I've spent the past two weeks trying to socialize two puppies. I've had many dogs and puppies come through my home. I know the value of early socialization, but I am also amazed at some of the dogs I've fostered that have never left their home and backyard that are very stable and well-socialized dogs. Then there are the dogs that have lived their lives in solitary cages and they are frightened by literally everything! One of my dogs that had extensive and careful socialization since birth has grown up to be sensitive to noises and strangers. It seems that there must be more to socialization than just exposing your puppy to anything and everything as young as possible.
I've tried to get each puppy some individual socialization as well as socializing them together. Much socialization can be done at home. Socialization is getting your dog used to novel stimuli, so they see there is nothing to fear. Dogs are naturally cautious of new things. The more new things they learn to trust, the more trusting they will become of novel stimuli.
At home they have learned to use food dispensing toys, to eat out of different types of dishes, to eat in a crate and in different rooms. They have been exposed to new and different surfaces, toys and bones with different textures, obstacles to go through, over and around. They have been exposed to dogs of different breeds and ages, learning to respect that the older dogs may not want to play, and learning about the different play styles of each dog. They have been exposed to sunglasses, big floppy hats, bulky coats and gloves, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, noises, men, women and children. They are never forced to investigate or interact. They are free to leave the situation if they feel overwhelmed, to stand at a distance and observe if they feel like it. Then, when they are feeling more comfortable, they come to investigate on their own. They will normally leave and come back over and over again until their curiosity is quenched and they realize there is nothing else to be concerned about.
In public, I've chosen low key places to take them when I have plenty of time to allow them to observe and approach as they are ready. Although I have always been careful not to push my puppies past their comfort levels, I have done some things in the past that may not have been in my puppies' best interests. When carrying a small puppy into new environments, he may ride quietly in my arms leading me to the mistaken impression that he is not concerned with the environment around him, letting others pet him and coo to him. But in reality, he doesn't feel like he has any escape if he's not comfortable. When walking with a puppy, using food to lure him to come closer is not the best approach either, but it is one I have used in the past. Has it gotten the puppy to come closer? Yes, often it does, but he is not coming closer because he feels comfortable. He is coming forward only for the food, and we often don't take the time to notice the difference.
This time I am doing things differently. I am not taking the puppies to places where I need to get someplace on a schedule. I am not taking them anyplace where I cannot just sit and watch with them if that's what they want to do. Socialization is not about my agenda and what I want them to be exposed to. Socialization is completely about each individual puppy's agenda and how he/she feels at each given moment. Only the puppy can tell us if we are on the right track. We must make each outing just about the puppy. Usually in public, the puppy must be on a leash. The leash prevents him from moving away and creating more space between him and something or someone that he is concerned about. We must be aware at every moment about what our puppy is telling us.
Jewell is bolder about jumping into new situations and will often barge right in to see what's going on. This could give me a false sense of security that she is comfortable with each situation. Once she's in that situation, however, she wants to take a quick survey of the situation and then she may want to back off and watch for a little bit before barging back in. Sometimes she stays for awhile and then decides it's time to leave and take a break. If she is greeting someone and then moves away from that person, it is not by accident. She is telling us that she needs a break. It is not fair to allow the person to continue to follow her, forcing her to interact. Nor is it fair for me to pull her back to the person with the leash, also forcing her to stay closer than she is comfortable. Instead, I make a comment to the person that she wants to go sniff over there now, and I go with her. My comment helps to appease the person a bit while we walk away. She may then decide to seek that person out again in a moment or two, or she may not. Either is fine.
Vegas, perhaps because he doesn't see much at all, is a bit more cautious. He is a follower and if I have other dogs along, he will follow them into the situation if they are comfortable with it. When he is alone, he is hesitant to walk into new situations where there is a surface change or if the color of the surface changes. I need to be able to take the time to sit down at those thresholds and let him decide to come with me on his own, rather than trying to force him to come with me. He is always so proud of himself when he figures it out! In a new environment, he prefers to watch from my arms at first. I don't allow anyone to interact with him at this time. I just hold him while he looks around and becomes familiar with the new smells and sensations. When he's ready, I put him on the ground and we just stand. I wait. When he is ready, he will begin to move around sniffing everything. At that point, he usually goes very quickly in this direction and that, and I follow him as long as it's safe to do so. I don't let him get into a situation that could be dangerous for him. I instruct people who want to greet him to kneel down to his level. I explain to them that he doesn't see very well, so they should wait for him to approach them. Once he approaches them, I ask them to pet him gently under the chin on his chest.
Jazzy was a super outgoing puppy. I never saw anything worry her at all. She was always very gung ho to greet anything and anyone in her environment! When she went through adolescence, she became very cautious and fearful of people and new situations. I knew that this can often happen with puppies of that age, but I still found myself getting concerned and wanting to step up or force socialization opportunities. I wanted to fix the issue. I had to make very conscious decisions to tell myself to just ride it low. I did not hide Jazzy away during this time, but I kept everything low key. I listened to her when she was overwhelmed and when necessary even removed her from certain situations. Now, at a year and a half, she is becoming her more outgoing, social self.