John Rodriguez


Developing Your Puppy's Social Skills

by Lori Rodriguez. Published in Dog World Magazine, Bloodlines (UKC),
The Bullmastiff Club of New South Wales (Australia), and other international publications

Congratulations on the new addition to your family! For thousands of years man has enjoyed a special relationship with his canine companion. First, no doubt for utilitarian purposes. But as he moved into our households, he stole our hearts. And today for many people, the dog has become a cherished member of the family. Your new puppy can add laughter, comfort, and joy to your life. But, like any major change, there can be growing pains. Whether those pains pass quickly or become unbearable will depend on well you have prepared for your new arrival and the steps you take to insure that he/she grows to be a healthy, happy, obedient companion.

An estimated 52.5 million dogs live in U.S. homes (36.5% of all U.S. homes own at least one dog)*. However, each year 12 million pets (dogs and cats) enter animal shelters. Eight million never make it out.** The numbers speak volumes about our culture - the idea of owning a pet is too often more appealing than the reality! To make sure your new puppy doesn't become a statistic takes commitment and hard work. Many of us remember the great old dog we had as a kid, but we forget that first difficult year. Plus, in our ever increasing urbanized society, we've lost our ability to talk to the animals. (This article assumes that, as a new puppy owner, you have done your homework, evaluated your lifestyle and carefully selected a puppy that suits your household. If you are currently in that process, I recommend reading the book The Puppy Report ©1992 Larry Shook, Lyons & Burford Publishers.)

The purpose of this article is to help you get started on the right foot. When you add good nutrition, proper veterinarian care, and a good training course, and combine them with lots of love and attention, you have the absolute best tried and true recipe for a successful dog/person relationship!

First Things First

There are several things you should do before your puppy arrives. One of them is to select a qualified veterinarian that you feel comfortable with and schedule an appointment for a physical examination and to update his vaccinations if needed. Next, puppy-proof your house. Your new puppy may seem carefree and independent - smart enough to know better. But he is still a baby and should be treated like one. Your home should be puppy-proofed to safeguard your puppy from potential household hazards. And your home should be safeguarded from your puppy to help minimize the accidents that are likely to occur and which tend to spoil a relationship. Get down on the floor to get a puppy's eye view of your home. Remove or store items such as nails, knives, or other sharp objects as well as items that may be chewed, swallowed, or eaten. Make sure your puppy does not have access to poisonous items. Antifreeze is especially deadly to pets even in very small quantities (enough to fill a crack in the driveway) and dogs find the taste enticing. Ask your vet for a list of poisonous items. Some poisons, like Chocolate and English Ivy, may surprise you.

Part of your pre-puppy preparation should include equipement and arrangements for sleeping, grooming, playing, feeding, and elimination. Provide a variety of age and size appropriate toys, age appropriate-feed, access to water, grooming equipment, leash, collar, license, etc. For elimination (yes, that's part of the puppy package), choose a spot in the yard you would like to train the puppy to use for a bathroom. Provide a safe, dry, comfortable resting area. When your puppy arrives, you will have to arrange your schedule to meet your puppy's needs, but as he matures, you may gradually adjust his schedule to meet yours. One of the nicest things you can do for your new puppy (and for yourself) is to get a crate for your puppy. When used properly, your puppy gets a safe, secure place of his own and you get peace of mind. Many people may think confining a dog to a crate is cruel, but dogs feel secure in small semi-enclosed areas. If you have owned a dog before, you may recall that when frightened, he would dash under the bed or a desk, into a closet, or hop into the bathtub - he felt most secure in a small enclosed area. Housebreaking and house manners are more easily taught to a crate trained puppy. You and your puppy can develop and maintain a positive schedule of playing, sleeping, eating, eliminating, training, housetime, etc. And, your puppy will not need to endure countless scoldings for things he cannot yet understand.

Creating the Right Environment

From the time a puppy is only a few weeks old, he starts learning. What and how much he learns is determined first by genetics then by his environment. It would behoove you then to select a genetically superior puppy then to make sure he learns what you wish to teach him. "We have the old saying `´You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.´ This old adage could well be reworded to read, ´An old dog, if he has never been taught anything, cannot begin to learn when he is old.´ For we are now finding out that a dog who has learned to learn when he was the right age can always be taught other things later." The New Knowledge of Dog Behavior. Clarence Pfaffenberger. ©1963.

You and the members of your household (both human and animal) will become your puppy's new pack. Your puppy must learn the rules the pack. His sense of well-being depends on it. Clear, consistent, and fair rules enforced firmly but lovingly will give your puppy a sense of belonging, his security blanket. A good relationship between puppy and owner is one of understanding, respect, and obedience - not fear! Your puppy should grow up to be willingly obedient, not neurotically submissive. If he cringes when you come near or if he rules the home with your family catering to his every whim, something has gone wrong.

