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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Socialization...The Single Most Important Factor in Having a Great Pet 

by Lisa Lafferty

...This is the most important thing you will ever learn about what to do with your dog, especially if you live in an urban or suburban area. It's not just puppy parties and meeting people.  Fortunately it's ridiculously simple, if you know how to do it.  Read this article and discover just how easy it is to prepare your dog for a lifetime of calm and easy reactions to the world.  Whether you have a brand new pup, or an older dog, this article is for you.  There is no age where socialization cannot help...

The Human Analogy—A Terribly Sad Story

Imagine a very poor man and a woman (let’s call them John and Jane) that live on the ancestral homestead in a rural setting.  They farm their land, raise their own livestock, and occasionally go into town for supplies.  They don’t have electricity so they can’t watch television.  Their home is far from town and they don’t like visitors. 

John and Jane have a baby called Jimmy.  Jimmy is born at home and spends his first two years only with his parents.  No visitors come to call, and Jane stays home with the baby when John goes into town.  Because there are no other children, Jimmy entertains himself by playing alone or interacting with his parents.  As Jimmy grows older, his parents decide that he mustn't be allowed to go to school.  Jimmy spends most of his days helping his parents around the farm and only occasionally goes to town.  While there, Jimmy is required to stay right with his parents, and to be “seen but not heard.”  He sees other people and is curious, but is not allowed to interact with them.  His parents tell him that he must always be careful of any strangers, and Jimmy is taught to be afraid of speaking to anyone other than his parents. 

Because they don’t have a television, and also because the town where they shop is very small, Jimmy isn’t aware of many ordinary items that are present in other environments.  He’s never seen a blender, never walked in the shadow of a large building, never learned to cross a street using a traffic signal.  He’s never heard the noise of a big city and he’s never been to a party.  He’s never had to meet someone and make a friend.  He’s never even been allowed to shake someone’s hand and say hello. 

Then disaster strikes.  Jimmy’s parents are struck down by an illness and die when he is 12 years old.  Eventually someone comes by the homestead and finds Jimmy alone and frightened and he goes into foster care in downtown Chicago. 

Immediately it is obvious that there is something wrong with Jimmy.  He is terrified and uneasy in the new home, startled by normal household noises and unable to sleep well, waking as every car passes the house.  His new foster parents find him strange, often quite rude.  He is unable to process and react to the simple social functions of meeting new people.  He often withdraws into silence when confronted with social situations.  When Jimmy’s foster parents try to force him to participate, he often reacts with violence, striking out physically or verbally.  Although he is interested in interacting with people, and often very excited to do so, usually those interactions do not go well and he offends his new acquaintances with his mannerisms.  He entertains himself in bizarre ways, often damaging items in the new home or behaving in a way that is difficult for his new parents to accept. 

People say that Jimmy must have been abused, and mistake his fear reactions to new things for a learned reaction to being hit, kicked or beaten.   People also speculate that Jimmy was born with a mental defect or illness. 

Jimmy’s story is a sad one, and you might be wondering what on earth it has to do with your dog.  But Jimmy’s story parallels almost EXACTLY what happens to many dogs on a daily basis all over the planet.  It is easy to see that Jimmy’s upbringing did not adequately prepare him for a normal life.  If Jimmy were a real kid, we would be horrified to hear about his upbringing.  

Jimmy’s story was written to nearly exactly parallel the life of a suburban or rural dog.  Little or no social skills, no preparation for the “real world,” and then we are all collectively surprised when the dog is not a model citizen.

The Unintentional Upbringing of a Fearful Puppy OR, Training Your Dog to Freak Out at Everyday Stuff

  1. Dog is kept mostly in the house and the backyard while young or in early stages of living with the family, if he's older when you get him.  Rarely taken for walks because he plays and relieves himself in the backyard.  This is a big problem with suburban dogs and fenced backyards, and country dogs that have the whole outdoors to run and play.  Urban dogs with no backyard usually get some socialization by default because owners must take them for walks to relieve themselves.

  2. Little to no experience with the "big world," and show fear responses when taken out.  Traffic, people, moving objects, fire hydrants, etc.  If the dog is taken out for walks, often they do not get to explore the things that are new to them, and their brains file these items under "things to be worried about." 

  3. Puppy has developed a deep bond with the owner and isn't interested in greeting new people, and owner forces puppy to tolerate handling by strangers.  Socialization isn't about making the puppy love everyone.  It's about helping the puppy not to be FEARFUL of strangers and to feel at ease around new people.

  4. When the dog's owner notices a fear reaction, the owner will quite often, out of sheer human nature, try to reassure the dog in such a way that the dog perceives that the owner is also fearful and worried about the item.  "Hey, puppy, it's OK!" combined with a "concerned face" is all it takes to teach the puppy that the item is actually something to be feared.

  5. When the owner tries to "force" the puppy to see that the item is not to be feared by dragging the puppy up to it or pointing the item out, the puppy will often perceive that the owner is saying, "Look at this!  It might eat you or rip your legs off!  Pay special attention to this, it's dangerous!"  Trust me, it's true.  No matter what YOU think you are telling the puppy, you have to be careful about pointing stuff out!

