Importance of Socialization for Dogs

Dog training White Plains NY

There is so much emphasis on the importance of socialization for dogs, but what exactly is it? How is it done correctly? You may be surprised by my answer.

Let’s start by talking about what socialization is not. It is not exposing a dog to as many new environments and social interactions you can fit in each week. Dogs don’t desensitize to situations by simply being in them. The experience your dog has in those situations is what they remember. If they were scared and overwhelmed, they would be more scared and overwhelmed the next time NOT less. Regarding socialization let’s focus on quality instead of quantity. It is better that your dog has one positive, well-planned, and calm experience in a week than ten overwhelming or scary ones.

If lots of activities and outings are not socialization, what is? Firstly, I don’t particularly like the term ‘socialization’. Your goal should be to desensitize your Aussie to the world. We want to make the world boring and for your dog to feel neutral about new places and things. We can do this by carefully exposing a puppy to different people, places and things in a way that is not frightening, overwhelming, or too long in duration. Duration is very important when your puppy is very young. New experiences need to be positive AND short in duration in the beginning. If your pup falls asleep when you are introducing them to a new experience it was too long.

During outings or introductions, we need to pay special attention to the puppy’s body language. Is he panting? Is she trying to hide or getaway? Is he shut down? Are her pupils dilated? Any of these physical signs indicate fear and/or anxiety. These cues tell us it is too much stimulation, and we need to make space. This is your cue to pick up your pup and boogie calmly away.

Distance

Distance and yummy treats are your friends when desensitizing. If your puppy exhibits fear or anxiety, make the distance between you both and the scary thing. An example of this is watching a kid’s soccer game but from 50/100 feet away from everyone not along the sidelines with the other parents. The puppy still sees the activity and hears the noise, but she is far enough away to feel safe and comfortable. And during it all, Mom feeds her tiny yummy treats so she associates this activity with a positive feeling. If your puppy will not take treats during this scenario that is another signal that your puppy is over the threshold and MORE space is needed.

Introductions to People Coming to the Home

People mean well, they really do. And they LOVE puppies. Squealing, ooohs and ahhhs are to be expected. This kind of reaction can be terrifying to a new puppy. Remind your guests to remain calm and quiet. If they would like to interact, invite them to sit on the floor and talk to your pup quietly. Let the puppy decide to check them out. Do not encourage the puppy, let him make his own decision. He will also need to believe that he can depart at any time- don’t restrain him. Yummy treats can be offered but don’t lure. It should be a positive association: new people=food=feels good. We are not rewarding a behavior we are simply tricking the puppy’s brain to associate new people with the good feeling that food causes. Keep it short and positive.

The Public

You’ve been diligent about making space and keeping your puppy calm and relaxed in public. Then someone sees you and makes a beeline toward you clearly set on meeting your dog. What do you do? If you are not willing to advocate for your dog, you should not be in public. They depend on you to protect them from scary situations or experiences that make them uncomfortable. No matter what you say and how nicely you say it, this person will likely be offended. That’s just people. In our experience, the most effective thing to say is ‘oh, sorry, she is in training, so we are not meeting people today.’ Make distance if your pup starts to show anxiety but do it calmly- don’t rush away.

Sometimes your puppy will indicate they ARE comfortable meeting someone new. That’s great but be ready to pull the plug if they start to show anxiety. Always have treats with you so the new person can offer them one. Set the situation up for success by letting the person know what they can do to interact with your dog. Example, ‘He is very young but seems to want to say hello. Here are a few treats you can give him. If he allows, you can scratch him under his chin.’ When people ask me if they can pet my dog I sometimes respond, “I don’t know let’s ask her…” and I let my dog decide to move forward toward the interaction. If she does not, I say, ‘I guess she’s not feeling social today’ and I move on.

Children and Other Weird Things

Kids are weird. They move funny, they are loud, and they are unpredictable to a dog. Some dog breeds are very chill with kids right from the start. Aussies are typically not. Australian Shepherds have been bred to look for contrast in the environment. Anything they deem unusual they will certainly let you know. They are also easily triggered by movement and sound. Aussies will love their own young family members, but they may have a harder time with children they don’t know. When introducing to kids use all the above advice but pay even closer attention to your dog’s body language. Having positive first experiences with children when your dog is a puppy will help set them up to like children when they are adult dogs.

Accept Your Dog for Who They Are

Even with the most perfect desensitization experience your dog still has hardwiring that you cannot change. We need to be realistic, understanding, and respectful of our dog’s personality quirks. Perfection should never be the goal when talking about living creatures. Do your best and practice seeing your dog for who she is not an idea of what you think she should be. You’ll do great!

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