Puppy Socialization: Positive Vibes Only!
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate
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Working at an animal shelter, people ask me all the time, “How do you not take home ALL the animals?” One part of the answer is that I love my husband and would like to stay married, but the other part of the answer is that instead of spending that energy wishing I could take home a certain animal, I spend that energy encouraging others around me to take home that animal. That’s right. I’m a puppy pusher. 


We recently had a litter of parvo-positive Jack Russell Terrier mixes at the shelter I work at, and when the two survivors were about to become available, I couldn’t help myself - I sent a photo to my dad. So now my dad has a new puppy, and I’ve been spending some time thinking about how he can best set this puppy up for success in the world. A lot of the topics we discuss during this series will be applicable to newly adopted adult dogs, too, but with some caveats. 


First and foremost we are going to talk about socialization. Socialization isn’t actually “training” per se, but at the beginning of your puppy’s life it is much more important than anything else. You have a lifetime to teach your dog new behaviors, but only 12-16 weeks to teach your dog that the world is a pretty cool place.


This is where adopted adult dogs are going to differ quite a bit - their socialization windows have closed and we often have very little idea what exactly went on during those incredibly formative months. I do sometimes have people with adolescent or adult dogs reach out to me and want to “socialize” their dogs further and what I tell them is that we can always work to improve how a dog feels about certain stimuli (like strangers, bearded men, old ladies, children, other dogs, bikes, scooters…). We may very well be able to teach him to tolerate the presence of things that he may not be so into, but for a dog that has very little socialization with, say, other dogs, the likelihood that we’ll turn him into Mr. Social Butterfly Party Guy is pretty slim. 


If you do have a puppy that’s still in the sweet spot, you want to do everything in your power to give them as many positive experiences with new things as possible. You can tailor your list of things to your lifestyle and expectations to some degree, of course, but the basics are:


  • Other dogs (well adjusted puppy-friendly dogs)
  • Other people (of different genders, ethnicities, ages, appearances, etc)
  • Handling procedures (touching body parts, being poked and prodded for routine care)
  • Things that move (cars, bikes, skateboards, etc)
  • Things in your house - especially that make noise (vacuum cleaner, door bell, etc)
  • Ground/floor surfaces (grass, pavement, slippery floors, things that wobble, bridges, etc)
  • Other animals (cats, livestock if need be)


The key here is POSITIVE experiences. Do not mistake exposure for socialization. This is a situation where quality is much more important than quantity. Carefully observing your puppy’s body language for any signs of stress or discomfort is key - if you see anything that indicates the puppy is concerned or fearful, you need more space from the weird thing in question. If we are not careful and allow our puppy to inadvertently have negative experiences during this impressionable time, we risk achieving the opposite of our goal and creating a more fearful dog in the future.


Why the treats? This is basic Pavlovian conditioning. By pairing the potentially scary thing with something good (food), we can influence the puppy’s emotional response to that thing. This is also the case with adult dogs! So, if you have a new adoptee that you’re trying to acclimate to new environments or new things, you can begin to condition them to enjoy those experiences by pairing them (at a low intensity) with food. Check out this article to learn about dogs’ thresholds and keeping them under threshold.


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