Laura Tyler: Understanding socialization and your dog
February 16, 2012
Steamboat Springs — We sometimes hear comments from new students about how they want to socialize their dogs. It's important to note that socialization is a very broad term that encompasses far more than exposing your dog to other dogs.
What is socialization, anyway? Socialization is more than learning to interact in an acceptable manner with humans and other dogs. It should include all things in the environment in which we live. We seem to take our surroundings for granted because we've learned to disregard distractions. We've seen so many cars, bicycles, skateboards, fire trucks, police cars, etc., that we almost don't even notice them any longer. We've met tall people, small people, brown, black and white people. We've seen people with canes, people with hats, people wearing fireman suits and delivery drivers. We have become "socialized" to our environment.
For puppies and all dogs, part of socialization includes building self-confidence in this environment. If your dog never has seen a garbage truck and suddenly there's one in front of your house, how it reacts and how you reinforce that reaction will make a lasting imprint in your dog's mind. Each exposure to a new environment should be one that builds confidence.
A puppy eagerly gets in the car every day, happy to go for a ride. And then one day, he suddenly acts as if he's afraid.
"But he's been riding in the car all summer. What's different?"
Today you started the car to let it warm up. When he approached the car, he recognized something was different. The engine was running! Even a simple change like that can be a totally new experience to a puppy. It sounds different. It smells different. It's vibrating. If you're in a hurry and won't take the time to help him adjust to the new change in his environment, you may turn a once-happy experience into one filled with worry and anxiety for your puppy. Be aware of the changes in your puppy's environment and help him to "socialize" in a positive way.
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Let him approach new things gradually. Give him a chance to look, smell and approach with confidence and curiosity. The worst thing you can do is drag him over there and tell him "it's OK." Allow him to move forward with no pressure on the leash. Take the time it takes to help him identify each new experience as a good one. Be ready to say, "Bood boy!" and reinforce his approach and wagging tail.
Your puppy will experience more than one period in his early months where he might become fearful of sights and sounds. Your patience will go a long way in developing the bond of trust between the two of you. He will learn that he can count on you in times of uncertainty. It's your job to socialize your puppy to his human environment. Be reasonable in your expectations and allow your puppy to trust your leadership.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.