You are about to bring home a wriggling ball of puppy energy – your new Schutzhund prospect! In addition to figuring out how to train your new puppy, you may be wondering: What do I need to do to socialize my new IPO puppy?
There is an enormous amount of information out there on socializing a dog (some good, some very misguided), but very little of it deals with socializing a working dog, specifically a Schutzhund dog. Our goals for our dogs differ from those who have pet dogs, and so our socialization needs will also differ. While there is so much that is rolled into the realm of “socialization” (including things like teaching your dog to tolerate having his feet, nails, ears, teeth, and body handled), this blog will tackle the goal of socialization, the role of the handler in socializing the dog, whether or not the dog should be pet by strangers or allowed to play with other dogs, how to select the right environments for your puppy, and the use of toy and food in the socialization process.
WHAT IS THE GOAL?
The goal of socialization is to have a confident, well-adjusted dog who is comfortable around people and in different environments. We want to safely expose the dog to his world in a way that builds his confidence, and that creates clarity about expected behavior around people, dogs, and different environments.
Contrary to popular trends in society, we do NOT need a dog that wants to play with every dog it sees, or be pet by every person it meets! We want dogs that are confident and comfortable wherever we take them, are able to ignore people and other dogs, and can focus on us while pushing us to work/play with them. We should always keep this goal in mind.
While we go about socialization, we must also remember that every puppy is different in its temperament, drive, personality, strengths, and weaknesses, with genetics playing a huge role in determining all of these. Thus, how we accomplish this goal above will vary based on each dog; there is no "one size fits all" approach. Each handler must do what's best for their particular dog, taking into account their puppy's particular temperament, strengths, and weaknesses.
ROLE OF THE HANDLER
Let’s first look at the role we play in this socialization process. As a handler, you have four main jobs in socialization: control, support, protect, engage.
Control –Control who interacts with your puppy, when, and how. Expose your puppy to environments that you can control as much as possible, so that you don’t have unpleasant surprises. Control your puppy (develop a solid “sit”!) so that he does not have the opportunity to engage in inappropriate behaviors (barking and growling at other dogs, lunging at people walking by, etc.). Control yourself and your emotions. If you are nervous, anxious, or fearful about something, then your puppy will be, too! Your body language follows your thoughts, so you must be calm, confident, and IN CONTROL.
Support – You are your puppy’s support system. Socialization not only teaches him about his larger world, but also teaches him that he can trust you. Don’t just throw him into a stressful situation and say “He needs to learn to handle this on his own.” Support him as he explores new environments, but do not coddle or “baby” him by any means. Be encouraging when he is brave enough to explore or investigate new things, and provide a confident presence if he wants to sit and watch people instead. Your puppy will take his cues from you, so be supportive, encouraging, calm, confident, and relaxed.
Protect – Protect your puppy. Protect him from diseases by not taking him to high risk areas (like dog parks). Protect him as best you can from unpleasant interactions with obnoxious people or dogs (again, avoid dog parks!). Protect him from people – adults and children alike – who can’t control themselves whenever they see a cute puppy. Protect him from that “helpful” club member who decides to “temperament test” or “train” your new puppy without asking – yes, these people do exist! These are the ones who make sudden noises to see if your puppy will spook, or stomp their feet or clap their hands to see if they can elicit a reaction, or pressure your dog (without asking you!!) by coming up close behind him to “mimic what happens in the BH”, etc. It is your job to protect him from such idiocy. Be your puppy’s advocate!
Engage – Teach your puppy to engage with you, no matter where you take him. Ideally, we want a dog that acclimates to a new location, then focuses on us and pushes us to work/play with him! But this is a process, and it starts in puppyhood. Socialization experiences should be structured in such a way that the puppy becomes comfortable in his environment, but also learns that we are a lot of fun and we do fun things together when we go places. For more on engagement, check out my blogs: Creating an Engaged Canine Partner, and Rules of Engagement.
DOES SOCIALIZING = PUBLIC PETTING?
