Socialization has become something of a hot topic in the dog-loving community–which is a wonderful thing. We all want our dogs to be emotionally stable, calm, confident, and sociable. And those are excellent goals! Any time a concept makes its way into popular culture, however, a lot gets lost in translation. Our ideas of what a concept means and how to apply it can get mixed up and muddied, and our training suffers as a result.
So let’s first talk about what socialization is and is not. In the United States, the pet-loving population feels an almost a manic need to “socialize” adult dogs as much as possible. We’re putting dogs in playgroups, taking them to dog parks, and sending them off to dog daycare. We’re taking them everywhere with us – to restaurants, to farmer’s markets, to errands around town – so they can interact with lots of people. And all of that stuff could potentially be great activities for some dogs!
But here’s the thing: none of that – and I mean literally none of it – is socialization.
I understand where the confusion lies. When we talk about getting together with our friends, we say that we are socializing with them. If we spend too much time inside our house, we might say, “Ugh, I need to get out and socialize more.” Those are perfectly accurate uses of the word “socialize,” because in colloquial English when we’re referring to humans interacting for humans in a leisurely fashion, that’s the word we use.
But when we’re talking about canine development and behavior, “socialization” has an entirely different meaning. We aren’t using colloquial English then; we’re using scientific terminology. The definition of socialization with regard to canine behavior refers specifically to a learning process that occurs during a specific, extremely limited time in their developmental period: the critical socialization period. This period lasts from roughly 4-12 weeks of age (with some wiggle room on either end), and during this time their brain is undergoing some fascinating and not yet perfectly understood changes. Their experiences during this time in their life heavily influences their personality and worldview for the rest of their life. It’s like wet concrete: what happens to that concrete before it hardens tends to last. We’ll talk about this more in a bit.
For now, the bottom line is that it is literally, physically impossible to socialize an adult dog, because socialization only occurs during their critical socialization period when they are puppies.
So why does this matter? Aren’t we being a little bit hair-splitty to quibble over definitions? Isn’t this all a matter of semantics? Not at all. Because our perception of what our dogs need is influenced heavily by the language we use.
When we talk about socializing adult dogs, we are anthropomorphizing–in other words, we’re attributing human needs, abilities, and behaviors to dogs. That mindset leads us to then believe that all dogs need to interact with lots of dogs and lots of people. And that belief then leads us to place dogs in all of these intense (and, often, dense) social situations. Language affects beliefs, and beliefs affect our behavior.
But here’s the thing: contrary to popular belief, dogs are not pack animals. This topic is huge, there’s a ton of research behind it, and we don’t have time to go into more depth about it in this article. So for now, just take my word for it. Dogs aren’t pack animals. As such, their sociability varies widely among individuals. Not all dogs are extremely dog-social. And not all dogs are extremely human-social. So when we try to force dogs to be dog-social and/or human-social, we run an extremely high risk of causing more harm than good for that animal.
That is not to say that we can’t do anything to improve their sociability! To an extent, we can! But how we are doing that has nothing to do with socialization. Through training we can work on changing the way they feel about dogs, humans, or whatever else they are currently uncomfortable with, and we can teach them skills about how to navigate situations that are currently difficult for them. But that’s training, not socialization. And how we go about training them has massive implications for their physical, mental, and behavioral health. If we want to reach our training goals while doing so in an ethical way which meets our dogs’ needs and protects their whole well-being, our training approach needs to be much more precise than simply exposing them to as many dogs and humans as possible.
How we go about doing this lies beyond the extent of a blog post. This is the kind of stuff we teach in our workshops, and we would love to teach you more about this in a workshop in your area! For now, though, this is a good general guideline to determine whether or not an adult dog is a good candidate for playgroups, dog daycares, dog parks, or public outings: does the dog’s body language indicate that they are either relaxed or in a state of happy excitement? Is the dog willingly engaging with the other dogs or people? Is the dog soliciting play from other dogs? Or, at the very least, are they engaging in parallel play? Is the dog soliciting attention from the people? Or, at the very least, is the dog relaxing near the people?
If the answer is yes, great! Keep doing what you’re doing. If not, hire a behavior professional who is well-educated in the behavior sciences and has made a commitment to follow the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) code of ethics set forth by the legitimate certifying bodies within our profession. They can help you to determine whether we can or should do something to improve that individual dog’s sociability with dogs, humans, or other animals. If you work with a shelter or a rescue group, First Train Home is happy to either help your organization directly or refer you to a qualified professional in your area.