Puppies and adolescent dogs have critical learning periods, also referred to as sensitive periods or fear periods. It is important that they are not just exposed to new things during this time, but that they are having positive or at least neutral experiences during their exposure.
Socialization is not just about having your puppy interact with all kinds of people and dogs. In fact, for most dogs, it is preferable for their socialization to be about being so confident and engaged with the human handler that they can see something without feeling the need to interact with it.
When your puppy is experiencing a new site, sound, surface, event, etc., it is important to read their body language. If they are fearful, give them enough distance from the new thing for them to be able to process the information comfortably. That means do a U-turn and coax your puppy away, even if they are stuck staring or barking in fear. If they are conflicted and moving back and forth towards the new thing, give them time to think about it. Reward them for whatever effort they put forward. Scary things can become un-scary when paired with food.
People: It’s nice for your puppy to make new friends, but even just seeing all different kinds of people walk down the street is good socialization. If someone is meeting your puppy, make sure that they are not being overwhelming with their greeting. Ask the person to be calm, cool, and collected when saying hi. Sometimes it is helpful to just have them feed the dog a treat instead of petting them, since the average person tends to become over-excited about greeting puppies. Over-excited strangers can scare a puppy OR make the puppy develop a habit of being overly excited and out of control during greetings.
Other Dogs: There is a huge amount of benefit to allowing your puppy to play with other dogs, from exercise and enrichment to learning good social skills and life lessons from animals that “speak their language”.
Finding controlled settings for your puppy to meet other dogs, like organized puppy socials, private lessons with a trainer, or becoming buddies with other puppies in your neighborhood (particularly if you or they have a backyard!) is the way to go.
Meeting dogs on-leash tends to create frustration, overarousal, or fear, and many dogs end up becoming “leash-reactive” largely due to meeting other dogs on leash.
Likewise, taking a puppy to a dog park can easily lead to them being bullied by out-of-control dogs, traumatize them during their sensitive learning period, and cause them to develop behavioral problems.
SEEING other dogs on walks and learning that they are not going to bother them is great socialization for a puppy. Practice rewarding your puppy for seeing other dogs and looking back at you. This is great for practicing getting your puppy’s attention.
***Pet sitters: Meeting other dogs on-leash should be avoided, as it is an unnecessary and high-risk activity for puppies.***
When to Refer to Training Program
If problem behavior in a puppy seems to get worse instead of better, you can refer to DANW’s training program.
If a puppy’s parents expresses frustration or not knowing what to do about their puppy’s behavior, you can refer to DANW’s training program.
If a puppy’s behavior makes you feel “in over your head,” you can refer to DANW’s training program.
If you suspect a puppy’s behavior might be abnormal -- from extreme fear to extreme overarousal -- you can refer to DANW’s training program.
PUPPY doesn't have to do anything to earn a reward when you are desensitizing something. She will get a treat and verbal praise simply by being in the presence of certain loud/fast/big/scary stimuli. This will teach PUPPY to actually enjoy the vacuum cleaner, for example, instead of fearing it. ("Hmm," she thinks. "The vacuum cleaner can't be that bad… I always get treats when it's around. On second thought, I think I kinda like the vacuum cleaner…")
Freely give PUPPY tiny training treats when in the presence of children, men, funny hats, cats, bicycles, wheelchairs, other dogs, people in sunglasses, guys with beards, babies, guests to your home, thunder, fireworks, skateboards, boats, people dancing and/or moving erratically, etc. It is important for PUPPY to learn that new experiences equal Good Things for Dogs, so take the show on the road by bringing PUPPY around town with you. The more positive exposure PUPPY has to the world now, the more desensitized she will be as an adult dog. (Remember, however, that the experiences do need to be positive — if PUPPY is afraid of something, put more distance between PUPPY and the "monster" and take infinitesimal, baby steps closer to the stimulus as she grows comfortable.) Training Tip: a fearful dog will not typically take a treat from you in the presence of something which she deems scary. If this is the case, take a step back in training by increasing the distance between the puppy and the stimulus until she is calm enough to take treats. Then, when she is comfortable at that distance, decrease the distance very gradually.
Give PUPPY treats when she lets you touch her around sensitive spots like paws, ears, and rear end. PUPPY doesn't have to do anything to earn these treats… all you are doing is teaching her that being touched means Good Things for Dogs, which will come in handy later when she needs to be examined by the vet, has to go to the groomer, a child pets her without asking you first, etc. If you try to touch PUPPY and she backs away, take a step back in training by making the experience easier (don't actually make contact, move slower, etc).
Create lots of practice situations in your home to help PUPPY with desensitization. For example, you might take a pan from the kitchen, rest it on the floor, and give PUPPY a treat. Then, drop the pan from a quarter-inch in the air and give PUPPY a treat. Then, drop the pan from a half-inch, then an inch, then two inches, etc, until you get to the point where you can drop the pan from waist-height, and PUPPY does not show any signs of anxiety. When doing exercises like this, be sure to work very gradually. Also, set PUPPY up for success by making the experience fun instead of scary. If PUPPY is showing signs of anxiety (trembling, jumping away, startling, licking his lips, whining, barking, growling, etc), change the experience so that it is something she can easily handle. Then, very gradually, raise the bar.
Dogs are not very good at generalizing. So, though a dog may be completely desensitized to the sound of a pan clattering to the ground, she might be scared by something else falling to the ground, like a thick book or a bunch of keys. You can help PUPPY to learn to generalize by working through many different desensitization scenarios. Here are examples of just a few things you can desensitize in and around your home…
things falling onto the ground
an umbrella opening
the sound of someone stomping around on another floor
household appliances like a vacuum, hairdryer, and blender
bicycles and skateboards
funny hats and coats
a vibrating phone
drawers banging shut
Remember that when PUPPY is in the presence of one of these stimuli, she gets treats, but that as soon as the stimuli stops/goes away, all treats stop.
You can also purchase a CD of sound effects (or find a bunch of sound effects on YouTube), so that you can desensitize PUPPY for sounds that she may not hear within the home (a baby crying, a siren, fireworks, thunder, a train, horns, etc). Play the sounds at a low volume, giving PUPPY treats while each sound plays (and stopping when the sound stops!). Gradually increase the volume of these sounds. Many pet stores and music stores sell these sound-sampler CDs. (We carry a few at our Wonder Puppy retail store as well.)