The Social Needs & Development of Puppies & Dogs

The Need for a Change in the Definition of Socialization 

Dogs have certain needs that will be met through social development and positive life experiences. This is commonly referred to as “socialization” but this term is grossly misunderstood and I think it’s time to rebrand the social needs of dogs all together to give better clarity to guardians raising puppies and dogs.

A quick search online will lead to thousands of articles giving advice on "how to" socialize your dog but very few discuss the vital importance of understanding and meeting the biological and emotional needs of your dog before you start to take them out to explore the world. 

Most advice on socializing dogs is just simply exposing them to as many new people, places and things as possible without having an awareness or regard for their emotional states. This type of early raising can be detrimental to a developing puppy, particularly if they are put in situations that cause fear or emotional trauma. 

It is a common misconception that early social development is a process where puppies learn to be “social,” but this is not accurate. There is a lot more to social development than puppies learning to be social. This critical period of development will determine how your dog experiences, recovers and responds to stress for the rest of their life. It also is your puppy's early introduction into the family system that they have been adopted into and influence whether they feel connected, safe, heard and loved, or if they feel disconnected and unsupported. 

Our understanding of the emotion needs of dogs is evolving rapidly and this advancement is dramatically influencing the way behaviour professionals educate their clients on puppy raising and behaviour support. I believe a shift in social development practices for puppies is largely overdue and urgently needed for the love of all dogs. 

I prefer to define and refer to this critical period in a puppy's life as early social development and this stage occurs in puppies 0-16 weeks of age. After 16 weeks of age, the window for opportune social development is closed and your puppy raising goals must switch gears from social development to meeting your dog's social needs. In the first 16 weeks of a puppy's life, they will be going through rapid change and growth and this is the time to carefully introduce them to new experiences that will leave a positive imprint in their cognitive memory. Generally in this stage of life, puppies have a quick bounce-back time and an innate curiosity to explore new, novel stimuli and as long as the environment feels safe to them, they will happily explore, interact and try new things. 

After 16 weeks of age the recovery time after being startled increases and it becomes more and more difficult to introduce your adolescent puppy or adult dog to new things without creating distress. The most dangerous misunderstanding with the old concept of socialization, is that you can effectively "socialize" a dog older than 16 weeks in the same ways you would with a puppy who is younger than 16 weeks of age. This is just not true and can be extremely damaging to the dog's emotional health and well-being. 

If your dog is uncomfortable in dog parks or around strange dogs, the goal should not be to force them to want to play or meet new dogs but rather to help them feel safe and comfortable in any environment. It's more important that you show your dog that you value their needs more than anything else, especially any mold you might be trying to fit them in. To meet a puppy or dog's social needs in a healthy way, you must understand the Hierarchy of Healthy Canine Development.

The Hierarchy of Healthy Canine Development

It's important to understand that you can't meet your dog's social needs unless their biological and emotional needs are met first. This means that the priority of guardians is to understand their puppy's development stages, emotional responses, need for connection, sleep and rest patterns, how to help them regulate after arousal, proper play and other factors, before they head out to create life experiences.

Research suggests that for each one negative experiences, five positive ones will be needed to counteract the first. This means that even just one negative, scary, fearful moment, could change the way that your puppy responds to stress for the rest of their life. Social development can't be done without careful consideration of the experiences that are being created for the puppy and how the puppy responds to them. 

Too much exposure to new things, tense greetings with dogs, too loud or too busy of an environment, forced greetings with strangers, could impact your puppy's developing nervous system and potentially strengthen the natural negativity bias that they are wired with. This can make it increasing difficult to help you puppy become a calm, confident, resilient and happy adult dog. 

Most guardians have been conditioned to believe that they have a certain exposure quota to meet in their puppy's first few weeks and that is more important than anything else. The problem with this type of puppy raising is that this concept doesn't teach the guardian how to read their puppy's emotional cues which would be expressed through body language and behaviour. It's a generalized approach that sees all puppies as the same without individual feelings, values, needs, desires or likes and dislikes. 

