Q&A: Is this "Socialization" OK?

by Jeannine Berger | Jan 22, 2015 05:42

Dear Dr. Berger:  

"Milly has been doing very well getting used to the city - walking past buses now, much more comfortable on the street.  Unfortunately, she was jumped/attacked by a dog whose owner swore it was very friendly to other dogs.  She wasn't injured, but was pretty freaked out by the experience and has been very fearful of dogs in the last few days.

We took her back to puppy kindergarten today hoping that she would have a better experience, and realizing she needs to have some positive interaction.  Initially we were optimistic - most of the puppies were young like her, with only two really big, 15 week old bruisers.  When it came time for off leash play, you can guess what happened.  The two 35 lb puppies rushed Milly, then rolled and pinned her - she jumped up and ran away, tail between her legs, and all the dogs chased her.

I intervened, but the instructor told me that it was part of the learning process, and she didn't think Milly seemed that frightened.  I told her that I didn't feel she was having a positive experience at the class, and she said she disagreed with me.  We leashed the dogs up, did some training, and released them again 20 minutes later.  Exact same thing happened - big puppies rolled little puppies (not viciously, just very rambunctious), Milly had her tail between her legs and was being chased while trying to escape.  So I told the instructor that this is not a good experience for my puppy or myself and the instructor in turn told me (less patiently this time) that this is "normal puppy stuff" and Milly is not being hurt (physically or emotionally), and walked away.

Do I even bring her back?  This "socialization" seems out of control."  


You need to stop going there! You are clearly describing the body language of a frightened puppy that is trying to escape the situation. Fear is innate and a helpful behavior that stems from survival instincts. It will depend on your puppy's personality as to how she perceives a herd of bouncy and pushy dogs.

Your puppy is clearly not enjoying this experience and therefore can lead to real conditioned fear of dogs, which then can easily lead to anxiety (due to the anticipation of fear eliciting experiences - ex: not wanting to go outside, pulling on leash, or barking or escaping when seeing other dogs, in the worst case scenarios this can lead to serious aggression).  It is especially crucial to avoid such negative experiences in the early socialization period (8-16 weeks of age).

It is important to understand that how experiences are perceived by an individual dog will determine future behaviors - and because we cannot ask the puppy but can only go by her body language which clearly shows fear and escape/avoidance, we have to avoid such rough encounters (even if the puppy is not overtly physically harmed) otherwise it could lead to a lifelong fear of other dogs.   Socialization is about good experiences not just any experiences. This is not boot camp and she does not need to get tough! It seems you have more common sense than your instructor and you are a good advocate for the welfare and education of your puppy. The decisions you make today will directly affect the rest of her life and yours. 

You need to continue to focus on making positive experiences with predictable outcomes such as with dogs you know, either adult or young ones. You need to find dogs that have appropriate social and play skills to socialize with your puppy. I recommend that at this point she just needs to be comfortable, curious and playful in the presence of other dogs.  

Last, if your puppy is the rough one, please note that rough play should be interrupted and redirected. If your dog is pinning a dog down or chasing another dog which clearly does not seem comfortable with such play, you should stop your dog from playing like that.