The other day I went to our local farmer’s market. It was a beautiful day and the first market of the season. It was full of people chatting and shopping, children running around, dogs everywhere. I watched as a woman walked her tiny, very frightened puppy through the crowd. The poor little guy was doing everything he could to signal that he didn’t want to be there. He looked away, put on the brakes, sat down, urinated on the ground, whimpered. The caregiver did not listen. She dragged him right up to a face-to-face encounter with 2 big dogs and then continued to drag him along through the market.
What would that puppy have learned through this experience?
No doubt, the caregiver had the very best of intentions. Her approach is understandable given much of the advice circulating about “socialization”. It’s easy to believe that puppy socialization is about racing the clock to expose a puppy to as many new and different experiences as possible before “the window” closes.
The problem is that this isn’t at all what a puppy needs.
The point of exposing puppies to new experiences isn’t to create fear, it’s to nurture a sense of safety. The aim is to habituate-to let the dog’s developing brain know that it’s ok to ignore that guy in the hat, the ice cream truck, the crowd of children running around because those things are happening at a distance and duration that feels–and is– safe for that particular puppy.
When we throw puppies into the deep end, it does the opposite—it teaches the puppy’s brain to be on alert for those things that have been so close, so loud, so threatening, so overwhelming, so SCARY in the past.
Raising confident, happy dogs requires creating conditions for a puppy to feel safe and curious. Puppies need gentle and careful exposure, plenty of time for slow mental processing, and lots and lots of rest so their brains can do the work of consolidating learning and getting ready for the next (safe) adventure.
Raising confident, happy dogs also requires us as their caregivers to show them that we are paying attention, listening, understanding and responding to their whispers–that we are the partners they need to guide them safely through this big, new, human world.