Puppy socialization can be a tricky topic in a training class.

In general, you want to encourage socialization… but there are so many ways socialization can go wrong.

Many puppy owners take it to mean “expose the dog to ALL THE THINGS!” without considering carefully enough whether or not those experiences are positive for the dog.

During the 6 week puppy class I used to teach, we focused on a different type of socialization each week — talking about people, noises, surfaces, weird objects, and household items (vacuums, brooms, blow dryers, etc).

In each class I’d repeat the same mantra: If your puppy is afraid, don’t force it. Instead, reward his bravest moment and move on.

Recognizing Fear in A Puppy

One of the most common issues in any training class is getting students to recognize how their dog is feeling at any given time — and what that means for their training.

So during classes, before beginning to explore new things with our puppies, I like to ask dog owners to describe for me what their puppy looks like when he’s happy; what he looks like when he’s scared; what he looks like when he’s frustrated or overtired; and what he looks like when he’s overexcited.

This gives us a chance to talk about other things they might do when experiencing each of those emotions — and makes them more aware of their specific dog’s body language.

And talking about this right before experiencing new things allows me to talk about how to handle it if their puppy should exhibit signs of one extreme or another while we explore those new things.

Why We Don’t Bribe A Fearful Dog (and what we do instead)

The biggest thing I want to ensure students learn is not to lure their dog into a situation they are afraid of.

I like to use the old “snake” analogy… if you’re terrified of snakes, do you think dropping a bucket full of them would convince you not to be afraid anymore? No! It would probably make you panic and scream, instead.

Yet when a puppy is nervous about stepping over a rattling x-pen laid out on the floor or into a baby pool full of plastic bottles, many people automatically try to “lure” the puppy with a treat that they gradually pull away from the dog as it gets closer to the scary object.

I discourage this in my classes.

Instead, I tell people they can place a treat on their palm and keep it there; if the puppy gets close enough to eat the treat, great! Let them have it. But no pulling the treat further away when the puppy is brave enough to go for it.

If the puppy doesn’t get to the treat? That’s okay too — reward his bravest moment and leave to check out something else.

Giving the puppy a cookie for whatever he was comfortable offering you near that object is going to build his confidence around it, and most of the time if they leave, go check out the rest of the things in the room and then return, by the time they return they get a slightly “braver” behavior. Repeat, and it gets braver still.

Before long, the puppy forgets he was ever nervous about that thing and is happily trotting across the X-pen or playing with the air from the blow dryer.

How do you handle discussing socialization in a puppy class? Let us know in the comments!