Often, dogs are brought into homes and kept there almost exclusively from the time they are 7 weeks of age.  They rarely get out into the world and they almost never have the chance to interact with people outside the immediate circle of family and friends of the family.  If they are lucky they get to play occasionally with other dogs, but all too often the only interaction is briefly passing by on a lead.  A suburban or rural dog’s world consists chiefly of the interior of a house and the backyard, with a few human acquaintances.  Urban dogs, because of their daily walks in a city environment, usually get socialized pretty well even if their owners never actually intended for it to happen.  Just walking around twice a day in a city environment allows the dog to see a LOT.  However, urban dogs still need help in learning how to act with people and other dogs. 


Every animal on the planet is programmed to be able to accept new things easily during its young life.  The period of time varies, but it is present in every mammal.  Young dogs can easily accept new things from the time they are babies until reaching maturity.  The window of opportunity is wide open at two weeks of age, but then starts swinging shut until it ALMOST closes at around a year of age.  It never totally closes, but the gap is not very wide after the critical period of learning!  It is wise to use the young life of a dog to introduce new things. 

If you have an older dog, do not despair!  Dogs are very adaptive and resilient, especially when they land in a loving and committed home.  Even feral older dogs can and do make good pets with the right exposure to their new environment.  When I lived in Newfoundland, we often took feral dogs that were born and raised in the Labrador dump (having never been handled by or had any positive dealings with people) that turned into great pets.  Dogs are genetically a DOMESTIC, TAME animal--all it takes is some thoughtful work to bring out their true nature. 

After the critical period of learning is over, dogs are programmed to be “neo-phobic,” or afraid of new things.  This instinctual trait is compounded by the fact that dogs do not generalize well.  So just because your dog has seen a bulldozer and is OK with it does not mean the dog is OK with all construction equipment. 

So, what does all this have to do with your pet?  Basically, it means that you can create a really GOOD pet by showing your dog everything possible, in a pleasant way, during its young life.  You can easily create a fearful, dangerous dog by not socializing the animal.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people adopt a shelter or rescue dog, or an older dog from a breeder, and interpret an under-socialized dog's reaction as a sign he has been abused.  An under-socialized dog will ALWAYS duck his head when you reach for him.  It's a natural instinct to duck away when things suddenly appear above his head, whether it be a hand or a broomstick when you start to sweep the floor.  Under-socialized dogs cower when they meet people who are new.  If a dog has little to no experience with men, he will cower or behave defensively around men, or children, or women, or people wearing hats, or any other "different" kind of person (this includes dogs that have not seen people of different races--your dog isn't racist, just inexperienced). 

As I said before, lots of owners will see the dog reacting in this way and go around telling people "he must have been terribly abused, I think he was hit with a stick, you should see him when we go to sweep the floor," or "I am sure he was beaten, he ducks every time we have to grab him."  It does the dog NO GOOD to have this attitude.  Instead, you should be telling people, "don't mind him ducking away, he's not very experienced with people, we are training him."  Or, "Honey, let's sweep the floor a little and let the dog see what we are doing, he thinks that is broom is evil incarnate!  Pretty obvious he's hardly seen anything like this!"  Your attitude and mental state will DEFINITELY affect the way the dog learns.  Don't throw him a pity party or baby him because you think he's been abused.  Rather, show him that the things he's worried about are totally safe, by giving him safe experiences while you maintain an empathetic, healthy attitude about it. 

How to Socialize

USE CAUTION.  Your goal is to give the puppy a PLEASANT EXPERIENCE.  Do not allow your puppy to become overwhelmed.  Short (5 minutes or less), laid-back exposures are best.

1)       Get yourself to a friendly obedience class!  Group classes are a GODSEND for socialization as they allow lots of contact with people and dogs and everything along the way to the class.

2)       Walk your dog in urban and suburban environments.  Go to the strip mall.  Hang out in the Wal-Mart parking lot letting people greet and pet your pup.  Let your dog see car traffic and all kinds of other “city stuff.”  Find a bench to sit on with your puppy and hang out.  For some reason, bench-sitting is better than socialization-walking in the early stages of work.  I think that when the dog does not have to concentrate of walking and following along, he can relax more and just absorb his environment.

3)       Take your dog with you everywhere you go, whenever possible.  Allow your puppy to see and experience many and various environments.  Feed your puppy delicious treats in new places.  Give people treats to give your puppy when they greet him.  Your attitude and goal should be, "Engage puppy with ME, and show him others are safe," not, "LOVE EVERYBODY, PUPPY!"

4)       Allow your puppy to meet and greet many and various types of people.  It is extremely important that your puppy meet and learn about all ages of children, from babies to teenagers.  Do not think that your dog “likes kids” if he gets along with your children.  He needs much more than that.  Sit nearby a playground.  Find a bench near a bus stop in the morning.  Do not allow kids to rush or manhandle your dog, and THIS INCLUDES YOUR OWN KIDS.  Use treats/allow kids to treat the dog when they meet him.

