Socialization Experiences: Quality Matters

April 15, 2020
A puppy in a bright orange harness and tongue hanging out sits in green grass looking at the camera

Have you ever seen Aladdin? Where Jasmine is being drowned in sand as it flows down the hourglass? Socialization can feel a lot like that.
If you haven’t, here it is!

Time is slipping through your fingers and it feels like you have to get it all done or your puppy is going to fail. I won’t detract from the importance of socialization, this is a period that only comes once and it DOES matter, a lot. For those of us with big dreams for our dogs like service work, sports, or other jobs the pressure is even more real. Still, we need to take a deep breath and center ourselves.

In the rush to do all the things, let’s remember to choose quality socialization experiences for our puppies.

Quality over quantity applies to socialization. If you can have a large quantity, of quality experiences for your puppy, wonderful! That’s what we should all be aiming to do. When that’s not possible, for whatever reason, choose those quality experiences, within the limits you are experiencing. We want our dogs to come out of their critical socialization period with an optimistic outlook. The world is a good place for dogs!

So what does a quality socialization experience look like?

  • Your puppy is allowed to experience the world at its own pace by making choices.
    • Follow your puppy, as long as it is safe to go to where you are being led.
      • As much as possible we want to use our voices and trained behaviors to move our puppies, rather than pulling on the leash or picking them up. Tight leashes don’t feel good!
    • Your puppy chooses whether or not it would like to interact with other people, dogs, or objects.
      • In other words, do not force someone or something on your puppy. Likewise, do not force your puppy on other people or dogs, this could lead to poor experiences.
      • If your puppy wants to greet someone (outside of a pandemic) or a person wants to greet your puppy, ask if it is OK. Then give instructions. “Please let my puppy approach you and sniff without interacting with him first and we will see if he wants more interaction.” You can ask people to stand sideways, get lower to the ground, avert their gaze, and wait.
      • Having strangers feed your puppy in order to lure him into interacting with them can backfire. Instead, mark and reward your puppy for things like taking a step toward the person and toss a treat away from the person.
    • Be ready to stop people from invading your puppy’s space. Practice saying, “NO”, it’s not rude, this is your dog. Try, “No, stop, we’re training right now. Thank you.”
    • If your puppy is invading someone else’s space use a positive interrupter or a hand touch to remove your puppy.
  • Observing and processing the world is permitted and encouraged!
    • Puppies learn an incredible amount from watching and learning about the world around them.
    • Allow your puppy to observe and resist the urge to require his attention at all times. Letting your puppy watch now, does not mean your puppy won’t be able to learn to focus on you later.
    • Intervene if your puppy becomes distressed.
  • You expose your puppy to novel sounds, objects, people, animals, textures, movement etc at a level that is appropriate to its temperament and past experiences.
    • Consider how your puppy feels about novelty. Concerned puppies will benefit from experiencing things from the fringes, at lower intensities, and perhaps even in single components before combining them. Puppies who enjoy novelty can often handle more at once, at higher intensities.
    • Think about what is different between your home and the home or shelter your puppy was raised in, be mindful of these differences. What is commonplace to you is likely new to your puppy.
    • As you get to know your puppy, use low difficulty experiences so you can build yourself up as a trusted person and get used to one another. You will learn a lot about what your puppy this way.
    • As an example, a puppy who has limited experience with novel people is not a great candidate for a crowded farmer’s market on a Saturday. They are a great candidate for people watching from the safety of the front yard.
  • Your puppy experiences challenges that it is capable of mastering.
    • Setting a puppy up for a great deal of frustration or giving up does not accomplish our goals.
    • We want the world to mean good things for dogs, always, but especially in this critical period.
    • Challenge your puppy without setting them up for failure.
    • It’s OK, to change a setup and lower the difficulty. What your dog did yesterday may not work for them today. The experience you chose may not turn out the way you expect.
  • Food is paired with new experiences while ensuring that it is not your puppy’s sole focus.
    • It’s not an experience if you spend so much time feeding your puppy that it doesn’t really take in its surroundings.
    • Food is meant to support a puppies if needed and to build positive associations but it’s OK to let them struggle a little bit and puzzle something out. You don’t need to drown a puppy in food. Let them grow, within reason.
    • Use food your puppy likes, not the food you think they should like.
  • Caution is used when pairing food with negative reactions.
    • Food should not be used to lure a puppy toward something it is afraid of or does not wish to interact with. Instead reward bravery. Mark and reward your puppy for things like looking at the thing, taking a step toward the thing, sniffing the thing etc. The reward is given away from the thing. So puppy approaches, puppy is marked, reward is given in a way that causes the puppy to retreat from the thing.
    • If this is a known issue, like if your puppy is nervous about men, food should ideally come after your puppy notices the thing it is worried about, but before a reaction. Even if your puppy notices something and performs an unwanted behavior you can feed your puppy.
  • Your puppy is allowed to have emotions, negative and positive.
    • These emotions do not mean that your puppy is going to grow up aggressive or fearful or naughty or any other number of things.
    • They’re just information that we can use to help our puppies grow.
    • Your puppy is not being bad or mean when they bark at another dog or person, they’re having a hard time. Your job is to help them.
  • Your puppy is supported throughout the experience.
    • It’s smart and in your best interests to soothe your puppy if it is afraid.
    • As a puppy owner it is important to learn what your puppy’s body is saying about how they feel so you can make good decisions for them. Head over to Lili Chin’s Doggie Language Poster for a fast primer on the topic.
    • Help your puppy get distance, if your puppy is retreating let it vote with its feet and follow.
    • Give your puppy a supportive presence. Be available physically if that is comforting to your puppy. Firm, slow petting along the length of your puppy’s back can help. Use calm soothing tones with your voice. Let your puppy press into you or seek refuge behind you.
  • Choose to remove your puppy from a planned experience if it is not going well.
    • Impressions are everything during socialization.
    • If you accidentally threw your puppy in the deep end and it’s sinking, it’s time to bail.
    • Re-approach this experience later by giving it a few days and thinking about how you might lower the intensity of the experience. Could you increase your distance? Could you separate out the components of the experience to be experienced one at a time? Could you visit the same place at a quieter time? etc

Now get to work and socialize those puppies, the quality way!




  1. Fear in Puppies: Next Steps – A DOG CALLED FISH - […] Previous Post Socialization Experiences: Quality Matters […]

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *