Is Socialization a “Sacred Cow”?

Anyone who has ever had a puppy has been told about the importance of “socializing” the pup.  To most, this implies taking the puppy out and about and allowing her to meet people, other dogs, and experience a variety of environmental settings.  These outings are supposed to prevent fears of unfamiliar people, animals, and places when the dog is an adult.

But it’s become common practice to talk about “socializing” adult dogs as well.  We hear about “socialization” plans and “remedial socialization” for fearful adult dogs.   The single term “socialization” is being used to describe a variety of procedures and protocols that are often quite different from one another.   Has the term become so broad as to be meaningless or at least vague and confusing?  Let’s look at what the scientific literature has to say.

Anyone who is a serious student of dog behavior has a copy of Scott and Fuller’s pioneering work “Genetics and The Social Behavior of the Dog”.  Originally published in the 1960’s, our paperback copy has sticky notes protruding from many pages, the binding is held together with tape, the cover is wrinkled, and the pages are dog-eared (no pun intended!).  Scott and Fuller’s research into behavior development of the dog spanned 25 years and told us most of what we know about the dog and “socialization”.

From them we know that the primary, sensitive period for socialization that begins at about 3 weeks of age is marked by the puppy being able to see and hear and thus able to distinguish “familiar” from “unfamiliar”.  The period ends at about 12 weeks of age, due to the pup’s normal, increasing fear of the unfamiliar.  This socialization phase is when lasting social relationships are most easily established.  Scott and Fuller acknowledge that social relationships form throughout life, but the process is much slower and more difficult later due to normal neophobia as well as later experiences that influence any dog’s social tendencies.

During the socialization period, Scott and Fuller describe puppies as “emotionally sensitive”, putting them at risk for “psychological damage”.  Unfortunately, those words of warning haven’t been as prominent on our radar as they should be.  While most all pet professionals are proponents of puppy socialization, it’s well past the time where we need to start putting parameters around what constitutes “good” socialization versus what sorts of experiences can have long lasting unwanted behavioral effects.

Overwhelming puppies during this sensitive period likely happens far too often in puppy classes and other “socialization” experiences.  A contributing factor is the not well known process of  localization.  Puppies become strongly attached to a familiar place, and display distress, that peaks at 6 to 7 weeks of age, when moved from it.  Scott and Fuller’s data show that..   “the emotional responses to being moved continue for some time”.

By now your cognitive wheels should be turning, thinking about what implications this classic research has for what happens to most puppies during their first 4-6 months of life.  And we haven’t yet discussed whether “socialization” is the correct term to apply when helping adult dogs overcome their fears or phobias.  Is “socialization” really what’s involved or is it something else?

Believing “socialization” is always a good thing, and can be used to help puppies and adult dogs alike has been one of those “sacred cows” of dog training – something that is accepted unquestionably.  We’ve started discussing a number of “sacred cows” in conjunction with our good friend and colleague Ms. Kathy Sdao, M.A., ACAAB.

Watch our two On Demand webinars on “Sacred Cows of Dog Training” and “Sacred Cows of Dog Training Part 2”  We’ll be talking more about socialization and other “sacred cows” of dog training that will have you shifting your thinking about important training ideas you may have always taken for granted.

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