Zip, please meet the world. World, watch out, here comes Zip!
In a way, this should be Lesson Zero, since Marge has been socializing Zip from the very start. Also, socialization is in a class by itself. The impressions puppies get when very young, particularly in their first three months of life, will create their world view and affect their temperament and attitudes. This world view is infinitely harder to change later. Dogs can learn training and games for their whole lives. But if their early impressions of the world are negative, or they are not exposed to our human world during the socialization window, they will be playing catch-up for the rest of their lives. (I have direct experience with this, having a dog who grew up in the woods.)
Marge is socializing Zip with skill and care, with consideration of both his physical and emotional safety.
Don’t Keep Them Home
Many people still follow outdated advice to keep their puppies sequestered during the early months of their lives because of the danger of infectious diseases. While it’s true that precautions should be taken to protect pups while their immune systems are still developing, the sad truth is the following:
Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age. –AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization
Let that be our call to action to get puppies out and about in a safe and positive way. Puppy classes, handling, and other socialization activities correlate positively with good behavior and retention in the home.
The following position statement (the source of the above quote) has appropriate information about balancing puppy socialization with protection from contagious diseases. I’ll cover some practical suggestions about that as well.
What Does Socialization Mean?
There is a good summary in the position statement:
Veterinarians specializing in behavior recommend that owners take advantage of every safe opportunity to expose young puppies to the great variety of stimuli that they will experience in their lives. –AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization
Let me emphasize the word “safe.” This refers not only to hygiene and protecting puppies’ immune systems. It also covers the type of exposures that are appropriate for puppies.
You will see in the movie that Zip is observing the world and experiencing new environments, with direct, deliberate associations by Marge with pleasurable experiences like great food and play. Remember how Marge taught Zip that she was fun and that learning was fun? In today’s clips, which represent a tiny percentage of her daily work with Zip, she is teaching him that the world can be fun.
We see him at a retirement home, at the sports fields, the bookstore, a strip mall, a parking lot, the lobby at the vet office, and the hardware store. And Marge says, don’t forget to build good associations to the car, too!
She is also doing preemptive work. With puppies, we don’t generally have the luxury of going out and doing strict classical conditioning separately on every possible thing they will encounter. We don’t have a tractor day, a bicycle day, or a mailman day, when all other stimuli retreat. But when you have a blank slate, you can take action that will either head off possible negative associations to sudden events (management) or, if you are lucky, work towards creating a positive association. For instance, you will see Marge give Zip a slurp from the food tube* when a car goes by or when another dog fusses in the vet office. She does this as soon as he perceives these things and does not wait to see if he reacts. In formal classical conditioning one would probably wait a couple of beats before causing the food to appear, and have more controlled exposures. We don’t always have that luxury in real life, but often with puppies we don’t need it.
When we are consistent about the general pairing of sudden events with goodies, the dog can get both the classical association (a motorcycle–great, that predicts salmon!) and the operant behavior (I think I’ll reorient to my human to help that salmon along!).
A Note on Hygiene
Common sense will take you a long way here. One way pups can get exposed to infectious diseases is through the bacteria present in dog feces. If you take your pup to a class, make sure that the hosts of the class use disinfectant cleaners before the class, as suggested in the position statement above. When doing socialization on the road, people can minimize a pup’s exposure to pathogens by setting it down on a rug when in public. When the pup is very small, it can be carried, then placed on a mat or rug for minimal exposure (see the sidewalk picture above). Later on when you let the pup walk about, steer him away from unknown animals (obviously!), trash, and feces. And avoid dog parks, where all three of these are generally present.
What Is Marge Not Doing?
There are also some things that people assume fall under socialization which have hidden force in them (flooding), and can really backfire. This happens a lot with puppies and fearful adult dogs with perfectly well-meaning humans.
So what don’t we see? We don’t see a bunch of strangers petting Zip. We don’t see him being lured up to children to get treats from them. We don’t see a “pass the puppy” exercise (where puppy owners sit in a circle and hand the puppies around to each other). All of these scenarios can create or exacerbate fear, as the puppy is put into strange situations with insufficient control over the scenario and insufficient support from his owner.
Let me repeat: leading puppies or shy or fearful dogs up to strangers to have the stranger give them a treat is a really bad idea that unfortunately has made its way into the cultural mythology about “how to introduce dogs to people.” Here’s why not to do that.
Zip has indeed met plenty of people and kids (not covered in this video). This was done in a controlled way, one at a time, and performed with lots of breaks. Marge herself handled the food and/or toys until Zip was entirely comfortable with the person.
What’s The Goal?
People naturally have different goals with their dogs. Since almost every dog will be handled by a vet and will meet strangers in its lifetime, exposure to different people and careful handling are both beneficial in the formative weeks, the so-called socialization window. But dogs don’t have to be social butterflies. As dogs grow older and their temperament becomes apparent, many will not want to interact with and like every human (or every dog) they meet, and they don’t need to.
I write frequently about my formerly feral dog Clara, and will soon be publishing an update on her own–extended–socialization process. I missed her socialization window, so for several years have been doing a slow-motion version of what Marge and many others do with their puppies. Interestingly, Clara is showing herself to be a curious and extroverted dog. I think she would have been extremely people-friendly had she not been raised feral. I take that into account when considering my goals with her. Given the chance, she probably would have been a social butterfly. So, belatedly, I’m giving her that chance. Our activities would be a bit different if she weren’t turning out to be so gregarious.
Likewise, the video is not a tutorial on how to socialize YOUR puppy. Each puppy is an individual and has different needs. This video provides a sampling of how Marge is expanding Zip’s world beyond the confines of her house.
Got any good socialization tips? People can always use good ideas about this.
Other Good Stuff
* Marge and I both use food tubes for high value treat delivery. We use Coghlan’s tubes, which can be bought at REI and other places online. I’ll do a whole blog on food tubes and what to put in them one of these days. You have to get the right consistency. Most high end pâté style canned dog foods (not chunky) work well.