The biggest mistake I see new puppy owners make is that in an effort to socialize their puppy they allow a multitude of inappropriate interactions to occur repeatedly which can create behavior problems. Imagine for a moment that EVERY time you went out in public EVERY single person you saw TOUCHED you. How would that make you feel? Some people would love that much attention but for the vast majority of people they would hate having their space invaded every single time they go out. And puppies are the same. Some love the attention and some endure it. Over the years I have worked with many adult dogs who have a fear of humans. Nine times out of ten I can trace it back to their puppy hood. These are typically really attractive dogs and when they go out into the world everybody wants to touch them. So, from a very early age they learned that every time I go out people I don't know or I don't like are going to be touching me. My guardian has failed to keep me safe and the only way that I can keep myself safe is to set my own personal bubble boundary. Usually they try to avoid people and then owners make it worse by forcing the issue. They MAKE the puppy approach people. If avoidance doesn’t work to give them the space they need to feel safe then they will escalate their communication to growling, snapping or biting. That is usually when they call me.
We don't want this to happen to your dog so you need to be very smart about how you socialize your dog. Especially to people and other dogs.
The easiest way to do that is to adopt a 75/25 rule. When out and about in the real world 75% of the time they look at the environment and 25% of the time they engage with the environment. That means one out of four people or dogs get to potentially engage with your puppy. It shouldn’t be zero or 100%. A nice mix between sometimes we stop and greet and sometimes we say a friendly “hello!” and keep moving. When you do decide to greet I encourage you to allow your puppy bodily autonomy. Ask the person who wants to pet your puppy to kneel down pat their leg and encouraged the puppy to come over to them. If the puppy comes over to them then they get to engage with the puppy. If the puppy does not come over then clearly the puppy does not want to be touched. And that's okay! When it comes to dog greeting don’t let a big dog loom over a small puppy. Ask the other dog to sit and see if your puppy approaches. If they do that's great they can say hello for a few seconds and if they don’t that’s ok too. They can just look at the big dog.
You can become social with proximity and not physical touch. I don't touch every single person I meet and I'm quite social. When I am at the park I don’t stop and shake hands with every human I meet. If I have a human infant I put that child in a stroller or carry them and SHOW them the world. I don’t hand my child off to every stranger I see to hold and touch them. It’s the same concept with your puppy. Your dog doesn’t need to sniff greet every human or dog they see either but they DO need to SEE the world at their pace and comfort level.
The other benefit of the 75/25 rule is that they are learning personal space boundaries in the other direction. Not every human they see or dog they pass will want their attention. Not every human wants to pet them and not every dog wants to play. This should prevent them from turning into an big adolescent dog that drags you over to every single person or dog they meet.
None of this means that you should keep your puppy home and not have them experience the world!
What it does mean is that you need to be SMART and pay attention to how your puppy feels about being out in the world. If they are nervous, scared or overwhelmed you need to acknowledge that and help them overcome that fear. If they are happy and playful with people and dogs keep it up but give them boundaries so they don’t turn into a demanding adult. It’s a balancing act but if you keep these points in mind you’ll do just fine.
Keys to successful socialization
- Provide your dog with POSITIVE experiences to NEW THINGS
- Let your dog APPROACH at their own pace
- YUMMY treats will create an association that new things are GREAT
- Sometimes we just WATCH the world and eat yummy treats
- Sometimes we actively ENGAGE with the world while eating yummy treats
- My guardian keeps me safe by going slow if I am FEARFUL while feeding me yummy treats
- A puppy class with other puppies is a must. If the only dogs your puppy meets are older dogs, family dogs, or dogs at the dog park they won't have a well rounded "dog" experience.
Dogs don’t just “get over” issues by repeated exposure so if your dog is shy or cautious get help from a professional before they become a bigger issue.
If you dog is happy and comfortable you are doing a great job. Keep it up!