Socialization

Puppy socialization is kind of “the” topic in dog behavior these days. Your adult dog has a problem? Under-socialized as a puppy!

It’s something that really gets under my skin. My adult dog has a lot of psychological problems, including a general anxiety with anything new. He’s uncomfortable with anything that isn’t in a place that he expects it to be, and he has a lot of rules about what is “allowed” to happen where.

We are, in a way, the test-case for what socialization can and can’t do.

Because, you know, we did it all “right.” We went to puppy kindergarten. We met their suggested number of new people and new dogs every week. We went to stores. We went to a different park every weekend. We stayed in puppy daycare when he was still nervous around the other dogs. We went to obedience class so that he would keep getting exposure to people and dogs, and kept going back. We live in a major urban area. Nowhere we go is completely devoid of people.

There are places that I can see what good it did. The places that we went most often with puppy Silas are still his happiest places. He’s not likely to be the ambassador of the dog park, but, thanks largely to puppy daycare, I don’t have to worry constantly about what will happen if we meet another dog.

On the other hand, socialization on its own is just not capable of fixing everything. I’m sure that we could have done more. We could have had Ian Dunbar’s 100 people over to visit, instead of the three or four we managed to scrape up. Found some children somewhere for him to play with. Worked harder on getting him over his fear of cars, when he was still more impressionable. Put him in the better puppy kindergarten. But, you know, we’ve lived in the same house since Silas was five weeks old. He was “socialized” to every noise that this neighborhood is capable of producing. He still finds that noise overwhelming some days.

Don’t get me wrong–socialization is extremely worthwhile. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to live with Silas without that base exposure. The truth is, though, that socialization is not going to change your dog’s basic temperament. You can give your fearful dog the best start possible, but he’s still going to be a fearful dog. Don’t spend the rest of his life beating yourself up that you didn’t do enough when he was a puppy.

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6 thoughts on “Socialization

  1. This is a great point, and thanks for sharing your perspective and Silas’s background. I think about this often too. We adopted Pyrrha from an unscrupulous breeder when she was 1 year; she had lived her whole life in a tiny cage outdoors. Obviously, a lot of her fear issues stem from her total lack of socialization (to anything!), but I often think that she may just have a genetic shyness component (like many GSDs), and that even if we had been fortunate enough to have had her from puppyhood, she would probably still be afraid of many things. Etc. I guess you never really know. 🙂

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  2. Very good point. Some dogs really do just have that predisposition that makes them harder to socialize and acclimate than others. Although you are to be applauded for sticking with Silas and continuing his education. Another person would have most likely dumped him off at the shelter a long time ago because they would have considered him “impossible”. You’ve gone the other route and have accepted the challenges and loved him unconditionally.

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  3. So so true. One of the things a good breeder does is to consider a dog’s temperament before breeding. Of course that is for a dog which is purposefully bred. Unsound temperament (overly aggressive, overly fearful, etc.) can be in the genes and no amount of socialization will make it disappear. You can make it better, but you cannot make it go away.

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  4. Good points overall, and I agree with the other comments–sometimes it’s not just socialization, though a high level of socialization is always a worthwhile goal. I had a puppy mill girl, and she never got over her early four months of virtually no socialization. (Because one important point here is that early socialization is the most critical for dogs). But I also made mistakes with her–at that point, I didn’t know how critical it would be to work with her on this, and I didn’t, and so she was always a terribly fearful dog–she had everything against her, from lack of early socialization, to lack of more socialization later, to (probably) an inherited predisposition for fearfulness/shyness.

    But my Akita was well bred, and naturally an outgoing little guy as a puppy. We took him a medium amount of places, I’d guess, and worked on his socialization some (probably not enough for his breed, but did a fair amount early on). I wish I had continued to work on it harder in adolescence, because I believe I could have helped tempered his natural suspicion of people he doesn’t know better with more work on socialization in adolescence and young adulthood. But I didn’t. But even if I had, he’s still an Akita. He is, by nature of his breed, going to be somewhat suspicious of strangers, and he’s going to be not as dog tolerant as some other breeds. More socialization might have tempered those things some, but breed does matter, as does early puppyhood, as does the temperament of the parents. So while I’ll continue to say “socialize, socialize, socialize” to new dog people, I also know it’s not the only thing that will effect a dog’s adult behavior.

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    1. I do absolutely think it’s important, and I do absolutely wish I’d done more with Silas. I did what would have been more than adequate for a “regular” dog. Although, on the other hand, I do wonder if trying to do more wouldn’t have overwhelmed him and had a worse effect, since I didn’t really know a lot about how to recognize dog stress.

      I just get so tired of people assuming that it’s the only thing that can be wrong with dogs. They were undersocialized, or they were abused. It’s especially pernicious because those things are both in the past, and it becomes an excuse for various behavior problems.

      I think the post-puppy socialization is more important than people realize, and I really, looking back, think *that’s* the thing I regret the most. But it’s hard to take an adolescent dog out. They’re weird and rowdy and don’t listen, but they’ve gotten strong enough that you can’t just manhandle them into behaving. You also think, “Phew, socialization is done. I can spend some time doing something else!” It was around six or eight months that Silas started to get really fearful, which was also about the time that I quit taking him places. He would refuse to walk across the parking lot to get back in the car at the park, and in stores he started lifting his leg on the displays. He got a lot better once he was post-adolescent and I could take him out again.

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