Socialization

so·cial·ize 1
Pronunciation: ‘sO-sh&-“lIz
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s):-ized; -iz·ing
Date: 1828
transitive senses
1: to make social; especially: to fit or train for a social environment
2 a: to constitute on a socialistic basis (socialize industry) b: to adapt to social needs or uses (socialize science)
3: to organize group participation in (socialize a recitation)
intransitive senses: to participate actively in a social group
– so·cial·i·za·tion /”sO-sh(&-)l&-‘zA-sh&n/ noun1

The Basics

Socialization is the process of developing positive relationships with other people and animals. Preparing the puppy to be comfortable in the world he must navigate. 

Dog trainer introduces eight week old puppy to two year old baby girl while her mother watches
Bird’s eye view of two puppies running beside each other while playing. The dog on the right is a ten-week-old Vizsla puppy and the dog on the left is a nine-week-old Bernese Mountain Dog puppy
Young woman on the subway with her ten- week-old Border Collie puppy. Young woman is crouched down beside her puppy while she chats with a uniformed subway employee. Several people are also on the subway

Habituation

As all animals develop, there are numerous stimuli (smells, sights, sounds, and events) that can lead to fear and anxiety. Habituation is the process whereby animals become familiar and comfortable with repeated stimuli, thus not reacting to them in a negative manner.

Localization

Localization is the process by which animals develop an attachment to particular places. For the purpose of this site, we include habituation and localization when we speak of socialization.

Why the Rush?

As adults we all know how difficult changing our own behavior or beliefs can be. We were socialized by our parents and other sources of influence while growing up. Through exposure we became comfortable in certain situations, with certain customs, and with certain sights, smells, and sounds.

Things that we have not been familiarized with can still be somewhat of a shock. The unfamiliar can make us feel uncomfortable or can just plain take some getting used to. If you live in a quiet rural area and then have to spend the night in a noisy city, you may not be able to sleep. When you are used to having the steering wheel of your car on the left side and then go to Europe and it is on the right, it can be very disorienting. What if you live in a warm climate and move to a climate with frosty cold winters? It takes some getting used to.

Puppies can learn to be comfortable with different people, sounds and situations that come their way if we carry out thorough and proactive socialization. This early work needs to happen when the puppy is under 16 weeks. If you bring your puppy home at 8 weeks, you have 8 weeks left to get down to business. Times flies!

We must get this work done with our young puppies because after the four month mark has passed it is no longer as easy for the puppy to learn to be comfortable with the unfamiliar. At 16 weeks, the critical period of socialization ends. This does not mean that you can’t or won’t continue to socialize your pup. 

This is not a newfangled idea but rather a scientific theory that has been extensively researched, studied, and known about since the 1930’s. It is important information for anyone raising a puppy to understand and attend to. 

“The problem the domestic dog has is that it needs to become familiar with an enormous number of stimuli in a very short time so as to be able to live in and cope with the diversity of our world.” 2

Why Does It Matter?
 

When a dog is uncomfortable with something or someone he may behave in one of two ways: he may act to get away from the thing (flight) or he may act to get the thing to go away (fight).

Millions of dogs are put down each year due to preventable behavioral problems.

“One in five of the dogs that Dr. Valerie O’Farrell (1986) studied while conducting research at Edinburgh (Royal Dick) University Veterinary School had a behavioural problem to a lesser or greater extent. A similar, but larger, American study fixed the figure at one in four. In one year my practice treated 773 dogs – 79 of them, that’s 10 percent, had problems of fearfulness towards people or the environment due to a lack of early socialization or habituation and a further 4.5 percent were inept at relating to other dogs, again due to a lack of early socialization. The problem is immeasurably greater than these figures suggest. Many dogs show a weakness of temperament or inability to cope when faced with a particular situation, without their behaviour becoming problematical enough for the owners to seek help from a behavioural counsellor.” (See source.)

Twelve-week-old brown Lab sitting, receiving a treat while being patted
A pup meets school kids while simultaneously receiving treats to ensure the experience is positive.

Once a dog has passed his Socialization Period (see Your Puppy’s Development) it does not matter that a dog has not had a negative experience with a particular stimuli. He may treat any unfamiliar stimuli as potentially dangerous to his well-being. Our dogs have this built-in mechanism passed down to them from their ancestors in the wild. It ensures protection of baby animals from natural hazards in their environment.

The Unfortunate Reality About Not Socializing Your Puppy

The dog that has not been well socialized may become the epicenter in a storm of problems. Dogs can get ill from stress. This can inhibit their ability to learn or even cope. This may lead to serious health and behavioral issues. Scared dogs may bite, or seem unpredictable or unmanageable. This is often too much for an inexperienced dog person and the dog ends up being relinquished to an animal shelter.

Think about a reality that involves a dog that bites (children, other dogs, and adults). What about a dog that growls and lunges at someone with a different ethnic background? Imagine your dog chasing or jumping on someone in a wheelchair or a walker. How would you feel if your dog bit and injured another dog?

Twelve-week-old brown Lab meeting an adult Beagle while on leash. Both dogs are sniffing each other
Ensure that your puppy gets to meet and play with other well socialized dogs on a regular basis.

The Good News

The good news is twofold. First, more and more people are familiarizing themselves with this information, including breeders, vets, and trainers. Second, you have a new puppy versus an adult dog so the golden opportunity is in the palm of your hand.

Thorough and Absolute Socialization

Neutral exposure is not enough. How you socialize your puppy will make all the difference.

You must be thoughtful and strategic in your approach.

Make socialization a priority. Turn each opportunity of meeting someone or something new into a positive experience for the puppy with treats, toys and fun.

If possible, people your puppy meets should give him a treat (supplied by you). If your puppy is experiencing someone from a distance you can feed him. Set up a positive experience for the pup while meeting or experiencing all types of people. The puppy should never be forced to meet or be petted by anyone he is not interested in interacting with.

Seek out novel sights, sounds, and situations to introduce your puppy to. Check out our 5 Super Duper Socialization Resources. Use the Social Schedule for inspiration. Print it out, refer to it frequently, and start to check things off the list.

1: Websters New Twentieth Century Dictionary, 2nd ed.(New York:William Collins + World Publishing Co., 1977)

2: Puppy Socialization By David Appleby