Stop Socializing Your Shy Dog

Stop Socializing Your Shy Dog is Part 3 in this 4-part series of articles about dogs and human leadership.

Part 2 is A Confused Dog Can’t Just Google It

And Part 1 is 3 Ways You Hired Your Dog As the CEO. Watch this space next week for the 4th and final article in the series.

Dog over threshold overwhelmed

It felt really weird but I decided to stop socializing my dog. Did I screw up? I’ll find that out at some point but for now, the jury is still out…

I have not socialized my 10-month-old puppy much at all. At least not the way I intended to do it back in February when he was just a tiny bundle of brown and white fluff.

Most people accept that puppies should definitely be socialized early on. Dog behavior experts agree about that. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support that advice. No argument here.

Yet the norms of the past haven’t quite caught up with the “quarantine” and “pandemic” norms of the present. In 2020 we dismissed old norms and struggled to figure out a different way.

A Fresh Look at Socializing Dogs

Ever the optimist, I believe that taking a fresh look at socializing a young dog – or any dog for that matter – might not be such a bad idea.  Besides, we don’t have a lot of choice in the matter…we do what we can.

Consider the following 3 facts about socializing dogs which, in my opinion, could benefit from more scrutiny. [Warning: I’m about to challenge assumptions!]

  1. Socializing your dog isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be! And it doesn’t replace real, systematic training.
  2. It’s not the cure-all for unwanted behaviors -such as inappropriate barking or an unwillingness to approach strangers.
  3. Socializing dogs isn’t “one-size-fits-all”.  Exposures that are okay for some dogs can be traumatic for timid or anxious dogs who, ironically, are most often mistaken as needing more socialization.

Dogs are always tuned-in to changes in their environment. The behaviors we see on the outside reflect their emotions on the inside. Responsible training provides experiences that are under the dog’s threshold. That means providing experiences that are below the line that separates confidence from fear.

Socialization plays a role in how a dog feels about changes, but so does the dog’s personality. Personalities are different. Not better. Not worse. Different.

Successful Socialization

Socialization is successful when it exposes the dog to new experiences that are under threshold so that the dog’s fight or flight instinct is not triggered.

An extroverted dog that is readily aroused and reacts with over-the-top excitement to new situations will not learn to be calm just because he is repeatedly exposed to the triggers for his excitement. Stop thoughtless socialization!

Asking an introverted personality to tolerate strangers who want to approach, touch, and stare at him will cause that dog to retreat even further from these aversive experiences. Sometimes it’s really best to stop socializing your shy dog!

The consequence of socialization done wrong is the opposite of success.

It’s the opposite of positive training occurring below the dog’s threshold.

Things get worse, not better when dogs are force-fed large doses of challenging experiences without thoughtful preparation along with a strategy based on science.

Doing socialization right requires paying more attention to the dog’s well being and less attention to checking off a list of exposures. When socialization exposures follow a strategic plan to train below threshold, then high energy dogs can learn how to choose calmness. Shy dogs can learn how to expand their comfort zone.

Wrong human decisions about socialization convince dogs that following human leadership is confusing. They rely on their instincts to get clarity and to soothe their anxiety. Instead of complying with human expectations that weren’t clear, they just keep on following the lead of their instincts.

What About My Puppy’s Socialization?

Although my 10-month-old hasn’t experienced the typical public exposures, he hasn’t existed in a bubble either. His enrichment experiences at home with nature and other animals and the mental challenges of his training have nurtured his self-confidence.

Crate training has given him confidence that being alone for a while is just fine. He’s experienced the contentment of a safe haven and the excitement of solving fascinating problems like searching with his incredible nose.

To learn more, read How to Socialize Your Puppy During Times of Social Distancing.

The time will come for public exposures. And when it does, the way I strategize to keep him below threshold will make all the difference. Because there is a shy side to his personality, I need to consider the best plan for socializing a shy dog. Of course, it would have been easier on both of us if I could have started socializing him way back in March. Well, just add that to the zillion or so plans that bit the dust in March 2020.

Meanwhile, take a look at the following list of 14 true things about how to make the dog more important than the training. When you pay attention to the dog first, training is easy.

14 True Things About Training Dogs

Click here to get the Free Infographic with 14 True Things available only inside the Dog Wisdom Workshop Facebook Group!

  1. Some dogs don’t want to be approached or touched by strangers so respect that about them.
  2. Assess the dog’s emotion, not just his behavior.
  3. Humans have a responsibility and a duty to set the dog up for success.
  4. Socialization as a cure-all is a myth.
  5. A dog’s threshold is the line that separates a dog’s calm confidence from his fearful anxiety. Know what causes him to cross the line.
  6. Dogs will always figure out a way to get what benefits them.
  7. Ask how the dog’s behavior is serving his needs. What’s the real-time outcome for the dog?
  8. Train below threshold. Manage exposures so that the dog is well within his comfort zone.
  9. Flooding a dog with triggers above his threshold that he is not prepared to handle creates overwhelming stress. The dog will self-soothe in whatever way he can.
  10. Responsible training is setting the dog up to be successful within his comfort zone and below threshold.
  11. The goal of positive socialization is to always keep the dog within the safe zone of feeling there’s an available exit ramp.
  12. Socialization is changing emotions, not behaviors. What matters most is whether the dog is feeling safe or threatened.
  13. Relief from the social pressure of a public exposure is also a reward.
  14. Increasing distance from the fear trigger is a reward because distance is what the dog most wants.

People don’t like confusion any more than dogs do! Really, I warned you about challenges to assumptions! So if any of these ideas about socializing dogs has left you scratching your head and wondering what’s next, then go ahead and shoot me an email and let’s see if I can help clear things up. I coach people in the art of listening to their dogs. marilyn@marilynmele.com

Marilyn Mele

Family Dog Training Coach,

Dog Behavior Expert, Dedicated to Positive Reinforcement Training

865-748-7668 marilyn@marilynmele.com

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