The buzzword today in dog training is Puppy Socialization – acquainting puppies to the “real world” before they are 16 weeks old through positive associations. Puppy owners had previously been told to wait until puppy shots were finished before taking them outside – which is equivalent to keeping a child housebound until he is 12 years old! Veterinary behaviorists now emphasize that the more positive exposure a puppy has before vaccines are completed, the more balanced and behaviorally fit the puppy will ultimately be as an adult dog – that first 16 weeks is critical.
What is socialization?
The term “socialization” has several definitions depending on the source, and there is no single standard definition either in dictionaries or in academic disciplines.
- Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “socialization” as “the process by which a human being beginning at infancy acquires the habits, beliefs, and accumulated knowledge of society through education and training for adult status.”
- Wikipedia says it is “the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, and ideologies providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within his or her own society.”
- Steven Lindsay in The Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training defines it as “learning to relate and communicate.”
- When dog owners speak about “socialization,” they generally mean they want their puppy to get along with people and other dogs.
- Dog trainers along with some certified animal behaviorists and veterinary behaviorists have a different definition of socialization, which is learning from experiences during the first 13 to 16 weeks after birth.
- The definition of “socialization” for other animal behaviorists is how an animal learns to interact socially with animals of its own species. For a dog, the period of primary socialization begins while he is still in the womb through chemical communication with the mother, interactions with her and his litter mates after he is born, and ends when he is about fourteen weeks old. Secondary socialization occurs during the same time window when an animal learns to interact with another species, i.e., dogs to humans, cats, birds, etc.
So, what does all this mean? It means that there is no single clear definition of terms, “socialization” means what you think it means.
Is there a difference between “socializing” and “socialization”?
Yes. “Socializing” is animal to animal, two animate living beings.
The terms “socializing,” “socialization,” and “habituating” or “habituation” have been blurred under the term “socialization” for such a long time that it’s difficult for many of us to separate them now. (“Habituating” is another term having several meanings depending on the source; but for our purposes here, it means getting used to sights, sounds, smells, sensations, locations, and objects.)
Today, we are using the term “socialization” colloquially even though our use is technically incorrect. When we speak of “socialization” with dogs, we tend to include both socializing and habituating – socializing where a dog learns how to become a dog, and habituation where he learns how to live in his environment. Primary socialization is when the puppy learns how to be a dog from other dogs. Secondary socialization is really associative learning (where the puppy makes a connection two events) when the puppy gets used to things in the environment, including humans and other animals.
To further muddy the waters, many people confuse “socialization” with “behavior modification.” Socialization is when the introduction such as hearing thunder, meeting another dog, seeing a person with a beard, etc. occurs while he is a puppy with emphasis on before the onset of the fear period (which is around eight weeks old) but lasts until 16 weeks. Behavior modification is his learning to adapt after this time.
Can a puppy learn after 16 weeks? Of course. However, socialization is much easier than behavior modification because we are working on a clean slate and do not have to modify what he has already learned.
Combining all the appropriate meanings, a decent (but not completely technically correct) definition of “socialization” is a puppy’s feeling comfortable around anything new before he is 16 weeks old.
How did the confusion come about?
John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller studied dog developmental periods in the 1950s and concluded that three to twelve weeks after birth is the critical socialization period.
Subsequent research centered on whether habituation to the environment needed to occur during the same period, and both the terms of “socializing” and “habituating” were used separately. At some point, the terms seemed to have morphed together so that “socialization” included habituation as well as socializing.
Then someone broadened the term “socialization” to include behavior modification.
Finally, the term was expanded even further to encompass inanimate objects, which is a totally inappropriate usage.
Dr. Ed Bailey, Professor Emeritus of Animal Behavior at the University of Guelph, puts it this way, “Walking a dog around Home Depot meeting lots of people is not socializing any more than, as one person wrote, ‘getting a dog used to a crate is socializing the dog to the crate.’ (I will forever feel deprived not ever witnessing the social interactions between a dog and his crate.)”
What is a (very brief) history of “socialization”?
John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller, in their 13-year study beginning in the 1950s and summarized in the classic book Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (1965), set out to answer the question of what influence, if any, heredity had on behavior. Although they wanted to understand human behavior, they said, “Anyone who wishes to understand a human behavior trait or hereditary disease can usually find the corresponding condition in dogs with very little effort.” They set up a series of experiments with dogs in a controlled setting, and their work forms the basis of developmental studies today.
