A short excerpt from DogNostics' Pet Dog Solutions online Program - Your Guide to Positive Socialization

written by Louise Stapleton-Frappell

What is Socialization?

Socialization means learning to be part of society. Socialization is a process that helps a living organism change into a social being and happily live in our world.

When we talk about socializing pets, it means helping them learn to be comfortable as a pet within human society - a society that includes many different types of people, environments, buildings, sights, noises, smells, animals, and other dogs.

Socialization is a continuous process in the life of an individual.

Socialization will include systematic desensitization, respondent conditioning, and positive reinforcement. Systematic desensitization is the presentation of a stimulus at a level of intensity that elicits little or no response from the pet, with a gradual increase in the intensity of the stimulus as the pet habituates at each level of exposure. Respondent conditioning is when we pair a stimulus with something the pet loves in order to condition a positive emotional response. Positive reinforcement is the addition of a positive consequence leading to an increase in desired behavior. All will play a role in positive socialization. Habituation, which is a decreased response to a stimulus after prolonged exposure, will also occur. Positive conditioned emotional responses will ensue from appropriate positive exposures.

Flooding should always be avoided as it can lead to fear, anxiety, stress, and learned helplessness. Socialization doesn’t, therefore, involve allowing total strangers and unknown dogs to approach or touch your new puppy or older dog, or taking your dog into environments they are unable to cope with. In fact, this type of exposure could easily backfire leading to fear, anxiety, stress, *sensitization, and *learned helplessness.

*Sensitization occurs when repeated exposure or a single exposure to a stimulus increases the intensity of the response and learned helplessness.

*In the phenomenon called learned helplessness, a pet is first exposed to inescapable and severe aversive stimulation. Eventually, the pet gives up and stops attempting to avoid or escape the situation. A common term for learned helplessness is shut down. Inexperienced trainers may label the pet as ‘calm’. The pet is far from calm.

It’s important to note that simple exposure to something does not necessarily infer socialization has occurred. Socialization is NOT simply about introducing your dog to different things, other animals, or people. For socialization to occur, all exposures MUST be done in a POSITIVE way. This can be achieved by pairing new experiences with something your dog loves, all at an intensity your dog is happy with.

For example, if your dog is anxious or scared, or even a little unsure around other dogs, signing him up for day-care may result in flooding, and this could lead to an increase in fear, anxiety, or stress, rather than a reduction of his fear. Much better to begin with one dog, at a distance your dog is happy. The sight of the other dog can be paired with lots of delicious treats, praise, and fun. The distance between the dogs can be reduced, at a pace your dog and the other dog are both happy with. Finally, the dogs can meet, and become friends, if they both choose to do so! You could then repeat this process with another suitable potential playmate, and another, etc. You would also ensure that every time your dog sees or hears a strange dog, you pair the sight and/or sound with something your dog loves. After repeated pairings, your dog's response should be a happier one! Perhaps now your dog would be happy at Day-Care or perhaps he will still be happier with a pet-sitter or canine enrichment technician, and just one or two best friends of the canine species!

Socialization can be an active experience, but it can also be a passive one. Whether the stimulus is another dog, a person, a place, an object - all exposure needs to be at an intensity your dog is comfortable with. Give your dog the choice to approach, to move away, or simply to happily observe from a distance. The main thing to remember is that exposure alone is not socialization. Forcing a dog to meet lots of people or other dogs, or move into environments that he is not prepared for, could lead to an increase in fear, anxiety, or stress. For socialization to occur it must be done in a positive way.

Let’s delve a little further into POSITIVE SOCIALIZATION to increase our understanding

How to Begin - Slowly!

Think about all the different rooms in a house - All the objects in them and all the activities that occur in them. This provides lots of scenarios to expose your dog to.

Think about the car and the inside of the car and where a car can go safely to expose your pet to new sights and sounds from a distance where they feel comfortable.

  • Think about the garage.
  • Think about the yard.
  • Think about the drive-thru.
  • Think about a short drive.
  • Think about short walks from your home.

Progress at a comfortable rate for your dog!

Can You Get Out and About?

Once you have positively socialized your dog to your household, if you can get out and about, then do so. Go somewhere that you can watch the world go by and promote positive associations from an appropriate distance with everything you see.

The area you choose should provide enough distance for you to move away from anything that could pose a problematic response. The goal is for your dog to always remain happy, not to experience anxiety, or stress; to have no reason to exhibit fight or flight behaviors, nor to freeze through fear.

