In order to become generally confident and relaxed, and therefore relaxing companions, dogs need to be exposed to lots of different types of people, animals, situations, and things. Exposing your puppy or dog to new stuff is good for him, but there is more to good socialization than exposure. The quality of those interactions is important. Because socialization is so important and most commonly considered during early puppyhood, I’ll focus there, but adult dogs can still benefit from socialization. Even a dog that missed out on key socialization areas as a puppy can learn to deal appropriately with new things.
Proper socialization is all about positive novel experiences, controlled exposure to new or potentially problematic things, and good behavior in these situations. Ideally, exposure to lots of new things starts before the puppy leaves his mom. Dogs are programmed to be most accepting of new things before they’re about 12 weeks old. After that time, as their brains develop, they become much less apt to look on new experiences as positive. That doesn’t mean that socialization ends at 12 weeks, just that your best window of opportunity is when the puppy is still quite young. Unfortunately, that’s also before a puppy is completely protected from diseases such as Parvo by his vaccination series, and too young for a rabies vaccine. It’s still important to balance your puppy’s physical health with exposure to new dogs, people, and places. Inadequate socialization is an easy way to end up with behavioral issues such as fear aggression, and behavioral issues are the number one reason dogs lose their homes. A good balance is to carry your puppy in public places where unvaccinated dogs are likely to frequent, and visit with friends, their dogs and children in your home or at theirs. Even with less direct interaction, your puppy is seeing and learning about everything around him in your arms. Once his vaccinations are complete, you can move to more direct exposure to strange dogs and places.
While you’re working on socialization, it’s important to let your dog’s comfort guide how fast and how far interactions go. If you expose your puppy or dog to lots of new things but he’s terrified the whole time, you haven’t taught him anything good. This is especially true with other animals and children, who are most likely to do something scary. If you allow a child pick up your young, fragile puppy, and drop him, scare him with loud noises or rough handling, or otherwise terrify him, he’s learned something about children and it’s not what you want him to pick up. Your job is to pair interactions with positive things such as attention your dog’s body language indicates he enjoys and yummy treats. Sometimes novel things are immediately accepted, and sometimes you’ll have to work a bit to get your dog comfortable. Wait to up the intensity until your dog is comfortable and either relaxed or politely eager to continue. If your dog is too afraid to eat treats, or is shivering with a tucked tail, you need to back off and work more slowly to develop his confidence. Exposure to something that your dog finds more than slightly uncomfortable should start at a level below where he begins to show fear and work slowly closer or to a higher intensity.
Another big point, also especially with other animals or children, is to make sure your dog’s exposure to new things is controlled when his behavior might be inappropriate. If he’s allowed to nip children or terrorize the cat as a young puppy, he’s not going to grow out of that behavior as an adult. Many dog resources will tell you that cats will usually teach a young puppy manners, and that as long as they have places to get away from the dog they’ll be fine. That doesn’t always work, and you might end up like me, with baby gates all over your house to keep your cats safe from your adolescent dogs. It’s much easier and safer to control your puppy’s interactions until he’s learned the correct behavior and continue to supervise him around children at all times. Even with new adult dogs, it may be possible to nip a problem behavior in the bud if you don’t allow him to ever get into bad habits in your home. It depends on how habitual his reactions have already become. Use caution and barriers until you’re certain of a new dog’s behavior with small animals. Habits are much harder to change than a new behavior, and problems only escalate if they’re allowed to continue. If you’re not there to stop him, he’s still learning the wrong things, so supervision is imperative. Don’t scare or punish your dog or puppy if he’s being rude, but do reward him lavishly for sitting and distract him with more appropriate activities than nipping kids or jumping all over strangers. Instruct adults to freeze or turn their backs if your dog jumps on them, because that is a rude demand for attention. If it doesn’t work, eventually your dog will learn to stop doing it.
Your goal with socialization is to give your dog enough background to generalize. Exposure to only a few people, other animals or places won’t be enough to allow him to generalize those positive experiences. Many dogs learn to trust a few doggy friends and a couple of people, but they become fearful with strangers or in strange places. The first year of your dog’s life, you want him to have positive interactions with every kind of person, animal, place or thing you can reasonably manage. The more positive interactions and exposure you can manage, the less frightened your dog will be of new things. Even if he’s never seen someone wearing stilts and a clown suit, if your dog has seen enough types of people, he’ll probably be okay if he comes across a giant clown. If he’s only seen the regulars on his trip around the block, he’s not going to be able to cope with the big scary change that is the neighbor’s kid’s birthday party. The more confident your dog is around strange things, the more you can do together and the safer everyone is. Confident dogs are not aggressive, and they’re fun and relaxing to spend time with.
Hopefully, your dog has a relaxed temperament and socialization is natural, easy and fun. Even if he takes a little more effort and finesse, it’s well worth it to put in the effort and gently guide your dog to at least tolerate novel experiences. He doesn’t have to roll over for a belly scratch from every stranger, but if you can take your dog into the vet’s waiting room without him being afraid of the woman waiting next to you, your life will be much easier. A little gentle encouragement and some persistence is well worth the effort.