This week I have spent almost every waking hour taking care of and socializing a young puppy.
How do you know what to work on? Well think about it this way: Whatever you want your adult dog to be comfortable with and not scared of for the rest of his life, that is what you should be working on. The list of items on a well-crafted socialization program is daunting, time consuming and necessary for the well-being of this young animal as he marches into adulthood and then towards his golden years.
My ‘young keep’ was raised in the country and unfortunately there was little to no socialization to urban environments. I know, I can hear you gasp. The good news is that he is still young enough (16 weeks old) and we can work diligently and intelligently in making him super chill with urban stimuli.
Here is what happened on our first urban outing: We got to a mall that is fairly busy, but it’s not a very huge mall. Initially he was happy and moving along with me on the leash. We first encounter the noise of flapping flags on a pole. He noticed them and he got fed for that. As we began to walk inside the mall, he suddenly balked. He began to pant, his body stiffened up, and he tried to rush to the entrance we just came in from. It was so sudden that it did not even give me the time to assess what got him concerned in the first place. Was it the slippery floor? The window display with a gazillion items? A smell? The cars and traffic noise that he had experienced a minute ago? Or all of the above? I left the mall immediately and began to take stock as to what I should do the following day.
The next day, we went back to the mall with Rio as support (dogs in general and puppies in particular, take lots of cues from other dogs) and the results were pretty much about the same. Again, we aborted the mission and went home to give this young pup a much needed rest.
So, here is what I did for our third outing: I went to a location that was a bit more of a “country” setting, yet provided us with enough cars, a few bicycles and people to work with. This made all the difference. We were still outside but, he was exposed to mainly one kind of trigger: Traffic. The slower pace of the cars and the more predictable approach was much more manageable and I had more room to create distance between the cars and the puppy.
Just a few minutes into our socialization session, I noticed that the puppy was still aware of the cars driving by; yet, he was able to cope and began to sniff his surroundings. Good lad, I thought, good lad! I continued to pair the passing of cars (the noise and the actual movement) with tasty hotdogs. On occasion, I asked the puppy to sit as a car or a bicycle drove by, but mainly I was looking into creating positive associations with a stimulus regardless of what the puppy was doing.
I am mainly interested in changing the fearful association the puppy has for a lack of exposure with urban triggers, such as traffic and other noises, to a positive one. My goal is to change how he feels about these things from being afraid and wanting to create distance from them, to either a neutral response as in: yeah there is a car going by and… wow, check out this smell here! Or even happy to see a car zoom by because he has learned that cars driving by, bicycles and the like mean that he gets a tasty treat – something he normally does not get to enjoy.
When socializing to any stimulus it is not only the exposure to the offending stimulus that matters, it’s how we go about it that is of utmost importance.
If the puppy (or adult dog) is already too concerned in the presence of the stimulus the association will not be a good one, no matter how many hotdogs we toss the dog’s way. By default, the experience must be one that is positive to the dog. Choosing the right location, as my example provides, as well as the amount of time, and distance, and if applicable, approach of the stimulus, will provide us with the tools to make the encounter a positive learning experience. If we repeat this sort of situation plenty of times- which will depend on the severity of the negative association that the puppy or adult dog already has as well as the age of the dog.
Now do keep in mind that when done well, we cannot over socialize a young puppy! I repeat: When done well, we cannot over socialize a puppy as some people claim.
So please, if you choose to bring a young puppy into your life make sure you know that it will take lots, and lots of carefully orchestrated efforts in order to teach a young puppy that life can be grand and that there is nothing to be concerned about!