Not A Positive Puppy Experience

Socialization gone awry
By Karen B. London PhD, August 2018

At a local restaurant where dogs are welcome, I saw a sad sight that is like countless others I’ve observed over the years. In the long line to order was a family with a young puppy, probably no more than 10 weeks old, and right behind her was an adolescent dog who was clearly uncomfortable around other dogs. At first, the adolescent was holding it together. Though he was showing signs of stress such as panting, tongue-flicking and sweaty paws, he was not exploding. He and the puppy sniffed each other and their guardians looked on, quite pleased.

Then, some people with another dog crowded the adolescent, who was unable to handle the social pressure. He barked and lunged at the other dogs nearby, including the puppy. The puppy responded beautifully to this behavior by lying down on the floor and lowering her head. When the adolescent continued to bark and lunge at her, she looked distressed for the first time, and rolled over on her back, wide-eyed and clearly afraid.

I wish it had stopped there, but it didn’t. After both families ordered, they sat down at adjacent tables. The adolescent dog barked at the puppy a few more times, but in a way that was much less intense than the original outburst. At one point, the two dogs sniffed one another again in an appropriate greeting and followed that with play bows and some good wrestle play. The adolescent dog was quite gentle with the puppy and both seemed to be having a good time until another dog walked by. The adolescent barked and lunged at that dog and then turned and did the same to the puppy. The puppy moved as far away from the other dog as her leash would allow and cowered behind her guardian’s legs. Neither guardian ever expressed concern over any of these interactions, and presumably the people with the puppy thought that they were doing the right thing taking her out and about for socialization.

Despite the nice greetings and the play bout, the puppy did not have a positive experience, and that’s deeply problematic, especially for such a young dog. The goal of socialization is to provide a puppy with positive experiences in a variety of situations and with a range of social partners. It’s important that puppies walk on different types of surfaces, ride in vehicles, see common everyday items and meet both people and other dogs. However, if any of these adventures lead to negative experiences, the dog is learning that the world can be scary instead of learning that it’s a wonderful place.

Bad experiences make it harder for puppies to develop good social skills and the ability to accept anything new and unfamiliar later in life—the very goals of socialization. That’s why it is so critical to consider thoughtfully where to take puppies and to choose carefully the dogs and people they meet. Taking a young puppy out where there are large numbers of unknown dogs, especially in a confined space, makes it all too likely that at least one dog will do something inappropriate that upsets the puppy.

After watching the puppy and the adolescent at the restaurant have another unfortunate interaction, I could no longer resist interfering just to avoid any awkwardness. Since I first saw the barking incident while they were in line, I had wanted to jump in to prevent any more unpleasantness for the puppy. Finally, my worry for the puppy won out, and I went over to meet both dogs. It’s not my style to thrust my professional opinions on innocent people happily out for Sunday brunch with their best friends, so I just put my body right between them and concentrated on keeping them apart while petting them in turn. I hung out there until the family with the puppy was ready to leave.

It’s all too common for puppies to be scared or even traumatized in situations that are considered socialization. Have you observed such a scene?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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