Socialization for Your New Show or Sport Puppy Chelsea Murray ATDI, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP
You’ve just brought home your beautiful new show or sport prospect and dreams of success in the show ring are fluttering around in your head. While you may be eager to start those show ring or sport foundations, did you know there is something much more important?
Socialization should be your first goal when starting out with a new puppy and is the foundation for most more complex behaviors. Skills like hand stacking, gaiting, 2-on/2-off, stay, and down can be taught to dogs of all ages (an old dog really CAN learn new tricks!). But proper socialization can only be accomplished when a puppy is young and has a huge impact not only on the type of dog you will have when they mature (social versus nervous), but also how well they will do in the show ring (because social dogs are flashier)! Teaching confidence and comfort within the busy environments that our beloved sports demand has the best chance of success when puppies are in their critical period of socialization (under 20 weeks of age). Having a dog who is composed and happy in the presence of loud noises, new people, dogs, slippery or unstable surfaces, travel, and body handling will help you and your dog have more fun and success in the show ring!
Puppies are in a sensitive or critical period of socialization from about 4 weeks of age to about 12 to 14 weeks and this range may vary based on the breed. During this window it is important that the puppy is properly socialized because their brains are the most receptive to learning about the world and they will habituate to experiences that they encounter down the road (like sounds, people, and surfaces) (1). If we don’t introduce out puppies to the right kind of positive experiences during this period, it can become much harder to develop confidence and resiliency at a later age. Proper socialization is the key to the friendly and social dog. So how do we socialize our show puppies?
First it is important to stress that socialization is not exposure. It is far more complex than simply taking your new puppy places with you. In fact, for some puppies exposure can be too overwhelming and can create more fear. Socialization is about helping your puppy build positive associations and this process starts with your breeder. Many breeders follow protocols like Puppy Culture, AviDog, and Suzanne Clothier’s Enriched Puppy Protocol to help meet those early developmental needs and give the puppy a good start before they come to you by desensitizing and developing positive associations with toys and objects, ambient and environmental sounds, dogs and other animals, strangers, and body handling. And then once the puppy comes to you, even more work will need to be put in.
When setting up socialization experiences it is always important that you carefully observe your puppy’s body language. Puppies and dogs communicate active enjoyment and stress through their bodies, and it goes far beyond a tail wag. Small signals like licking lips, dropping the head, yawning, and scratching can all indicate stress (2). Becoming proficient at reading your puppy will help you learn when your puppy is having and good time (and building those essential positive associations) vs. when a situation could be too overwhelming, and we need to back off! Our goal is for the puppy to have a choice to interact or to retreat and to reward that bravery and interaction with high-value reinforcers instead of being forced into situations that cause stress and assuming the puppy will “get used to it”.
So, how do we apply our knowledge of socialization to help us socialize our show puppies? First, we need to break down what we will need our puppies to be comfortable with down the road in their conformation career (more than you might think!) and then strategically work that into our socialization training plan! Here is my list of six essential socialization needs:
New People (And Lots of Them!)
Travel and New Environments
Body Handling and Grooming
As you can see, there are a lot of new and potentially startling things at a dog show. While there are many ways to accomplish proper socialization for this environment, here are a few more detailed ideas to help you get your creative juices flowing.
New People Not only are dog shows filled with strangers, but some of those new people might need to invade your dog’s space by holding their face and touching their body. So, comfort with people handling them AND in crowds is important.One important component of puppy socialization is to attend a training class help with a positive reinforcement dog trainer. In a training study by Ai Kutsumi et al (2013) of the Azabu University Graduate School of Veterinary Science, they found that participation in a puppy class contributed to a puppy having a more positive response to strangers (3). So, enrolling your puppy while they are in the critical period of socialization improves the likelihood of them being comfortable with strangers and judges that they will encounter at a dog show. Both in class and outside of class it is important for your puppy to not just meet people (exposure) but to enjoy meeting people (socialization).For some confident puppies greeting humans might be easy, but often for hesitant puppies or breeds that are more watchful or reserved, easy greetings do not come as natural. So, it is important to pick and choose which greetings are appropriate and which friends or family members you can count on to follow your rules.