By playing training games that offer lots of positive rewards and pairing any potentially problematic environmental stimuli with lots of yummy food, at a distance your dog happily eats the food and continues to engage with you, you are helping set your dog up for future success as a member of your family. All skills that you wish to practice out and about should first be taught at home with no distractions.

From the veterinary clinic to the bookstore, a cake shop, the seafront, a hike in the countryside, the garden center, a pet store, we encourage you to provide opportunities for positive socialization in as many different environments as possible. You want to teach your dog that new things, whether they be people, animals or objects are not scary. You can use food, play, and toys, as well as appropriate distance. You can use rapid-fire treat delivery for the sight or sound of anything novel which could be of concern to the dog but always give your dog the choice to move further away if he shows any sign of discomfort. Watching the world go by from the comfort of your car or a nice spot on a park bench - a place your dog feels happy and secure - is often much more appropriate than approaching, especially for young puppies or any dog who finds the world a fearful place.

Feeding for Perceiving

When out in public, you can combine feeding for simply noticing something and then focusing back on you - offering you attention. Sometimes you will want this to be quick, for example, you do not want your dog to stare at other dogs as that isn’t polite, but other times you and your dog may happily sit watching the waves or other scenes as the minutes tick by. It could be somebody in the distance playing with their dog; it could be somebody walking by; it could be somebody riding a bicycle… Playing with a leaf could take a lot of time. Would I interrupt it? No, this is a great socialization experience for a young dog. I would only interrupt if I saw a reason to do so, for example, if I wanted to give the puppy a head’s up because someone was approaching, and I didn’t want him to be startled.

Practice Fun Skills

You can practice some basic skills and perhaps some fun tricks. You could play some fun scent games; yes, take a couple of boxes out with you and do some fun box searches or simply cue your dog to “Go sniff”. Also include time to simply walk confidently along, "Let’s Go", before again stopping to watch the world go by or engage in another fun training game or a short burst of clicker training those lovely loose leash walking skills. You can reinforce everything with yummy food, praise, petting, massage, favorite toys, a throw of a ball, a game of tug… always giving the choice to move further away from something that could potentially elicit a fearful response.

When to Back Up?

You can pair treats with exposures to make good associations. If your dog is worried about those children that she sees running across the street, it can help if the sight of the children makes cheese suddenly appear. Or if she doesn’t like her paws touched, a brief touch followed by a lick of peanut butter from a spoon can make paw touches easier to handle. If she will not take food, that is a good indication that you need to back up and lower the intensity of the exposure with more distance or less pressure but also look at your dog's body language. Sometimes a dog will eat even when feeling stressed; especially if you are using high-value food. Constantly check for signs of fear, anxiety, or stress. Try sitting and watching with no treats involved. Is your puppy comfortable? Don't let food mask underlying issues and make your puppy or older dog confront situations that he is not ready to handle. Please always bear in mind that the aim of positive socialization should never be to overwhelm the dog. The dog should be permitted to explore his world at a pace he is happy with. To approach, remain in position, or retreat

Active & Passive Socialization

Sometimes socialization will be an active activity when the dog actively investigates different stimuli and sometimes it will be a passive experience when the dog watches the world go by from a distance, soaking in the sights, sounds, and odors! You can let your dog choose to interact when he is ready:

  • Allow your dog to approach and interact when safe and acceptable to do so.
  • Allow your dog to retreat whenever he wishes to do so.

Although food can be used to help condition positive emotional responses, and even as a distraction when needed, it should never be used to coax a dog into a situation he is uncomfortable with.

  • Distance is your friend!
  • Choice is empowering.
  • Tasty food is a fantastic tool but not if used to mask fearful responses and pressurize your dog to cope when not ready to do so.
  • More is not always better. Although we advise to socialize to as many new stimuli as possible, and can even provide you with a checklist with lots of different things listed that you can work through, this should be done at a rate that is appropriate for your dog - sometimes less is more! For example, more initial exposure to friends and family, to sounds on YouTube or on the television, or watching the world go; but less exposure to strangers, to new places… More initial exposure to all the sights, sounds, and smells in your home and backyard, but less initial exposure to the wide world.

Finally, remember that exposure alone is not socialization - the exposure must be a positive experience at an intensity appropriate for your dog. The intensity can gradually be increased but only if your dog is showing signs that he is happy at the current level of exposure.

Learn more about this important topic and get started with your dog’s socialization program by signing up for DogNostics’ Pet Dog Solutions Guide to Positive Socialization