Socialisation is a much used and abused word these days in dog training. You will often hear people say things like: “I take my dog to that restaurant, because it’s really good socialisation”, “I’d like to bring my dog to your training classes, because he really needs to socialise” or a shelter might say to an adopter: “You really need to make sure this puppy meets LOTS of other dogs, because this breed requires massive socialisation”.
Socialisation is hugely important. There is a window of opportunity in a puppy’s life where we can hugely influence their social behaviour and their ability to cope in the outside world through socialisation (for details on the socialisation period and the importance of socialisation, please see https://www.tarynblyth.co.za/what-is-the-socialisation-period ). However, there are unfortunately some very serious misconceptions about socialisation which causes the uneducated public to do a lot of damage to dogs.
It is important to understand when socialisation is not actually socialisation!
Socialisation is not socialisation when a dog is no longer in the socialisation period: The socialisation period generally stretches from 4-14 weeks in the average dog, from 4-10 weeks in “highly-strung” breeds such as German Shepherds and 4-20 weeks in “laid-back” breeds such as Labradors. During this time, a puppy is attracted to novelty, rather than frightened by it, so they will easily investigate new situations and accept new people, dogs and other animals. Once this period is over, they will react with a survival response (fight, flight, appeasement) to novelty. Exposing a dog that is beyond this period to new things will NOT automatically mean they will accept them and get used to them. They are far more likely to become stressed, fearful and defensive. Once a dog is outside of the socialisation period, the word socialisation no longer applies, so any reference to socialising a teenage or adult dog, is completely nonsensical.
Socialisation is not socialisation when it results in fear and trauma: Not all experiences are equal. Positive interactions with people and dogs or new places (having fun, getting something nice to eat, playing with a toy etc) will create positive associations. Negative interactions, even if they take place in the socialisation period, will result in fear conditioning i.e. the puppy will learn unpleasant associations with people, dogs or places. Sending a puppy to daycare where the puppy is chased and bullied by other dogs is NOT socialisation. Passing a dog around to be handled by strangers when the dog is uncomfortable with being handled is not socialisation. They will not improve a dog’s attitude toward people or dogs and will in fact lead to increased antisocial and undesired behaviour.
Socialisation is not socialisation when a dog has no choice: Forcing a puppy or dog into a potentially scary situation does not make socialisation happen. A puppy or dog should be able to approach novelty of their own free will. The choice to approach and move away again is incredibly important for helping a puppy or dog cope with a potentially frightening situation. If a friend asks you to go on a theme park ride, you might be quite hesitant, but also a bit curious as to whether it might be fun if you tried it. How would you make up your mind about whether to try the ride or not? You might walk up quietly when no one was watching or trying to pressure you and watch other people going on the ride. You’d probably hang back at a safe distance and check out whether others seemed to be enjoying it or not and whether in fact it looked safe. You might then have the courage to try it yourself. But how would you feel if your friend grabbed hold of you and dragged you onto the ride? You would probably feel pretty panicky and might even fight to get away. It is unlikely that you would completely enjoy the ride and if your friend let go for a second, you’d probably bolt to get away. Or maybe you are the kind of person who would just shut-up and go against your will? How would you feel about your friend? How would you feel about the ride? You might avoid the theme park altogether in the future. Forcing your puppy or dog to say hello to a person or dog is very much like this. It is not productive and is in fact pretty traumatic.
Socialisation is not effective when the root of a problem is not lack of socialisation: One of the most worrying things we see these days is people getting “fighting breed” dogs (dogs that have been genetically selected for hundreds of years by human beings to fight and kill each other for sport) and embarking on intensive “socialisation” with other dogs in order to prevent the breed’s natural inclination for aggression towards other animals from emerging. The problem with this idea is that the root cause of aggression in many dogs that fall into this category is NOT lack of socialisation – the root of the problem is in fact a hardwired behaviour pattern that is triggered, not by the dog feeling frightened and defensive, but by arousal levels reaching a certain “pitch”. Creating a “super-player” (a dog that wants to do nothing but play with other dogs) is often the go-to strategy for people with fighting breeds to avoid dog-dog aggression, but it is this very fixation with other dogs and the high arousal levels in play that often set these dogs up for failure and end up triggering the very behaviour the owners want to avoid.
Socialisation is vital, but it is vital in the socialisation period. Socialisation also needs to involve positive experiences, not simply exposure regardless of the outcome. Socialisation for adult dogs or dogs with social problems does not in fact exist. We can certainly improve emotional and behavioural responses to new things in adult dogs, but this involves a process of gradual desensitization and counter-conditioning (gradual non-threatening exposure to something, while simultaneously creating positive associations with it). So please, next time someone tells you to take your adult dog to dog park, daycare or puppy party to “socialise” him, tell them you know better!