When Dogs Are Too Afraid to Socialize

"This one is really cute." That is my nurse describing the patient that she just put into the exam room for me. When I enter the room, I am greeted immediately by a friendly but cautious 9-month-old Brittney Spaniel. He is very, very cute.

His owners have brought him to me today because he is fearful of anything new and of most things outside, including noises. Through interacting with him, watching him interact with the environment and unfamiliar people, and watching videos of his behavior with other dogs, it is clear that he was not socialized. How can I tell so quickly? Let me explain…

I can rule out any trauma because we know his history. He was kept by the breeder until four months of age at the family’s request for personal reasons. There was no history of trauma with the breeder or with the very nice family who adopted him.

I can rule out any negative learning because the family hasn’t done anything to scare him. I can also rule out (not concretely, but for the most extent) any hereditary influences because both parents and the rest of the litter are unaffected. However, the rest of the litter was adopted out at two months of age. In addition, to point to an influence other than heredity, this puppy has a desire to greet people. What I mean is that he goes toward someone when he sees them. His temperament and personality are friendly. If the person backs away, he goes toward them again to solicit attention. When they pet him, his tail tucks showing fear. He wants the interaction, but it scares him. Finally, he loves and plays normally with other dogs. There were five other dogs in the breeder’s house. In other words, he was well socialized with other dogs.

What is left to cause this baby to be so scared of things outside and of people? Socialization. That’s right, here we go again. I am like a broken record telling people to socialize their pups, but this is just as important as anything that you do for your dog’s health. It is as important as heartworm prevention, spaying and neutering, and vaccinations. It is also easy and free.

In this case, the breeder bred a wonderful dog but she didn’t socialize the dog for the new owners before the age of 16 weeks. Most likely, she just didn’t know to do this, or she thought that exposure within her house was enough to create a well adjusted puppy. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. As a result of the lack of exposure, the dog is afraid of what he hadn’t experienced between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks. Mostly that includes unfamiliar people and unfamiliar things.

Burn this equation into your brain:

a) No exposure = Negative exposure

b) If you don’t socialize your pup before 16 weeks, it is equivalent to a negative interaction, not a neutral interaction.

The door for socialization closes at 16 weeks. It may be cracked a hair for some individual dogs, but for most, it is closed. After that, you are treating a behavior problem and you don’t want to be in that situation. You can find out more about socialization here (and here).

What should the breeder have done?

She should have taken the puppy out five days a week between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks. Some of those outings could have been in her neighborhood because there are lots of new things to see and experience. However, some outings have to be outside of the neighborhood. I like to see about 50 percent of the outings be away from home. This can include running errands, visiting the veterinarian’s office, or even going through the pick-up line at school. It doesn’t really matter where the pup goes as long as the experience is positive and he sees something new.

The goal is to expose the puppy to everything you think he will see and hear as an adult, within that two month period. It seems like a lot, but you would be amazed at how much you can get accomplished during just one outing.

I am wishing for and waiting for the day when I don’t have to remind people to socialize their puppies. That is definitely going to be a day for celebration.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Andriy Solovyov / Shutterstock