Playing games with your puppy, help build a solid foundation for learning. The puppy is "set up" to succeed by conditioning him to adopt behaviors consistent with future training - you have taught him how to learn! (See other articles on this site for games to play.) But obedience alone is not enough. Socialization In order for your puppy to mature into a responsible confident, intelligent adult dog, he needs to be stimulated by a wide variety of experiences in a positive, non-intimidating fashion. Your puppy needs to experience man-dog relationships as well as supervised dog companionship. He should also be exposed to different environments -- the house, the car, the woods, the water, the city, etc. For a puppy not properly stimulated, will never reach his fullest potential intellectually, emotionally, or physically.

Genetics aside, many cases of problem behavior in adult dogs can be traced back to a lack of proper socialization and training when these dogs were puppies. Socializing with People Encouraging your puppy to be more confident and comfortable with his environment teaches him how to respond appropriately to a wide range of situations. It also enhances his ability to learn other things (like obedience) because he has developed the confidence to concentrate on the task at hand and not be overly concerned about what is going on around him. Socialize: to take part in social activities.

By socializing your puppy, you help him to develop a good relationship with his world, his owner and himself. To develop proper man-dog relationships, your puppy should be introduced to people outside of your family. These encounters need not, in fact should not, be prolonged play periods where the puppy is roughly handled, restrained, or intimidated. Often people will stomp their feet or make body gestures to make the puppy cutely scamper away in a game of hide and seek, or cuddle the puppy tightly not allowing him to get away when he needs to, or just play too roughly. All of these innocent actions can encourage improper behavior around strangers. You must, therefor, control encounters with strangers to make them as positive an experience as possible. Your puppy should feel in control when being socialized. He should be allowed to make contact first, checking out the stranger at his will. The stranger should not pay too much attention to the puppy, so that he becomes disinterested and returns to you. Letting the puppy be in control, encourages confident, non aggressive behavior around strangers.

Strangers should not be allowed to pick up or restrain a young puppy. If your puppy is manhandled, he will learn that he has no control in this type situation and may become shy or fearful of strangers. Loss of control brings out unwanted avoidance and defensive behaviors. The ability to feel in control builds confidence and inhibits fear-aggression. Young puppies should not be exposed to people who are frightened of dogs. The puppy can feed off of their fear, becoming apprehensive, possibly fearful themselves. Your puppy should be gently praised for his socialization efforts. He should also be showered with attention when he returns to you. By making the stranger uninteresting, the puppy learns that his behavior should be neither submissive nor aggressive and that his owner is the person to whom affection, submission, and attention should be paid.

If your puppy is very nervous about greeting people, you can give strangers tidbits of food to entice your puppy to come near. The tidbits can be used to reward him for overcoming his fear. (If not done to excess, this exercise will not discourage protective behaviors. On the contrary, it will build confidence in the puppy and thus the ability to distinguish between a real and a perceived threat. Dogs who bite out of fear, bite the wrong people for the wrong reasons and do not have the confidence to defend themselves or their owners in a real threatening situation.)

Children must be instructed on how to behave with your puppy and strictly supervised. Puppies can knock over children in their exuberance or nip at their faces in a gesture of greeting or play. These little nips are somewhat harmless in their intent, but nonetheless dangerous to tiny little faces. Also, children can fall over, step on, or drop the puppy causing physical and emotional harm. Young children and puppies (and older dogs as well) should not be left alone together.

Never walk over to a child to socialize your dog without asking the parent's permission. A child is infinitely more important than any dog. If there is any question about the dog's ability to respond properly with a child, contact between the two should be avoided until the dog is 100% trustworthy! If your dog's temperament around children is questionable but not overtly aggressive, you can still encourage proper behavior around children from a distance. As you and your puppy become more of a team and have learned how to play games together (or know some obedience) you make take your dog (on leash and under absolute control) to a playground or other area where children may be playing. Then play with or train your dog at a safe distance away.

You must be much more interesting to your dog than the children are or you will only create more problems. In this way the dog is allowed to see and hear children without the opportunity to cause injury; he will associate the situation with pleasant experiences; and he will learn that playing with you is more fun than anything out there. The puppy should be taught not only to be unafraid of people, but also that the support and attention he desires is provided by his own pack/family. If a puppy is overly manhandled, he learns to show exaggerated submission to humans. Submission is a reaction to fear. On the other hand, a dog that is not exposed to people can become shy. Later, around people, the shy dog is highly-stressed and fearful. Both extreme submissiveness and shyness can develop into an aggressive reaction - creating the fear biter! Because the fear-biter shows an aggressive reaction to strangers, these dogs are mistakenly believed to be great watch dogs. But dogs that bark or bite indiscriminately out of fear will rarely hold up under a real threat. Typically these dogs bite people from behind or go after the young or old. These poor, frightened dogs are a liability to the public, their owners, and to themselves. Small dogs and larger dogs are equally affected. Often these dogs can be partially rehabilitated through a confidence-building program. However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

As your puppy develops his sense of self and shows less tendency to submit to strangers, he can be allowed to play with other people. Again, providing that the puppy controls the situation. The stranger should get down to the puppy's level, avoiding any type of dominating or frightening gestures. They can play ball, tug of war, even wrestle a bit -- always allowing the puppy to dominate the play and call it quits when he desires. The stranger should avoid restraining the puppy or placing the puppy in a situation above his ability to cope confidently.

