What is the point of socializing a dog? Why do trainers talk about it so much? Is there a correct way or an incorrect way to do it? Where is the best place to socialize your dog? There are so many questions out there when it comes to socialization. Before getting to those questions, why don't we start off with what socialization is actually about.
What is Socialization?
Socialization is about building positive associations with the things that a dog is going to come across in their lifetime. Things can include the sound of a train, other dogs, walking on different surfaces, people with glasses, people with beards, people with backpacks and so on.
The point of socialization is to have a well balanced dog that really enjoys the presence of the things mentioned above.
The point of socialization is to have a well balanced dog that really enjoys the presence of the things mentioned above. A lot of dogs are inside a house for 23+ hours each day and the time they are outside is to relieve themselves and doesn't last long. When they finally get to go out on an adventure, (either because their human brought them along or because of bolting out of the front door) they don't really know how to handle themselves. They are often overwhelmed.
Trainers harp on this so much because a lot of behavioral issues can be prevented if socialization is done properly and continuously. Socialization is never over. This must be continued on throughout a dog's life. It's most important between 8-16 weeks of age, but older dogs can be affected from lack of socialization.
Let's talk about how to do it
The first thing is to always carry tasty, high value food. Some examples are turkey, chicken and hot dogs. Once you have your high value treat you're ready to hit the streets. (or park, or dog friendly store.)
The second thing is to make sure that you introduce the high value treat a second after your dog experiences the person, dog, car etc. You want to continue to treat your dog while the thing is still present. Once the thing is gone, stop giving the treat. For example, if a loud truck goes by, wait for your dog to notice and then start treating him until the truck goes away. This will teach your dog that when loud trucks go by, awesome stuff happens. If your dog associates loud trucks with awesome stuff, your dog is less likely to be fearful of them in the future.
For example, if a loud truck goes by, wait for your dog to notice and then start treating him until the truck goes away.
Make sure that there is enough distance between your dog and the thing he is noticing. You wouldn't want to get your dog directly next to the loud truck to start. Start off at a distance where your dog notices it, but isn't overly concerned. Start to close the distance as your dog gets more and more comfortable.
When it comes to socializing with other dogs you can always start off at a distance. When your dog sees another dog, give him treats. Treat him until the dog is out of sight. If you're going to do on leash greetings, keep the initial meeting to under 3 seconds. After those initial seconds, call the dogs away and give them lots of high value treats. You can repeat this a few times and if everything goes smoothly, you should be fine to increase the amount of time they're together. (I'm not a huge fan of on leash greetings, but if you're going to do it, make sure both dogs look happy about it prior to letting them meet.)
If you're going to do on leash greetings, keep the initial meeting to under 3 seconds. After those initial seconds, call the dogs away and give them lots of high value treats.
If you're trying to socialize your puppy, look for other puppies or young dogs that you know are social. Start this before they're fully vaccinated and be sure to avoid allowing them to walk on surfaces that are frequented by lots of dogs.
Socializing with people can be done the same way. Wait for your dog to notice a person and then start delivering high value treats. Feed as long as they're present and stop once they're gone.
What if your dog is very fearful?
Everything mentioned above is assuming we're talking about a dog or puppy that isn't overly fearful. If your dog or pup becomes overwhelmed easily and is going into fight, flight or freeze more, it's best to contact a professional to help. The information above can work, but when dealing with fear, it often has to be carefully orchestrated to assure your dog isn't actually being flooded which can make things worse.