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“Socialization” Is Not the Dog Park

“Socialization” Is Not the Dog Park

We know that socialization is important for young puppies. We know that adult dogs have to keep at it or difficulties can develop. But what does “socialization” mean? Is that even the right word?

New dog people are sometimes fooled by the ease with which puppies can meet other puppies. “They love other dogs! Done!” Nope. “They live with other dogs, and they all get along. Done!” Nope. “My adult dog goes regularly to the dog park and doesn’t have any fights.” Probably not done at all. (He might very well be learning unsuccessful communication at a dog park.)

A prime reason we talk about socializing puppies under four months of age is that they are so malleable. A new encounter is all positive–yay! Now do it again. And do it again. And do it when the puppy is older and as an adult. Great happenings don’t last forever. Though many dog people think “socialization” means “have positive experiences with lots of dogs” and it does, other dogs are only a fraction of the “happenings” a pup should have.

Your dog needs to see humans of all shapes, sizes, and colors. He needs to see them in hats and facial masks and sunglasses. He needs to visit a variety of environments and walk on different surfaces. He needs to hear sounds of trucks and fireworks, and he needs to hear a baby cry and hear hammering and sirens. He needs to see an umbrella open and get used to the vacuum cleaner. The list is fairly endless. But if you work on your dog having new experiences often, the dog will start to generalize that the world is a pretty cool place and he’ll be more curious than hesitant.

That means pairing what is new with what is fabulous: conditioning skateboards to mean “CHEDDAR!” to your pup. That means not showing a new stimulus too nearby or for too long. It may mean desensitizing in little bits what could be scary, perhaps using YouTube on your phone to play quietly a sound of a trash truck after your dog has begun to eat his dinner. Not too nearby and not for too long. “Mmm, I adore that sound. It means CHICKEN!” Mowgli says.

Has your dog been to the beach? Has she walked the outdoor mall? Has she seen children squealing at the playground? If she didn’t enjoy the beach that day, back pedal and make the trip easier and shorter and with less wind or less people or less heat. Bring bacon!

Create the dog you want now. Once a week she should visit a new location. Make sure she doesn’t mind being handled and loves car rides and having her nails clipped. If something isn’t working, let’s reduce any fear. Trainers call it D&C: desensitization and counterconditioning. Respect your dog’s hesitation and work at her level: not too much too quickly and with the counter of throwing a ball or playing tug or eating cookies. Quit while you’re ahead! Not everything will always work out, but if you are patient, she might just end up loving kids playing ball near her–and may join the fun!


Charmaine Morris on January 22, 2021 AT 03 pm

This is great advice! I’m inspired to make a date with my pup soon.

Tamra K on February 12, 2021 AT 04 pm

Great information. This helps a lot.

Dawna R. on December 11, 2022 AT 06 pm

I feel like I should’ve known most of this having three dogs…great insights and advice. I believe one of my pups needs some D&C work. Eek. Thank you Robin!

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