Years ago (I’m talking 70’s/80’s), puppies didn’t go to classes or really see much of world until they were finished their first series of vaccinations. Puppies weren’t getting out until they were 4 months of age or older, and us smarty pants in 2017 know that the critical socialization window has closed by this age – thus, leaving dogs to be potentially more fearful.
Thanks to research, we learned that puppies needed to get out and experience the world during the critical socialization period – they needed to see everything they may possibly encounter during their lives. We really jumped aboard this train – people are really into socialization of puppies and dogs. But I am seeing a disturbing trend – this socialization is going terribly astray.
Let’s look at the case of Max, a Mastiff cross I met just after puppyhood. Max was a worried kind of guy, furrowed brow, low tail, weight slightly shifted backwards with a nose that was reaching out to investigate me. I knew better than to reach down and pet Max – in the wise words of Suzanne Clothier, he was “interested in investigating me but not interested in having a conversation.” Max’s guardian did not understand why he was reactive to people on walks – she had taken him to puppy class, was using equipment seen as “positive” (such as a harness), and she was socializing him by taking him places to see people. When asked, she indicated that she let him go up and sniff people as he felt like it and that sometimes startled people (because Max was a very large dog). This poor reaction from people then also startled Max, and he would slightly back up and bark.
Max is a dog swimming in the deep end without taking swimming lessons. His guardian had great
intentions, but somewhere along the way, nobody thought to explain body language, thresholds, and explain that socialization for every dog is in fact a very individualistic process.
Let’s look at the scientific definitions of socialization. I did not get these definitions from the internet but from text books. James O’Heare defines it as “[t]he process of exposing an animal to stimuli in a sensitive manner while the animal is in (or approximately in) a sensitive period of development and particularly amenable to acclimate to these stimuli.” (page 431, Aggressive Behavior In Dogs). Suzanne Hetts describes it as a “… concept, a process, and an outcome. As a concept, it means the forming of social bonds or attachments. As a process, it means providing an animal with opportunities to have pleasant experiences with a variety of people, places, and things. As an outcome, it refers to an animal who is at ease (friendly and not aggressive or fearful) with most people, in unfamiliar environments, and with novel stimuli; such a dog will adjust well to change.” (page 50, Pet Behavior Protocols).
Not so simple, is it? Socialization is a process that is unique to your dog, and it is going to be different from your previous dog, your neighbour’s dog, and the Malinois you see prancing about in the hardware store. Socialization has to have boundaries and direction, and it is up to us to provide those for our dogs. Socialization does not simply mean signing up for puppy class – it means providing well thought out interactions with the things your dog encounters out in the big bad world, and those interactions may be occurring at a distance of 50 feet or during a greeting of a person or another dog.
I may be overreacting but I am concerned the current trend of socialization (which is really more like flooding) may be taking us and our dogs back to square one – much like the dogs who didn’t see anything, we are taking dogs out and creating fearful responses to various stimuli. The end result is fear and a strong potential for fear aggression. In a case such as our friend, Max, he may become more fearful and one day feel trapped when he goes to sniff a stranger – when he can’t get away, he may resort to biting the stranger in order to get him to go away. This will be very reinforcing to Max, and he will then have learned that a good offense is better than a great defense.
Keep your dog safe, no matter what age she/he is. Offer socialization that is comfortable for your dog, and if you don’t know what that is, hire a qualified individual who can troubleshoot body language for you and teach you how to read your dog. Offer your dog helpful direction when out and about and celebrate the smell successes. Maybe your neighbour and his Lab is strolling into Pet Smart to greet the staff while you and your worried puppy are watching from the safety of the car and eating cookies. Think, watch and direct – you and your dog are a team out there.