There’s a lot of talk about having a "well socialized dog" but just what does that mean? Ask a dozen different dog owners and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers.
I find a lot of people describing their dog’s level of socialization only in terms of having relationships with other dogs. Something along the lines of, “Oh my dog is great with other dogs – my sister has two dogs and they all get along fine.” or, “My dog loves going to the dog park – he has a blast!”
It’s also quite common to hear people talk about a dog’s socialization as if it was an ability or skill that, once learned, is the equivalent of having a lifetime membership in "Club Socialization". Sorry folks… that’s not it... and not by a long shot.
So what does having a well-socialized dog mean? Let's start by looking at some definitions of the word "socialization" from online resources:
Word English Dictionary: Socialization (n) : “The modification from infancy of an individual's behaviour to conform with the demands of social life.”
Medical Dictionary: “Socialization - The process of learning interpersonal and interactional skills that are in conformity with the values of one’s society.”
Cultural Dictionary: “Socialization - Learning customs, attitudes and values of a social group, community or culture. Socialization is most strongly enforced by family, school and peer groups and continues throughout an individual’s lifetime.”
Now I grant you these definitions were worded in relation to humans, but I think they apply to the socialization needs of our canine companions equally well. So, again, what is the answer?
Developing a Wide Variety of Coping Skills
A well-socialized dog is a dog that has experienced, and has been able to build positive associations with, a wide variety of:
People (adults and children of both genders),
Through positive experiences, a dog develops coping skills that it can apply to similar future experiences and situations. When I talk to clients about socialization I often use the analogy of a 'tool box': Ongoing good socialization practices allow the dog to add more and more tools to their tool box, and when the time comes for the dog to cope with a particular situation... there are lots of appropriate tools there to choose from.
On the flip side of that coin, a dog that has few tools (ie: hasn’t been given the opportunity to develop adequate coping skills) is a dog that is more likely to feel stress, anxiety and/or fear when faced with things outside of its realm of knowledge or experience.
There's Life Beyond Your Dog's Back-Yard World
Imagine the life of a dog in a suburban neighborhood who spends the vast majority of his time in a fenced backyard and in the house. Even though the dog is well cared for by a loving family, based on this dog’s day-to-day existence, how well is he going to be able to cope when thrust into situations or environments beyond his ‘back-yard’ world? There are too many variables to answer that question precisely (every dog is different) but it’s very common for dogs to experience stress, anxiety and/or outright fear in such circumstances.
Now let's add another factor into this equation: What is cited as the largest contributing cause of reactive/aggressive behaviour? If you guessed "stress, anxiety and/or fear" you would be correct.
As the old saying goes, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" and that is precisely what socialization is all about. Having a well-socialized dog is preventative maintenance at its most fundamental level.