Let’s clear up this common misconception. NO, socializing your Schutzhund prospect does not mean that he should be pet by everyone and anyone who asks. The end goal for our working dogs is to a) be comfortable around people, and b) ignore people. This is accomplished by not letting every random stranger invade his space to pet him.
Since your dog will see people out there in the great big world, here are a few guidelines for structuring interactions:
When it comes to people wanting to pet your dog, YOU HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO SAY NO. It is YOUR dog, and he is not there to fulfill other people’s wishes, wants, or desires.
When exposing the pup to people, start with calm, safe individuals who listen to your instructions. Pick someone who is comfortable with your breed and not afraid of dogs, and who can control themselves around puppies. Club members can be excellent for this, as long as they are not that “helpful” club member mentioned previously!
Have the person be relaxed and neutral. They should not obsess over the puppy, or hyperfocus on him, or act in any way that will make him overly excited or suspicious. You want the person to just ignore the puppy and talk calmly with you.
Don’t force the dog to interact. If he wants to approach and engage the person happily, that’s fine. But if the puppy wants to sit and observe the person or ignore them, then that’s fine too. The person should remain neutral and not force themselves on the dog. Nor should the dog be forced to meet them or be lured to them through food. If the dog doesn’t want to interact, then don’t make him. It is perfectly acceptable in IPO – and even desirable – to have a dog that is neutral and just ignores people.
Adjust the social interactions based on what you see in your dog. Have a confident, outgoing, social puppy? Then learning to control himself around people is more important than encouraging him to do what he already wants to do – greet everyone! Have a dog that is more reserved, or one that is even a little fearful? Then being around neutral people who won’t invade this dog’s space is extremely important. He needs to learn that people aren’t going to mess with him, so he can just sit next to you and relax in their presence.
“No, we’re training right now” is a great phrase to keep people from petting your puppy. This has been my go-to phrase whenever people have asked to pet my dogs and I don’t want them to. Generally, most people respect the fact that you are training your dog. If people still don’t listen, become more forceful. Don’t be afraid to be rude; it’s your dog, not theirs, and your job is to protect him.
Make sure any interactions with people are positive ones that build the dog’s confidence, and move you toward the goal of having a dog that can confidently and comfortably be neutral around people.
DOES SOCIALIZING = PLAYING WITH OTHER DOGS?
This is another common misconception. NO, socialization does not mean your dog has to meet, like, and play with every dog it sees. In fact, that is completely counterproductive to what we need in Schutzhund. For our purposes, we need a dog that a) is confident and comfortable around other dogs, and b) can ignore and be completely neutral to other dogs. This neutrality is tested in the BH, and in every subsequent trial during obedience. We do not want our dogs dragging us over to the dog next to it as we check in for obedience, or breaking away from us on the field to “go play” with the dog on the long down. Instead, we want our dogs to ignore them, and focus on us.
Here are a few tips regarding dog-dog interactions:
Decide if you want your dog to play with other dogs. Some handlers let certain dogs play together, others don’t. Decide what you want for your lifestyle, and for your particular dog.
If you want your dog to play, let him play with safe, trusted dogs. These are dogs who get along well with your puppy, who don’t continually try to bully him or dominate him, who won’t go overboard if they need to put him in his place, and who are under good verbal control. Supervise their time together, keep it brief, and keep it controlled. It should not be an unsupervised "free for all".
Don’t put “playing with other dogs” ahead of your personal time spent training and engaging with your pup. Some people are tempted to just let their pup run with other dogs to burn off energy. Instead, capitalize on that energy and channel it into play time and training time, not “free dog play” time. Reserve the best of your dog’s energy and focus for yourself.
Avoid dog parks. This creates situations where you have no control and cannot protect your puppy from negative interactions. This can cause dog reactivity, an unnatural fixation on other dogs, and problems in the dog-handler relationship.
Avoid on-leash greetings. Just say “no” when someone asks if their dog can meet yours, and be firm and forceful. You know nothing about their dog or their ability to read and handle their dog. Plus, your puppy does not need to meet every strange dog and “make new friends.”
