Socialization sounds easy enough. Introduce your dog to a lot of novel stimuli before he reaches the age of four months. Socialization is not, however, that easy.
Socialization is not just about introducing your dog to lots of new people, dogs, and environments. Exposure and socialization are not synonymous.
Exposure simply means introducing yourself to something in the environment and may be a neutral, unpleasant, or pleasant experience for a dog. Neutral or unpleasant exposures during critical stages of development can create behavioral problems like fear, reactivity, and aggression later in your dog’s life. No exposures at all may well initiative the same responses.
Socialization is about pleasant exposure. It’s about teaching a puppy that new things in the environment are predictors of reinforcement, and is also about teaching a puppy that his owner is his most dedicated defender who will protect him from the things that make him nervous so he is relieved of the need to protect himself using his voice or teeth. In order to socialize your dog effectively, you must learn to read canine body language. Doggone Safe’s Speak Dog feature is a great introduction to body language.
When you are able to read your dog’s emotional signals, you will be able to manage his exposures and significantly reduce or even eliminate unpleasant or neutral exposures and dramatically increase the percentage of exposures which are positive and confidence-building. If your dog displays signs of fear, discomfort, or anxiety, you will want to temporarily increase your distance from the stimulus which invokes the fear response, gradually reducing distance as your dog is confident. If your dog displays signs of enthusiasm, confidence, and initiative, you will move closer to the stimulus.
“Look at That” (LaT) is a classical conditioning application of the clicker which has been popularized in recent years through Leslie McDevitt’s phenomenal book, Control Unleashed. Look at That is quite simple and involves clicking and reinforcing your dog for looking at new stimuli in the environment. In socialization exercises, LaT can be the springboard for shaping curiosity and confidence in your dog. Initially, you may click your dog for looking at a “scary thing” in the environment (a new person or dog, or perhaps an agility A-frame). As your dog gains confidence looking at the object or animal, he may choose to approach the stimulus. Reinforce any efforts to investigate new things in the environment – taking steps to approach, sniffing, or interacting with new people, toys, animals, surfaces to walk on, climb over, crawl under, or climb through.
Doing this often and frequently when your dog is a puppy will create a dog that is confident, curious, social, and has trust in his owner. This is the type of dog that virtually every dog owner wants!
Remember, if it isn’t fun, it isn’t socialization. If exposures are scary or neutral, they qualify as anti-socialization, which pretty much equates to actively teaching your dog to be anti-social. If puppy owners are able to avoid anti-socialization and focus on socialization, their efforts will be generously rewarded with a reliable and friendly companion for many years.