Excessive petting (slow strokes over the head) encourages submission and immaturity and should be done only by your puppy's family. (Babying a puppy or dog to excess should be avoided because it can create behavioral problems.) Petting motions that are more like a scratch or patting can be done any time by your puppy's family and during play with strangers. The best areas for this type of petting are under the chin, behind or under the ears, at the base of the tail, or the classic belly scratch that gets the rear legs going in a bicycle riding fashion.

Introduction to Other Dogs in His Household

If there are other dogs in your household, your puppy should be allowed to establish his position within his canine pack as well. A young dog can learn a great deal from constructive play with other dogs in his own pack as long as the other dogs are not overly aggressive or overly dominating. Your dogs should know that their human master is the pack leader and look to you and you alone for direction. Leaving dogs alone together for great lengths of time diminishes your authority and sways loyalties away from you, creating obedience problems. If this occurs, your dogs should be separated when they are left alone and more time spent one on one between you and each of the dogs. Once pack order is firmly reestablished, the dogs can spend more time alone together. However the one on one sessions should continue. Your dogs will really enjoy this time and it will help prevent the problem from arising again. Firm (not abusive) leadership will also diminish the possibility of fighting or other destructive behaviors. (A stable pack order discourages fighting.)

Introduction to Dogs Outside the Household

Your young puppy should also be introduced to dogs outside of his household, again guidelines should be followed.

  • Common courtesy (and common sense) dictates that you should be asked permission before introducing your puppy to his dog. The owner should be asked if his dog is aggressive. If so, contact with this dog should be avoided.
  • The dogs should not be forced to meet, but allowed to investigate each other at their own discretion.
  • If the either dog is very dominating causing excessive submission on the part of the other dog (cowering, rolling on his back, urinating, deep tail tuck, excessive facial licking, etc.) the playing should be stopped and the puppies interested in something else more constructive.
  • The whole encounter should be limited to only a few moments.
  • Praise and attention should be lavished upon the puppy when he returns to you.

Again, your puppy should learn to handle himself in a confident, non-aggressive manner.

All dogs vie to establish order, even before meeting. By assuming postures, they send clear signals to each other before ever getting close enough to touch. An owner should understand and be able to read what his dog is telling him and act accordingly to promote positive behavior. Puppies playing may look cute and innocuous, but this playing is very serious business - the puppies are learning social etiquette and establishing social order. Play should be overseen by the owners to encourage good social manners and discourage unwanted behaviors.

Introduction to the World at Large

Playgrounds are an excellent place for a young puppy. During busy times, your puppy can learn how to handle the commotion of a crowded park filled with screaming children and people playing. During off-hours, the playground equipment serves as a means to build trust, agility, and confidence. Your puppy can learn how to go over and under the obstacles. As he gains dexterity and confidence, he should do more and more difficult things. If the puppy is nervous about a person or an object, he can be gently encouraged to investigate. If he simply resists exploring the object/person, the incident should be remembered and tried again at a later date. Pulling, forcing, or making a big fuss will usually cause more harm than good. (Food is an excellent motivator!)

Because your puppy keys on your actions and attitude, you should confidently approach these new experiences as if you sees no reason to be afraid. For if you behave fearfully or act as if this really is something fearful, the puppy will adjust his behavior to mimic your's. When the puppy overcomes his avoidance and investigates, he should be praised and rewarded. You can set up situations to help your puppy overcome his fear/s. For example, during off hours at the playground, you can find some potential fear inducing objects and place pieces of food on them (the smellier the better). When done, you should get your dog and allow him to investigate these objects on his own, encouraging him when needed. As your puppy checks them out and finds the food, he is automatically rewarded for going through his fear, thus encouraging a more confident, positive reaction to stress.

Socialization and the training games can be started as soon as the puppy feels secure in his new home with his new owner. As you and your dog work and play together, you are creating a bond of trust and establishing pack order. Your puppy will grow up believing you are 100% trustworthy and will be well on the road to becoming a model adult dog!

* The Veterinarian Service Market for Companion Animals 1992.

** The Humane Society of the United States. (202) 452-1100.

^ Back to Top