Further research has reexamined the “critical periods” (which Scott and Fuller defined as specific time periods, i.e., Day X to Day Y) and changed them to “sensitive periods” because we have subsequently learned that puppies’ rates of development differ chronologically – a Great Dane physically, emotionally, and psychologically develops at a different rate than a Chihuahua. Additionally, the eggs in utero may be fertilized at different times, sometimes as much as two weeks apart, the result being that even though the puppies in the same litter may have an identical birth date, the developmental age of the neonates differs.
Clarence Pfaffenberger worked with the Guide Dogs for The Blind and later worked with Scott and Fuller. He applied their work to his own and came up with additional findings. His book The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior (1963) chronicles his research on the ideal guide dog puppy.
In the 1960s, the US Army tried to breed a dog that was genetically and behaviorally sound for use in the military. It was called The Bio-Sensor Project” but was later changed to “Superdog.” Dr. Michael W. Fox was a part of this project and developed a number of tactile exercises that he performed on puppies soon after birth which had profound effects as the dog matured. In his book Understanding Your Dog, he discussed his research on how these early environmental influences affect behavior.
Dr. Carmen Battaglia, although not a participant in the Bio-Sensor project, came up with a series of handling exercises based on Dr. Fox’s work which he now calls “Developing High Achievers,” formerly known as “Early Neurological Stimulation.” which involve temperature change, balance manipulation, and tactile stimulation.
In the 1970s, Dr. Ian Dunbar popularized puppy classes. In a properly run puppy class, puppies learn socialization skills from other puppies as well as canine skills for behaving in a human world.
How does socialization influence a dog’s temperament?
A dog’s ultimate temperament is determined by his genes and how he is raised – nature and nurture. How both breeders and owners raise the puppies for the first 16 weeks of their lives has a tremendous influence on whether the puppies will become well-adjusted and behaviorally fit adult dogs because puppies are, essentially, a blank canvas. Spending a small amount of time in giving puppies positive early learning experiences influences and impacts their behavior later in their lives.
The influencers on how puppies act as adults are:
- The temperament of the dam/mother, i.e., how the dam acts towards people, events, and other dogs
- How people interact with the puppy
- The age at which the puppy is separated from its mother and littermates
- How many people, places, events, sounds, sights, and locations the puppy has been introduced to before 16 weeks.
How does socialization affect temperament as an adult? If a puppy does not have proper socialization and habituation, it will never reach its potential and will likely:
- Be aggressive
- Be fearful of anything new, including animals, people, and events
- Be medically unsound – if a puppy is comfortable with his everyday environment, then he does not waste energy by being fearful or anxious. Long term anxiety or fear zaps energy and thus he has less resistance to fight off disease.
- Be shy or timid
- Have difficulty in relating or communicating with other dogs (reading body language, bite and play inhibition, recognizing hierarchical structures)
On the other hand, a puppy who has had proper socialization and habituation:
- Has better depth perception
- Has increased balance and body awareness
- Has increased connections between brain cells which provide a solid foundation to draw from when encountering new experiences
- Is comfortable in his everyday surroundings
- Is less likely to o Be anxious o Be ill o Be unruly o Chase animals o Fight o Have extreme reactions such as separation anxiety or aggression
- Learns to overcome frustration by developing self control and how to cope with problems rather than reacting fearfully or aggressively.
The term “socialization” has different definitions depending on who is using it. Marrying the technical with the colloquial, socialization is a puppy’s being comfortable around anything new before he is 16 weeks old – including humans, other animals, and the sights, smells, sounds, and locations of everyday life – and, yes, that does lump together “socialization” and “habituating.” Socialization includes three basic components:
- Primary socialization of dogs with dogs
- Secondary socialization of dogs with humans (and other animals)
- Habituation to objects and events in his environment
With proper socialization, a puppy:
- Becomes accustomed to his environment, even the things he has never seen, heard, or smelled before
- Develops communication skills
- Learns to ignore nonthreatening things
- Recognizes and interacts with the people and other animals he is living with
What we teach our puppies while they are puppies is not a knee-jerk reaction and does not always show up immediately but simmers around for months. Proper socialization is the foundation for social skills, confidence, behavioral stability, and self assurance. We need to socialize puppies properly as well as recognizing and avoiding stressors during puppyhood so that our puppies will grow up to be behaviorally fit dogs.
©2014 Caryl Wolff