger retreating, enhancing the defensive drive in the dog.  This behavior can quickly turn into biting, and now we have a big problem.

By simply avoiding these interactions with strangers from the start, these behaviors will not be exhibited after full maturity, when the dog’s behavior patterns are established.  Unless, of course, the dog experiences something very traumatic.

5.  Case or sweep the area you plan to socialize

I do not mean to literally sweep, but more figuratively.  Before entering an area where you plan of having a productive social experience, do a walk through and make sure you are prepared for what you might encounter.  Take the pet store for example, if you make a walk through and notice a 14 year old handling an 80 pound  Rottweiler who is out of control, you can wait outside for that person to leave.  The same would go for wild children, or anything you think might make your experience less than productive, let alone encounter a social setback.

Like the old saying says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Take care and safe training