Socialisation is not about exposure to new things and hoping it just works out.
The realization from both professionals and the public that socialisation is crucial in supporting our dogs to be confident and happy is fantastic. But, just putting dogs into new situations and hoping for the best is NOT good socialization.
We talk about socializing pups as much as we can before 16wks. But socialisation is not just being put with lots of other pups to play, passing your puppy to everyone you meet, or exposing them to lots of loud noises. Understanding body language is key to supporting our dogs to feel comfortable with the world around them.
If a puppy is put with lots of other puppies it does not mean they will end up loving other dogs. Sadly, the opposite can often happen. They need to be around other dogs that listen to them and teach them and have us there to step in if things get too much for them. I often feel older, calmer dogs can have a much more positive impact on pups than other pups. Play is great. But it must be consensual. If a pup is constantly trying to get away, is showing lots of stress signals, and not enjoying the situation they are in, they will just learn that other dogs are intimidating and scary.
The same goes for people. Constantly being handled, grabbed, cuddled will not make a dog love the company of humans. Humans that listen to them, engage with them respectfully, and go at their pace will help build trust and positive associations around humans.
Socialisation also doesn’t end after 16wks. It lasts a lifetime. We are seeing lots of dogs struggling at the moment due to having no exposure to the outside world for months. This has affected dogs of all different ages. There are people reporting the same issues. Feeling socially anxious after months of not being around other people.
I get lots of people telling me that all their dogs need is to be put with other dogs. But that would be like me going to a party the day after I got off a desert island. Or me being put into a room of wasps, so I could just get used to them. Flooding our dogs with the things that make them anxious can make them feel more anxious and cause their behaviors to become worse. At a distance, I may feel anxious about a wasp, but with a big enough distance I will relax a bit. Put me in a room of wasps and you’ll see me waving my arms around and screaming. A dog in the same situation will often lunge, bark, and possibly even bite.
So what is good socialisation?
Being allowed choice.
Always having exists.
Being listened to and having us as their advocates.
Having enough distance to feel safe not distressed.
Being allowed to go at their own pace.
Not being forced or coerced into difficult situations, even food can push dogs past their comfort zone.
Being able to explore and learn at their own speed.
Being exposed to new sights, smells, things at a speed and intensity that suits each individual.
Being able to explore without us constantly trying to train.
Letting dogs be dogs is crucial. We may think smelling wee and poo is gross, we may think rubbing our bodies in dead things is disgusting, we may think that chewing should be just reserved for dinner. But to dogs, these are natural and essential behaviors. Providing them with safe outlets to normal dog behaviors and managing environments to set them up for success will teach them way more than learning how to sit on cue.