Noel Hoffmann: Socialization and dogs: Let's be clear

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Exactly what does socialization mean when we talk about domestic dogs? There is a lot of buzz these days about the importance of "socializing" our dogs, especially young puppies. There is also a lot of misunderstanding about what this means. I try to find clear ways of explaining socialization.

Dogs are masters of detail. They notice everything. They notice things like our breath, our mood, if our left pinky just moved and so, and so on. They notice and connect things we do all the time. This is called classical learning. Of the many wonderful things I love about dogs, this is my favorite. They are brilliant at classical learning.

But dogs are not good at generalizing. This simply means that if your dog learns a trick in your kitchen and you then move outside and cue the same trick, your dog may look at you as if they had never heard the cue before. They learned the trick in one context (your kitchen) but it does not necessarily transfer to another context (outside).

Socialization in dogs is really about helping them to generalize. A great example would be a young dog meeting a person for the first time and that person was wearing a big bulky coat and carrying an umbrella.

How would the dog perceive this?

"Oh look, that is a human wearing a big coat and carrying an umbrella, which humans use to protect themselves from rain."

Or, "OMG ... that's a SPACE ALIEN!!!"

The latter is the correct answer. The dog has no framework or reference with which to understand this situation. But we can then show the dog visually and through scent what the space alien actually is and they can learn.

We know that young puppies are most open to learning

during the first 16 weeks of life. Their brain cells are multiplying at warp speed. They are little learning machines. If we can expose young puppies to many, many fun and appropriate novel people, places and things during this period, we are really setting the puppy up to be a confident adult dog in just about any environment.

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Socialization means exposing dogs to many, many different environmental situations in a positive way that helps the dog build confidence in themselves and in you. It means taking them to puppy class to experience a new environment and to meet and play with other young puppies. It means organizing a play date with a puppy pal that your puppy plays well with. It means introducing your puppy to a "puppy friendly" adult dog. Interacting with other dogs is how dogs learn good, early dog-to-dog protocol.

But beyond the young puppy stage what we really want to do is to teach dogs to ignore other dogs in the environment and to focus on you. If your dog has a couple of dog friends that he/she plays well with then that is all they need.

Your dog needs to learn that they will not get to meet every dog they see or every person they see. A well socialized dog is confident, attentive, and relaxed and cares more about you than the dog across the street.

Some other examples of healthy socialization are wading and splashing in a stream, going for a walk in the woods, going to a dog friendly store, meeting the neighborhood kids, going to a flea market and seeing and smelling new things (and NOT greeting other dogs).

Confident dogs are better able to navigate novelty (unfamiliar people, places and things) without falling apart emotionally. The earlier you start in a dog's life the more confident that dog will be as an adult.

But what if you adopt a dog from a rescue and the only world that the dog had ever known was a single home and a single backyard? The dog had never been socialized. The dog had never been in a car, never been walked around the block or met a strange person. Maybe they had never even played with another dog? And then what if they landed in a noisy rescue that didn't look or smell right? And then what if they were loaded into a crate and transported for three days to another noisy rescue and then a strange human came and transported then to a strange home? The dog would be terrified. They might not look like it but they are.

I have many clients with dogs from this type of background. What constantly amazes me is the resiliency of these dogs in the hands of dedicated owners. Classical learning, the thing that dogs are so good at, is what enables this to happen. With our help they can learn about the world by careful, thoughtful socialization. Slowly exposing them to new things in a positive way enables the dog to learn by "connecting the dots." Add in a great management plan and a positive training program and you will have a great dog for life.

Puppy or adopted adult, all dogs need socialization. With so many people in the world today and so many dogs, we have to have leash laws. Dogs no longer have the opportunity to learn about the world on their own. They depend upon us to teach them.

Is it easy? No, it is not. It takes time, a lot of time. Is it worth while? Absolutely.

As always, I suggest contacting a certified trainer who uses positive training methods to help you set up an effective training plan for your dog.

Noel Hoffmann, who lives in Putney, is a member of The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and The Association of Professional Dog Trainers.


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