Nervous pup? Sometimes sitting on the ground with a friend can make the stranger less intimidating. You could ask your friend to ignore your puppy (don’t look at, talk to, or touch) to help take some pressure off the puppy) and allow a treat scavenger hunt and free play to happen while you and your friend talk. If you are social distancing for the Covid-19 pandemic you can do this in a fenced backyard with social distancing or on a long line in a grassy space (avoid dog parks due to germs your puppy is susceptible to right now). Allow your puppy the choice to approach and reward them when they do! But also give your puppy other activities to do in the vicinity to help give them other things to focus on.
You can practice training an easy skill like attention with friends or strangers in the vicinity. You could even bring your puppy to a park, sit on a towel, and reward attention to you and mark it with a click or “Yes!” and pay them for each person who walks past you.
During this critical period of socialization, your puppy will also be headed to the veterinary office for check-ups and routine vaccinations. Be sure to bring along your high-value treats to help your puppy build a positive association in that environment and with handling from strangers. If you cannot be with your puppy due to the pandemic, ask your veterinary staff how it went. This can help you gauge comfort and guide you as to what you might need to spend more time working on!
Strange Dogs Various sizes, breeds, and personalities are bound to be seen. It is in fact a DOG show! Your dog doesn’t need to be friends with all of them, but they do need to be able to tolerate dogs in close proximity in order to show well and focus on you. Just like with people, some puppies are more likely to be more comfortable and more social around other dogs. More specific efforts may be needed with certain puppies with timid personalities or breeds that are more reserved or have higher frequencies of dog-dog aggression. When you have a puppy, we do need to be careful about dog interactions since your puppy is not fully vaccinated to diseases that are transmitted by other dogs. However, we can’t leave them in a total bubble or stress around other dogs will become overwhelming for them!
Interactions with other dogs in your home, other puppies in a puppy class, and dogs who are healthy and belong to friends or family are a great place to start. However, it is about quality not quantity. Meeting a dog who is not social or an older dog who doesn’t want to play and who may snap or bite your puppy could be very traumatic. Instead, we want to introduce your puppy to social puppies and adult dogs who are comfortable with and tolerant of puppies.
“Observe and learns” are also a great way for your puppy to build positive associations with strange dogs. Head to a local park where you know other dogs will be on leash and sit on a blanket. Allow your puppy to watch the world go by and give a delicious treat each time a dog passes or if you hear any dog vocalizations in the distance. You can also bring along a puzzle like a Kong, a Licki Mat, or a Bully Stick to help keep your puppy occupied and build positive associations.
For the more confident puppies who want to play with other dogs while you are at your “observe and learn” training session, work on rewarding calm and quiet behavior. You can even work on some easy repetitions of attention to their name. This will help you start reinforcing the important concept of focusing on the handler when around dogs.
Loud Noises At dog shows your puppy might hear barking dogs, car alarms, intercoms, music, and more! The last thing you want is your dog startling and having a negative experience with any part of your show ring routine (like a judge’s exam) if an intercom unexpectedly comes on.
At a dog show noises are abundant! They vary in volume and are often unpredictable. So, introducing your puppy to a variety of noises and pairing those noises with food will help your puppy learn that they do not need to be worried about it!
Noise socialization can easily be accomplished in the home with daily chores like laundry, crushed ice from the freezer, washing dishes, hair dryers and vacuuming. Keep some high-value treats in your pockets and reinforce your puppy after they hear those noises! If your puppy is attacking the vacuum or running away from it, it is WAY too much. The goal is to start with the noise at the quietest volume. So, sit with your puppy on the floor and give treats in the upstairs bedroom while your significant other vacuums downstairs. The distance and closed doors will help dampen the intensity of the noise. Over time as your puppy remains calm or confidence is boosted, the sound can get closer/louder.
You can also find unique noises on YouTube or through an App like Sound Proof Puppy Training. For more confident puppies. These sounds can be turned on quietly in the background during play or mealtimes. For puppies who might be more timid I recommend turning the volume down, hit play, say “Yes!”, pause the sound and give your puppy a treat. This way they won’t be overwhelmed by a big or long noise. Instead, they only listen to a short sound clip and get paid for it, which helps them learn that the weird noise brings food, which makes it become not scary anymore.
You can also capture those unique noises outside! Out on a potty break and hear an ambulance in the background? Say “Yes!” and pay your puppy turning that novel noise into a treat party.
Unique Surfaces Dog shows have a variety of surfaces including slippery concrete, rubber matting, floor drains, and carpet. Some surfaces like concrete may feel slippery and your dog might not gait as well if they are worried about their footing. We don’t want our dogs dropping their heads to nervously look while we try to gait over top of changes in the flooring. The great news is surface socialization can be done easily in the home!