You cannot fail to recognize that each puppy or dog that has come into your life has their own originality and unique way of expressing or experiencing life. What is stressful for one puppy might not make another take a second look and what is fun for one, might be terrifying for the next. A holistic approach to raising puppies and dogs, focuses on the uniqueness of all beings and accepting each individual for who they are without trying to change them or "fix" them. 

The truth is, your puppy or dog might not fit into the mold that you created for them and you are going to have to accept that and love the dog in front of you otherwise you will never have a connection that is deeply rooted in love and partnership. To learn more about the Hierarch of Healthy Canine Development, I recommend enrolling in the Connected Partners Certificate Course found in CPU Online. 

A puppy's social needs are met when their emotional and biological needs are prioritized over anything else and despite what you've been told, a puppy learning to look calmly at a strange person from far away, while they are feeling calm, connected and safe, is far healthier than forcing that puppy into a greeting that makes them afraid. Let's clear up what social development is and how you can successfully get through this critical period in your puppy's life and evolution. 

What is social development?

Most guardians are aware that there is a very critical period of time in a puppy's development where social experiences are most likely to influence the kind of adult dog their puppy will become. But somehow, over the past decade or so, the concept of socializing a puppy has morphed into a puppy party mentality with a focus on too much play, forced meetings and greetings and exploring new environments or things, without any regard for the emotional state of the puppy. 

The main goal of socialization has become teaching puppies to be social and to want to play with other dogs. Guardians set out to meet some ridiculous quota of social experience, such as meeting 100 dogs in 100 days without really considering if they are actually meeting the puppy's social needs or not. To meet a puppy's social needs, their emotional needs must be met first and true social development is much more than just teaching puppies to be social. 

Social development refers to the process by which a puppy learns to interact with others around them, learns to adapt to change, builds up the ability to cope with stress and be resilient and develop their own individuality. Through the process of social development and meeting a puppy's social needs, they will gain the skills needed to communicate effectively, handle conflicts or threats, maintain a generally regulated state and develop relationships in their family and community. 

Maintaining an unwavering commitment to meeting your puppy's social needs through safe and thoughtful experiences is a vital investment into your puppies overall wellbeing and determine how well they will cope with stress and change in the future. Social development is NOT simply just exposing puppies to everything and anything without a regard for their emotional experience because experiences truly matter in development. 

Experiences matter not just for how your puppy feels in that moment, or in the moments after the event, but also because they will affect who your puppy becomes in the future and how well they can cope and adapt to stress and change. Resilience isn't learned during stress. In fact, each stressful experience your puppy or dog has will be recorded in the cortical memory for future consideration in events perceived as dangerous or life threatening. If your dog experiences fear, it will be remembered and it will change the way your puppy responds to fear in similar situations later in life. Resilience is built through positive experiences, learned coping mechanisms, decompression and confidence building exercises that happen away from stressful events. 

To meet your puppy's social needs through social development activities, you must not just introduce or expose them to new things, you much also establish a positive relationship with those things right from the start. To be clear, the goal with social development is to avoid negative experiences until there are enough positive ones to build a strong foundation of social exploration so that when something different or stressful happens, the puppy can quickly bounce back into a default state of calm and happy. 

Properly executed social development with the goal being to create a good experience for the puppy, can prevent them from becoming fearful, reactive, aggressive and anxious as adults but their emotional state must be the deciding factor. Of course it's import to also understand that each dog is an individual and it is possible that you could do every thing right and still have a dog who needs extra emotional support. 

Personally, I don't see this as a fault at all like in humans, we are all unique and some of us are better than others at coping with stress and some of us are more anxious than others as well. There is nothing wrong with your dog if they are generally anxious and you don't need to fix them. What your dog needs is acceptance, understanding and love. 

Creating Space for Healthy Social Development in Puppies

All of  us want to raise, happy, healthy, confident and cooperative dogs and social development plays a large role in how your puppy will grow into an adult. Social development creates bonding, partnerships, love, play and gives positive experiences to growing puppies. A dog who has had his emotional and social needs met, is more likely to be confident, content and calm in new environments and when they are startled, they can recover quickly to respond in a healthier way. If their emotional needs are not met or ignored, a puppy will most likely develop behaviour that expresses those unmet needs. 

