You just brought home a new dog or puppy from a breeder or rescue organization…what is the first thing everybody tells you? You HAVE to socialize the dog! Take the puppy to puppy classes! Take your dog to the dog park! Whatever you do…make sure you get your dog around other dogs and in as many different situations as possible as soon as possible.   Socialize, socialize, socialize.

As dog trainers, we have a big problem with that.

What? What kind of dog trainer is going to tell you not to socialize your dog? The trainer in your puppy class gave you a list and you are supposed to have your dog go to 20 different places, met 30 different dogs and 100 different strangers in the first month. Make sure you put your fingers in his mouth or touch his ears too!

It’s not that we are telling you NOT to socialize your dog…we are telling you to socialize your dog PROPERLY. Socialization is critical for your dog’s developmental process. But it is not some magical process that happens by just bringing your dog around other dogs, or places or people.  The key to socialization is understanding what it really means and how to effectively and safely socialize your dog so that your efforts don’t end up backfiring on you in the future. Your dog looks to you to teach him the difference between right and wrong. Putting your dog in a situation that it’s not ready for, or around other dogs that have behavioral issues is setting yourself and, more importantly, your dog, up for disaster.

Typical situations that we hear about:

  1. Taking an adult dog that barks, jump or lunges at other dogs or people to a class to get him “socialized.”
  2. Taking a puppy to a class without any proper supervision or leadership structure OR around other dogs with behavioral issues.
  3. Bringing dogs or puppies to environments that they just aren’t ready for yet or that will put them under unfair amounts of stress/stimulation: things like busy parks, trails, fairs or festivals.

With puppies, it’s all about exposing them to new things…but not in a haphazard way. You first have to establish yourself as an owner and leader for your new puppy. Your puppy needs to know that you will keep him safe. Expose your new puppy to POSITIVE situations and experiences in stages. Situations that will allow your puppy to grow and flourish and have good associations rather than negative ones. If your puppy is showing signs of avoidance or fear…listen to him! That is his way of telling you that it’s too much too soon. Throwing your new puppy into a puppy class without having a solid relationship is just setting you and your puppy up for trouble in the future.

When it comes to adult dogs that are exhibiting behavioral issues, socialization should NEVER be done until you are an established leader for your dog. Putting a dog that has no sense of leadership or boundaries into a situation that is overly stressful for him is a recipe for disaster.

Let’s put a human spin on this for a second…

You have a class of 10 “problem” kids, the parents take their children to this class in order to try help the kids behave properly. They don’t know where else to turn. But at home, many of the parents work late hours just to make ends meet, they don’t have a lot of time for the kids, even though they love them. The teacher, who has the best intentions at heart and tries her very best, can in no way fix these kids. What is causing the children to be “problem kids” is a result of what is going on in the home. And, to make matters worse, having 10 of stressed out, overstimulated children in a class together just causes them to feed off each other. Some children try to get out of the class, others fight with each other.

Sounds like a crazy situation, right? Now, let’s put the situation above into dog terms…

An owner takes their reactive dog to a class to help socialize him. The owner wants nothing more than to help their reactive dog. But the class is full of other dogs with behavioral issues. The trainer is well meaning, but in a group environment, she can’t address your dog on a one-on-one basis, nor can she address issues that may be going on in the home.

You guys see where I am going with this, right?

Puppy or adult dog…you must focus on building your relationship with your dog FIRST. Create structure, security, balance, rewards at appropriates times. Solidify yourself as your dog’s pack leader. Then, slowly, in stages that are going to be unique to your dog, begin to socialize. In the case of a puppy, socialization may happen faster. In the case of a reactive dog (our example above), SLOWLY introduce your dog to the thing that triggers him, build his confidence and his trust in you.

For new puppies, we offer a Puppy 101 program, this program will help you with the basics and to come up with a proper socialization plan that is customized to your puppy. For dogs with behavioral issues, we offer in-home, customized dog training. We address behavioral problems holistically, looking at every aspect of your dog’s life. For more information, contact us.