The absence of socialization can really do a lot to affect your dog’s behavior. The majority of socially awkward, fearful or reactive dogs exist because of human error. The best way to prepare your dog for all of the other dogs, people, sights, sounds, smells and textures of the world is by socializing them to things they may someday interact with. Novel stimuli are often overlooked by us because they were created by humans and simply exist in our world, but to a dog- a balloon in the air, a tarp on the ground, and a running, moving vacuum cleaner can be frightening- extremely frightening- especially if they’ve never encountered one before or have had a negative experience with one.
So how do you help your dog overcome these potential fears before they happen? By attempting to ensure that their relationship with their environment is a positive one and being sure to reward for small increments of success. You’ll hear me say this more than once- exposure alone is not socialization. This means that merely exposing your dog to a vacuum isn’t enough or even the appropriate thing to do. Socialization is proactively preparing a positive training plan to help your dog feel comfortable and confident around what their senses might encounter. It means pulling out the vacuum and rewarding your dog for looking at it, then for walking up to it, then for sniffing it. It means slowly moving the vacuum and dishing out a few treats, turning it on in a different room and throwing a treat party. For puppies especially, it’s important to build positive associations with everyday sounds and objects. Incremental reward is key here, you want to be sure that you’re reinforcing the baby steps and moving at your dog’s pace.
My pup Gypsy is afraid of brooms, and it’s entirely my fault. I overlooked them, thought they were too simple, too similar to the jump bars she had gone over and knocked down a hundred times without fear… but I was wrong. A broom fell- right next to her- and created a sense of panic that I have yet to help her overcome. It may take months for her to feel comfortable in the same space as a broom, but thankfully brooms are not something she has to engage with on a daily basis. For the last few weeks she has been eating her meals off of and around brooms, and I still can’t even begin to lift one off the ground without her scurrying out of the room. But imagine for a moment that your puppy has never been socialized to an elevator and you live on the 16th floor of an apartment building. Would you say that it’s important for your puppy to be comfortable walking in and out of that elevator without panicking? Of course it is. I’ve met those puppies. Puppies that feared walking into an elevator and not even because they’ve had a negative experience with, solely because they’ve had zero experience with it. How would you feel if given no choice but to walk into a box that closes around you and groans as it begins to move? You have to admit, it sounds kind of creepy (and to a puppy, it is). So if you and your puppy have to deal with an elevator every day, you can imagine why it’s so important to build these positive experiences.
Socialization is a choice you have to make throughout your dog’s entire life. Done properly it is one of the most powerful training experiences a dog can work through. It’s the difference between a rock solid, working therapy dog and a family dog that can’t cope with leaving it’s home. It’s also important to generalize these training opportunities to a multitude of environments. Gypsy was never afraid of things falling over and making loud sounds at her training facility, but at home where a loud noise is unexpected, her reaction was a fearful one.
Remember that like humans, every dog is different. If you have a fearful dog and need help, talk to a reward based trainer in your area. Believe me, a little reward (or sometimes a whole lot of it) can go a very long way to creating a confident dog. So don’t be stingy.