"Socialization,” a Misused and Misunderstood Concept in Dog Training

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

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“Socializing” is a term you frequently hear in the world of dog training and dog behavior. Socializing your dog sounds like something we all want to do for our dogs; it sounds like something good.

There is nothing wrong with the term itself; the problem occurs in how it is applied. Most dog owners understand that their dog needs to be comfortable around unfamiliar people and dogs. Many think that simply putting their dog in situations where there are lots of unfamiliar dogs and humans will make them less fearful.

The issue that most people introduce when they take their fearful dog with them to Starbucks or to Home Depot is one of over-exposure. Think of the kid that is afraid of water. Repeatedly throwing him in the deep end before he is ready will almost always makes him more afraid of the water.

This kind of over-exposure is called flooding. When dogs are exposed to dogs or humans at a rate that is too quick, it will most likely cause them to shut down or react and increase their level of fear.

Is exposing our dogs to unfamiliar humans and dogs a good thing? Yes! But, we have to do it correctly in order for it to make a positive difference.

1)    First, become a bit of an expert on dog body language. I’ve included a video below to get you started. This is important because you need to know when you’re pushing your dog too much. His body language will tell you.

 
 

2)    Initially select venues that have few dogs and humans. You want to start out by gently exposing your dog to things that might scare him. Use distance to help you with this; more distance equals less exposure. Watch your dog and at the first hint that he is stressed or overwhelmed – back off! When it comes to desensitizing your dog to stressors, less really can be more.

3)    At least initially, don’t let too many people approach your dog. Don’t let other unknown dogs approach for now. The objective is to take it easy and provide a positive experience for your dog.

4)    It’s a good idea to include food treats when doing this so that your dog associates good things with unfamiliar people and dogs.

5)    Slowly increase the amount of exposure by increasing the time and decreasing the distance as your dog becomes comfortable. You will want to do many of these kinds of outings.

I’m not a big fan of the word “socialization” only because many people think it just means that we should repeatedly throw our dogs into environments where there is too much exposure for the dog to handle. The end result is a dog that is more fearful. Needless to say, this can be especially damaging for young puppies.

If you find that your dog has chronic fear issues with either humans or dogs, please consult with an experienced dog behavior consultant or animal behaviorist that is certified by a recognized and independent certifying organization.