Puppies are not born knowing how the world works and it’s not downloaded from their mom during nursing. Nevertheless, the world goes round. So how’s a pup supposed to learn what’s good, bad, harmful, safe, pleasant, and punishing? By socializing.
Socialization is the act of exposing your puppy to new, pleasant experiences – with the goal to create a confident dog. That’s right, I said confident. The polar opposite of confident in the dog world is anxious. And not socializing a puppy will create a dog who is fearful, hesitant, nervous, anxious, or aggressive when introduced to a new environment or stimulus. You know, those dogs who are scared to live in their own skin.
Also notice socialization isn’t just exposure. It’s exposure with pleasant consequences. Just taking your puppy around new people, places, animals, and things DOES NOT socialize. It’s the interaction with those things. Keep in mind that a negative experience can come from uncertainty (fear of the unknown), or a bad experience, and it can come from you or the environment. I had a wonderful Sheltie breeder in Ohio call me about a puppy she placed in my area. This puppy left her just like every other puppy with no problems. Within two months he was so fearful of people he wouldn’t even let the owner touch him. After speaking with her and getting some back ground information it was obvious the problem was due to improper socializing. You see, this Sheltie puppy was placed with a trainer’s assistant who had all the best intentions. She wanted to socialize her new puppy and had access to hundreds of people and dogs. Sadly, she didn’t realize passing her puppy from person to person with a goal of “the puppy must be handled by 100 strangers” back fired. Let’s pretend you’re the puppy, and I’m your owner. Now let’s pretend you’re not sure what to make of strangers, a little uncomfortable, but nothing serious. Now let’s pretend I force 100 random strangers to hug you. So that’s one hundred times something you are uneasy about comes into your space and just starts touching you (petting). Which actually had the side effect of “touch is bad.”
Socialization is teaching a puppy about the world around him. It’s teaching the acceptance of new places, things, sounds, etc. A much better plan would have been to do something that made the Sheltie puppy want to approach strangers. Maybe letting the dog come to them and getting a good sniff. Or how about giving the dog a small tasty treat (we call that “strangers have the best candy” in the training world.) If you try and force “close” all they want to do is get farther away. If you give them plenty of space to get close at their own pace, then they want to explore the option of being close. Why? Because it’s non-threatening.
So if you or someone you know is socializing a puppy, tell them to use motivation. Tell them: Socialization is exposure with pleasant consequences to teach acceptance of new experiences.