5)       Your demeanor is extremely important when socializing your puppy.  Present a calm, blasé attitude toward everything.  Do NOT act “jumpy” or attempt to reassure the puppy by saying, “it’s OK, sweetie” and petting him if he gets scared.  If your puppy get startled, then looks up at you and you are looking at him with a concerned look, he will think that there is a very valid reason to be frightened.  Even if you FEEL concerned, PRETEND you are calm.  Look at your watch, fiddle with your hair, dig around in your purse, get out your wallet or untie and retie your shoe, read a bulletin board, whatever!  Do something that shows the puppy “nothing is wrong.”  Don’t freak out, or your puppy will, too!  Also, if you pet him, he might interpret that as PRAISE for how he is behaving.

6)       Do not “point out” things that you want your puppy to see.  Often dogs seem to interpret this as a warning!  For example, there’s a funny looking clown at the soccer game.  The puppy is interested but a bit wary.  Don’t drag the puppy over there and then point at the clown and say “go see!”  To the puppy, this probably means, “Have a look at this, remember this one in the future, very scary and dangerous clown!”  Imagine how it might feel if someone forced you to go near something you were frightened of!  How would you feel if you were scared of a tame lion, and someone manhandled you into a full Nelson and then walked you over to the lion and allowed it to sniff and lick you?  I doubt you would feel better about lions.  You might even file the experience away as PROOF of your fear, and remember it forever.  Get the picture?  Instead, get “casually close” to the thing without paying particular attention to it, feeding the puppy at the same time.  Keep your back to the thing, or side-on, never straight on.  Bench-sitting is your best friend for stuff like this.  Fire hydrant resembles a dog-eating dwarf that might jump your puppy at any time?  Sit down nearby and just chill.  Your puppy will figure it out.

7)       If your puppy must be groomed by a professional on a regular basis, get the pup to the groomer you plan to use and allow the puppy to have several pleasant experiences there.

8)       End socialization sessions prior to seeing stress signals. 

Signs of Stress

Most people can identify major fear signals such as bolting, yelping, or crouching down, but will often say the dog is “fine” when in reality the dog is showing many signs of stress.  Human example...I don’t have to scream in fear and try to run away to be very, very afraid and to show signs of that fear.  Screaming and running away are END STAGE fear behaviors. Think about all the ways a person can look or sound scared before they actually get to the point of screaming or running.  In dogs, bolting, yelping, or crouching are also usually end-stage fear behaviors.  By the time the dog actually does those things, he has usually shown many different signs that such a fearful reaction is coming. 

A good way to be able to read your dog well is to watch your dog at home when they are very relaxed and content.  Particularly study their FACE, the area around their lips and eyes.  Develop an intimate knowledge of how your dog looks and acts when he is relaxed, and you will be able to see smaller signs of stress.

  • Panting

  • Lip Licking

  • Shifty Eyes/Glancing around a lot

  • Wrinkled lips/muzzle

  • Wrinkled/tense forehead

  • Change in ear position/shifty ears (does not have to be the overt “ears back” of fear).  Can be simply a CHANGE.

  • Change in tail position (higher, lower, tenser).

  • Change in posture (higher, tippytoe, tenser, lower, tentative)

  • Change in Pace (suddenly pulling hard on lead, slowing way down, etc)

  • Over-Excitability or Lethargy (if your puppy is getting hyper, time to quit.  Same if the puppy is getting floppy.  If you see either of these things, remember that next time you need to stop before it gets to this point)

  • Avoidance (can be as subtle as not looking at something or only glancing quickly, or as obvious as actively trying to get away)

  • Redirected Behavior such as scratching, sniffing a lot, attention seeking behaviors, etc.  Lots of dogs will see something unfamiliar and approach it while sniffing, appearing to ignore the item.  Others will sit down and scratch, or purposely pay attention to something else in the environment (like you, or something off in the distance, etc).

If you see some of these signs of stress, first of all BE CALM.  Don’t freak out yourself!  Look around the environment and see if there’s some way you can reduce the intensity of the environment.  If you are at a soccer game and there are loudspeakers and shouting players and a car or two driving in the background and five kids surrounding your dog, try to take one or more of those things “out of commission.”  Maybe ask the kids to back off, or get a bit further away from the loudspeaker or shouting players.  Reduce the intensity!  Feed your dog often, tasty tidbits.  Sometimes it might be necessary to remove yourself and the dog from the environment entirely…if so, do this calmly and try not to appear to be reacting to any particular thing.  You do not want to unintentionally teach your dog that you are running away from that particular item.  If you have to leave because your dog is reacting fearfully, do so calmly while trying to engage him to connect with you with eye contact and by following along.

Remember, socialization is the single most important thing you can do for your pet.  Make it the first priority!  Older dogs can also be socialized but it takes longer and the dog needs more exposure than a puppy would. 




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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas