She stood atop of the massive metal bleachers, her puppy triumphantly standing on one of the rows, as she called down to me.
“Aren’t you going to socialize your puppy?” she asked.
“I’m good.” I said with a smile. “I’m going to work on engagement down here.”
She looked perplexed. As if I had just spoken a foreign language, and then she continued working her dog in and out of the metal rows, offering plenty of treats as the two moved up and down the aisles together.
Occasionally, the puppy lost his footing. At times, he’d slip and slide and I’d see a ripple of fear pulse through his body. But he always recovered. Always followed. And always moved along side of his owner (albeit at times with a bit of coaxing) as she navigated her way up and down the shiny metal surfaces.
When she became confident in her puppy’s “socialization”, she made her way down the metal steps and met me on the grass.
It was then, she began her schooling.
If you know me, you know I’m not one for unsolicited training advice. But she was my friend, so I listened as she spoke, our friendship quelling my typical irritation.
“You know Meagan,” she said as she walked my way, “you need to expose your dog more – he’s going to develop fears. You are in a critical socialization period.”
“I’m good.” I asserted again. “I’m just going to work some fun engagement and focus exercises down here.” She pleaded with her eyes, and then gave me an disapproving grimace, to which I clarified, “it’s just that we are hyper focused on this right now. But thanks for the input.”
She resigned her argument, making her way to her SUV to load the puppy up, giving him plenty of praise and affection for working so hard to conquer the obstacle.
I didn’t see her drive away as baby Edge, my 4 month old (at the time) Belgian Malinois, and I quickly became immersed in a game of engagement, focus and strategic play.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. And you may decide we can’t be friends anymore. But hopefully, you’ll hear me out when I say it….
I don’t socialize my dogs.
I know. Big gasps and sighs, and lots of folks downright disgusted that I say that.
But here’s the story. I’ve raised over A HUNDRED puppies in my career. Don’t want to toot my own horn, but raising puppies confidently is something that I’m D*** good at (excuse the language….or asterisks….but I’m passionate about this point). Ask anyone who has seen it….it’s kind of a speciality.
And every time I hear stories about how important socialization is, or how critical exposure is, I just shake my head and quiet my frustration because I believe strongly that it SIMPLY….ISN’T…TRUE.
I don’t socialize puppies…..wait, that’s a lie.
I socialized my first puppy Koby extensively. And if you haven’t heard me tell the story, or haven’t followed along on the blog much, I’ll give you a very quick backstory.
Koby was my first puppy back when I was in college and well before I knew any better. He came to me during the “Rainbows and Butterflies” time in my life, where I swore love was all you needed to change the world.
He was extensively socialized under the direction and supervision of our trainers from the time he was 10 weeks old all the way up until he bit someone in the face.
We took him everywhere – exposed him to other dogs, enrolled him in puppy socialization classes, let him meet all kinds of people and brought him everywhere we were able to when he was just a young pup.
And while we were working feverishly to prevent fears and bad behaviors from developing, many very severe issues began overtaking our well socialized pup, including (but not limited to) separation anxiety, very serious human aggression and reactivity towards other dogs.
So tell me again how socialization prevents fear?
These days, I don’t socialize my puppies. Well, not in the traditional sense. I take my puppies places often. But I don’t let people pet them. I don’t let them play with other dogs. I don’t “expose” them to different surfaces and make them climb all over anything and everything in order to “prevent fear”.
I don’t do any of that. And yet, I consistently raise very confident and driven dogs. And not only that, I regularly turn very timid puppies or puppies with severe issues (ahem….Shank) around and boost their confidence so that they actually work….and work well!
How is that even possible?
Here are the top 3 reasons I don’t socialize young dogs.
Reason #1 : Genetics Matter
Listen. No one really talks about this. But for those of us with working dogs or service dogs, we know without a doubt that genetics play a major role in our dog’s behavior. LIKE MAJOR.
To my point, I have two dogs that are closely related. Both are anti social with strangers. The older one came to work with me every day at a very busy doggy daycare and got tons of exposure. The other got none. Both lack social graces with strangers.
I have another dog from different lines who came to me at 7 weeks old. And this puppy is a social butterfly. Absolutely perfect with other dogs, people and kids and totally trustworthy with everyone he meets. But socialization didn’t make him that way. He was NEVER socialized. That’s just how he is.
Don’t believe me? Here’s another example. I raised a dog from a pup who, at 2 years old decided she didn’t like female dogs. Like REALLY didn’t like them. Her daughter was raised by someone else. And she was a dog park dog – extensively socialized. Until she hit 2 years old, at which point she decided she didn’t like female dogs. Still think it is a coincidence? What if I told you that within that line, aggression between females consistently happens right around maturity? And for those of you arguing that it’s just a female thing and females just don’t typically get along, I’m here to tell you I have plenty of females that do (and yes, they are the same breed – just different lines).
And what about this one? My puppy is LOUD, barks like crazy and went through a resource guarding phase when he was young. And so did his brother. And so did his other brother. And their other brother did too. All raised in different homes, with different people and different rules. All with the same behavior. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
A LOT of social issues (or lack thereof) are genetically inherited. Social dogs are social dogs. It’s the anti-social ones you need to work on (if that’s your goal).
Reason #2 : It’s Counter-Productive to Engagement
Check the blog lately. I’ve been hitting engagement and focus hard. And since it’s at the forefront of my brain, I’m going to hit it again.
Think about it. If teach my puppy that every time we are in public he gets all sorts of affection and attention from every person he sees, and if I teach my puppy that every dog is a playmate, why would he want to engage with me? In fact, in most exchanges, unless you are really good at this socialization thing, you simply become the person that is holding your dog back from all of the fun things in the world.
When our dogs regularly get rewarded by their environment, they learn to hold value in many things that AREN’T YOU. And when they do that, those things are built to compete DIRECTLY with you for your dog’s attention.
People aren’t as distracting if they never reward my dog. And if I’m the only one playing with and treating my dog, I’m going to be the most valuable thing in his environment. People and other dogs become background noise. They are just there….moving….but never engaging or threatening to steal my thunder.
Reason #3 You can do more harm than good
So remember when I told you that story about the bleachers? Yeah…well, I saw that dog the other day, and guess who is afraid of the bleachers? I’ll give you a hint…it isn’t puppy Edge who is now 10 months old and afraid to climb on nothing (despite never being exposed). It’s the dog that was “socialized”.
Puppies are young and impressionable. And sometimes, drawing focus to scary things and “pushing” the issue can actually make those scary things even more scary.
Accidents happen, people step on young puppy’s toes, other dogs get too rough and puppies stumble and fall off of things. And at a young and tender age, they are quite impressionable. So extensive socialization can very easily end up doing more harm than good.
So what do I do?
Ok. So I don’t lock my puppies up and shield them from the world. I don’t keep them cooped up in the house and wrapped in bubble wrap. And I don’t keep them from climbing on different surfaces. But if I’m going to expose them to different surfaces, textures and obstacles, I do it at home, in my yard where my puppy can move and explore at his own pace. This way, I’m not drawing any unneeded attention to the scary stuff, and I’m not forcing the issue. And my puppy is learning in an environment that is familiar. We can explore obstacles out and about once my puppy has had a chance to grow up a bit.
And I do “Socialize” my puppies. Just not in the traditional sense. Instead, I take my puppies places and focus my attention on fun engagement and focus games, and teaching the mechanics of strategic gameplay.
When we are out and about, we simply PLAY….
…… And as a result, the world becomes background noise….
…… And as a result, my puppies learn to focus on me…..
…… And as a result, nothing scary happens and my puppy leaves every encounter with even more confidence than he began with.
And listen – I never push the issue. I don’t get my puppies out to new places every day. I don’t push young puppies into new environments. I want them to grow and toughen a bit. I want them to build their relationship and trust in me, and I want to spend time building their drive and engagement so that they know the games before I start playing them in public.
Plainly stated, my young dogs learn FIRST that I’ve ALWAYS got their back. That I will ALWAYS keep them safe and that I won’t push them into a situation they aren’t ready for. It’s my job to keep them safe and that’s a job I take very seriously.
And I want my young dogs to learn that I am REALLY FUN.
If I’m successful in teaching those two lessons, the world becomes a far less scary place and I’ll end up with a confident dog every…single…time.
Now you may still be skeptical. And if I haven’t convinced you yet, let me leave you with one final story.
Crash is a Malinois who came to me as a young puppy – his owners having aspirations of him becoming a police dog.
The first day with me, he cowered and peed himself and wouldn’t come near me – just the sound of my (very loud) voice was too scary for this little guy. As time passed, Crash stayed terrified of the world. Instead of playing with toys, he would avoid them, certain they would come to life and attack him when he wasn’t looking. And one evening at training, I uncovered his intense fear of PVC as I picked up a piece that was laying on the field.
Crash’s fears were so intense as a young pup that I swore he would never work.
But instead of pursuing the traditional socialization techniques to get Crash over his fears, I simply let him grow up. I just let him be a dog. If I was going to have to resort to training to get him over his insecurities, I wanted him to be mature enough to handle it.
And I’ll be honest – I thought I was going to have some serious work to do. But that work wouldn’t come until he grew up and matured a bit more.
But Crash surprised me.
He is now 10 months old and I just finally put him back into training. My little terrified puppy who couldn’t even go near PVC laying on the ground, worked like he had been doing it all of his life. No fear at all. And this was his first session back with ZERO socialization or exposure efforts in between….wait, not true….I took him to the beach once. But otherwise, he just hung around the house, went for walks around the neighborhood, and simply grew up.
I am confident that if I would have socialized Crash, or tried to push the issue of getting him over his insecurities at all, regardless of how confident I am in my abilities, he would have crumbled and I would be faced with the task not of training a dog for work, but instead rehoming a chicken of a dog who was afraid of his own shadow.
Guys, I don’t socialize my dogs. At least not in the traditional sense. And if I did have social issues to overcome, I’d for sure do it when my puppy was older and could take it.
Instead, my focus is on teaching engagement. Teaching my puppy that I am the BEST thing in his world, and building his work ethic so that the world in essence becomes background noise. And I spend my days more than anything, teaching my dog that I’ve got his back. And that he can trust me. And that I am fun.
So judge away. And disagree. It’s ok. I’ve got thick skin.
But remember, (and I’m just going to leave you with this final thought right here) the only puppy I ever REALLY socialized was Koby….the dog that developed human aggression, dog aggression and severe anxiety.
Just let that sink in….
And I really hope we can still be friends, even if we agree to disagree. 😉