Use "sit" to your advantage. Putting your puppy into a “sit” when you see other dogs (or unusual or obnoxious people) on your outings can give you more control. Sit your puppy next to you and off to the side to let the other person walk by, keeping yourself between the puppy and their dog. Do not give your puppy the opportunity to lunge, bark, or otherwise engage the strange dog. Reward the appropriate behavior (sitting quietly and looking at you). We want to teach our dogs to look to us and ignore the other dog.
SELECTING THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT
The Schutzhund puppy should be exposed to a variety of environments within the normal scope of life, but work up to it slowly. Don’t just drag him to a busy fair or Schutzhund event and plop him in the middle of it! Here are a few pointers on selecting the appropriate environments for your puppy.
Start with low-key environments that you can control. Build up to more exciting or stressful environments slowly as the puppy becomes more confident, more mature, and has the basics of “sit” and “down” (excellent ‘control’ commands for when the puppy sees something that excites him or makes him nervous).
Select safe environments. Avoid dog parks, areas known for people letting their dogs run off-leash, busy streets, etc. Don’t put your impressionable puppy in an environment that puts him at risk of physical injury or negative single-event learning.
Always have an escape route for your puppy, in case he gets overwhelmed or something changes to make the environment less safe. If the puppy is continually trying to use the escape route, then this environment is too much for him at this time.
If the environment changes unexpectedly, leave. This is crucial if the environment changes in a way where you can no longer control potential interactions with people or other dogs (such as someone letting their dogs loose to run off-leash).
Pick environments needed for your particular lifestyle and for the dog’s competition future. This includes environments your dog will see just by living with you, such as your house, neighborhood, RV, etc., as well as places like the Schutzhund field, vet office, kennel, etc. Customize this to your lifestyle and your needs, but always work to the puppy’s maturity level.
Don’t overwhelm the puppy with people, noises, and other stimuli. You want the dog to be confident and composed, not to go ballistic or engage in counterproductive behaviors (such as erupting into a frenzy of barking whenever he sees another dog) in every new environment. Increase the level of stimuli gradually.
Confidence is the goal. The dog should leave each environment more confident than when he arrived. The dog should always “win”.
USE OF TOY AND FOOD
By all means, bring toys and food with you, but use them wisely. Here are a few tips for using food and/or toy during socialization expeditions:
Do not use food or toys to mask behavior. This happens when toy or food is used repeatedly to “distract” a dog from the environment on hand, or used to “make” a dog overcome its fear. When the toy or food is gone, the dog’s insecurity can remain, and he still does not know how to handle it (such as the puppy who takes food from the "scary" stranger, but when the food is gone, he still does not know how to cope with his fear of this person!). You also risk creating negative associations with the toy or food if the dog is extremely stressed or fearful.
Be aware of the emotional state you are rewarding. Are you rewarding fear or anxiety, or confidence? Are you rewarding a stress response and mistaking it for “drive”? By constantly rewarding a dog in a particular emotional state, you create a dog that can associate a particular environment with that emotional state (As an example, think of the emotional state the dog connects with the Schutzhund field, especially once helper work starts!).
Be aware of the behavior you are rewarding. Don’t accidentally reward fearful or inappropriate behavior. For example, distracting a barking, lunging dog by shoving a toy or food in its face can inadvertently reward not only that emotional state, but also that behavior. Better to direct the dog to a sit, and then reward the sit.
Food and toy can be good barometers for stress level. If a dog that is normally food-driven or toy-driven is not taking food or toy in a new environment, he may be too stressed or too distracted. This tells you that you need to decrease the stress level for the dog, perhaps by moving further away from the stressor or distraction.
Food and toy are best used when the dog opts in or engages with you. This is when the dog has acclimated to its environment, and then feels comfortable enough to engage with you and focus on you. This is the behavior we want to reward and encourage!
As you go about socializing your puppy, keep the end goal in mind of having a confident and clear dog who will be comfortable enough with the world around him to focus on you and work with you in it. And always remember: this is YOUR dog, and you are his advocate. Do what’s right for YOUR particular dog.
Below are a few helpful articles with more information on socializing working dogs:
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