The types of behaviour that can develop from unmet emotional or biological needs can vary from destructive, to vocalization and barking, to lack of confidence, depression or lack of joy, disconnection or aloofness, easily startled, easily aroused or excited, reactive or aggressive behaviour, irritability and more serious mental illness may develop as well. Most new puppy parents or adoptive pet parents want to rush out to start "socializing" right away, even before they've gotten to know their new puppy or dog! But if you don't know your dog well enough you could inadvertently set them up to fail, before you even get to know each other. 

To create a space for healthy social development in your puppy, start thinking about the experiences that will serve their development in the most positive way, rather than trying to meet a socialization quota that doesn't consider the dog's emotions, needs, personality, individuality and biology. If you focus the social development efforts in the first 16 weeks of your puppy’s life trying to fill a quota of meetings, without regarding their well-being, you could be creating problems for your dog in the future. 

After 16 weeks of age, a puppy’s bounce back time after experiencing stress, becomes longer and longer. Instead of bouncing back and becoming curious about new novel things, new people, new dogs or new places, the puppy starts to develop fear. Experiences that create a fear response are not forgotten because fear is linked to survival. Just ask someone who was once chased by a bear and they'll tell you how vividly they remember that experience and how it changed the way they interact with the wilderness from that day on. 

Flooding or exposing a dog or puppy to things that they find scary, and triggering that fearful response, is shaping their nervous system to respond typically in a fearful way. Flooding is often linked to a sensitized dog or in other words, a dog who has developed an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli or situations. Of course being sensitive isn't inherently bad but if sensitivity is conditioned through negative experiences of flooding, a dog will have a lot of difficulty adapting to changes in life. A dog who has been socialized well, will be confident, content and calm in new environments and when they are startled, they can recover quickly to respond in a healthier way. 

I like to think of this process as a way to build an individual’s confidence, create resilience and create positive experiences as their foundation for learning to cope with different life scenarios. Meeting your dog or puppies social needs will help them feel safe, self-regulate and overcome stress a lot easier than if they didn’t have those positive experiences in the first place. To influence how well a dog is able to cope with change, stress and new things as an adult, a strong foundation of early positive experiences must be built before the age of approximately 16 weeks old.

As previously mentioned, researchers say that for every negative experience, we need five positive ones to counteract them. Some negative experiences have inherent value, they can teach safety behaviours, but staying in that negative experience past the point that is useful, in other words without the opportunity to decompress and recover, is digging that experience deeper and deeper into the brain making it harder to experience new things in the future. 

Focus on Positive Experiences

To meet your dog's social needs, focus on the experiences that bring them the most joy. Interestingly, many people will read this as "don't every expose your dog to the things they are afraid of." This is impossible of course because life can be incredibly hard and stressful at times. To raise your puppy to be a resilient, adult dog, the focus has to be on creating as many powerfully positive experiences as possible and then slowly allowing new elements in that are different or difficult, but only at the pace your puppy or dog can handle. 

In other words, think of creating a bubble of joy around you and your dog. As this bubble grows and gets bigger and bigger, new things will enter the bubble with you. Experiences such as seeing a new dog across the street, hearing a new sound or going to a new place can all be added to your bubble of joy. But if you grow your joy bubble too fast, or allow too many things in at once, your bubble will burst and this will likely leave an imprint in your puppy's brain, creating a memory of fear. 

Remember that each puppy is an individual and each individual will have their own unique bubble size, shape and thickness. You have to meet your puppy where they are at, learn to read their body language and go at a pace that keeps your puppy feeling calm, connected and safe to have those positive experiences together. If the foundation of your partnership is a lot of stressful experiences, then your puppy won't know what joy is and their default response may be wired towards defensive mechanisms. 

Focusing on joy means your dog will be able to get back to that state much easier and respond to stress in a more optimistic way! For more information on how to meet your puppy or dog's social needs watch for Part Two of this series. 

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