Puppy Socialization for the Real World
Socialization is a process. What that process looks like is determined primarily by your puppy. Successful socialization considers your puppy’s needs & abilities, your ability to read your puppy’s body language and what you hope to do with your puppy.
Quality over Quantity
Somewhere along the way the rule of socialization became taking puppies lots of place and to meet lots of people. But what if that scared the puppy? This advice can easily slide from socialization (good) to flooding (problematic). Flooding happens when the puppy is overwhelmed with a situation and cannot get to safety. While you may know that the 5 different people at the pet store are nice, your puppy does not. What your puppy experiences is that she’s out of her safe zone and strangers are getting up close and personal. Depending on your individual puppy, your puppy’s breed/breed mix, experiences in early puppyhood (before you adopted her) and what’s already happened that day, being forced to interact with those five people may be too much. Her take away may be that people are scary. She may believe that next time she must protect herself from strangers. That’s the exact opposite of what the trip to the pet store was intended to do.
Since our puppies cannot verbalize their fear it’s imperative that we learn to understand how they communicate with us. Dogs, like people, use a combination of vocalization and body language to communicate. While people communication almost exclusively through verbalization (talking), dogs use body language as their primary means of communication. In other words, while people talk, dogs gesture. Here are some examples:
Wagging tail – Does that mean friendly? No. A wagging tail indicates levels of excitement/arousal. A tail that is held high and wagging fast tells you that your pup is very excited. Based on the context of the situation your pup may feel exuberant (let’s play) or feel threatened (get away from me). A still tail (no movement) could mean your dog is relaxed OR your dog may be displaying a “freeze”, which is a warning.
Ears – While not as obviously expressive as the tail, ears say a lot. Ears perked and forward, your pup is alert to something. Ears very forward may indicate concern or fear. When your pup’s ears are down and pinned back, she is showing fear or feels threatened.
Body – Dogs can use very subtle movements, so subtle that we may miss it. A very slight move forward can indicate alert, a slight shift backward may be an attempt to make themselves small to protect themselves from a perceived threat. When puppies stretch forward while keeping their back feet firmly attached to the ground, often when taking a treat from a stranger, that indicates fear and conflict (i.e., puppy wants the treat, but the stranger is scary, so puppy snatched the treat quickly and retreats). Generally, we want to see soft, relaxed, wiggly bodies when we’re out for a socialization experience.
There is so much more to learn about canine body language. The point is, without knowing how to recognize and understand your puppy’s language you may miss important information your puppy is trying to share with you.
Your Life TOGETHER
So, what do you want to do with your dog? It’s not a question we often think when we’re making decisions about socialization experiences. Maybe you’re not likely to take your adult dog to stores, but you are hoping to take your dog patio dining. Or maybe you’d never take your dog to a restaurant, but you do plan on going to the lake or on a boat. Maybe you hope to take your dog to work with you. These goals should be kept in mind when thinking about your puppy’s socialization experiences.
The Learning Dog Academy has a variety of options to enhance your puppy's socialization experiences. Puppy Pals, Puppy Pre-K, Puppy Kindergarten and Puppy Scouts are group classes designed to support you and your pup through all the fun and challenging milestones of puppyhood. Our goal is providing thoughtful solutions for living in the real world with your puppy.