Little courses can be set up at home with anything you might have that has a different texture. Some examples include blankets, towels, rubber mats, crate dividers, silicone baking sheets, fake turf grass, low platforms, and thin pillows. With a few items down on the ground you can move around the space and pay your puppy for choosing to interact. I don’t force the puppy or lure them. I encourage with hand targets (if they know that) and happy voices, and mark with “Yes!” and pay them when the puppy touches the “weird” surface (4).
You can also capture this behavior while out in public! Storm drains, curbs, and more can be found out in the environment. Building positive associations in new places is a great way to help your puppy generalize and learn that ALL surfaces are great no matter where they are.
Travel and New Environments Dog shows often require significant car travel, usually including crating and hotels. This requires our puppies to love their crates and be able to settle in them in a variety of environments (usually weird and loud ones!). Your puppy will also need to get used to new environments for competitions. Their ability to work in new environments requires confidence and attention when new things are around!
Crate training (5), x-pen training (6), and mat work (7) are essential! Working on reinforcing relaxation or quiet and laying down will not only help your puppy build those essential positive associations with those spaces and confinement but will also help you start training the desired behaviors needed for travel.
“Observe and learns” are also great ways to reinforce this relaxation (while also building positive associations with other key components like people, dogs, noises, etc.). Bring the puppy somewhere new and set up your chosen skill (a crate, an x-pen, or a settle mat) and sit down. Say “Yes” and reward the puppy when they sit or lay down quietly. Bringing this relaxation activity on the road also helps with those new environments.
Relaxation in the crate in the car is also important for travel. Meals can be fed in the crate to help build the positive association with this space. You can even offer calming enrichment like Licki Mats, Bully Sticks, and Kongs for practice and while in transit to help reinforce the space and the desired behavior.
Body Handling and Grooming While different breeds have different grooming requirements, which may require more careful handling care, all dogs will need to be comfortable with the exam from the judge. This can be extensive, including holding the face, rubbing the ears, touching the tail, and a physical assessment of structure through the coat.
Getting started with a table is great to do right at the start. If you have been working on a settle mat, you can use the mat to help boost comfort on the table. In the beginning the goal is happiness and no stress signals on the table. I don’t need a stand at first and I will pay the puppy for any behavior on the table (sitting, standing, laying down). When no stress signals are visible, I will begin more targeted training by working on short periods of standing with grooming and short periods of down or settle on a mat with foot handling for toe nail trims.
When incorporating the grooming keep a close eye on stress signals. This isn’t about getting a show groom done. This is about breaking the grooming process up into small pieces. For those who might be worried it can be as easy as presenting the brush like a target and marking and rewarding the puppy for checking the brush out. It will then progress to one slow brush swipe down the back, a click or “Yes!” and a cookie. As the puppy does well you can increase how many brush strokes between each treat. You can repeat this target and one brush stroke process with different pieces of equipment.
When working with dryers, we want to break the process down as well. This could mean having the dryer turned on at the other end of the room to work on just the noise component. You also can start with a cool air dryer on low. Pay the puppy for hearing the noise. When no stress signals are visible you can increase criteria by either adding increased dryer output or by blowing a bit of air around the puppy and paying your puppy. You can even smear a bit of peanut butter on a licki mat on the grooming table and allow your dog a fun activity to keep them still and occupied while you work.
You will also want to work on building positive associations with touching. When the puppy has been exercised and trained you can sit on the ground with them. For puppies who are more comfortable and less mouthy you can do a little desensitization and slowly touch or pet your puppy, being sure to put your hands on their ears, feet, tail, collar, and tummy. For those who might be more timid, you can incorporate food into the game and pay them after you touch each part of their body. Toe touch, “Yes!” and give your puppy a treat (8).
When your puppy is showing no signs of stress with friends and family, have them work on body handling with you! Your puppy can lay on a bed or in their lap and ideally, they are calm and comfortable (they do not need to be standing or stacked – these are behaviors that can be taught at any age). You can reward your puppy for that calm behavior. You can also mark and reward petting, helping your dog start to build those positive associations for touch needed for an exam. Keep handling and petting very short and reward frequently. Touch the head, pay your puppy, touch the back, pay your puppy. If your puppy gets up and walks away or shies away from the person then that is a good indicator it was too much. Try to find a way to reduce the duration or change to a more comfortable place on the body.
Seems like a lot to cover, doesn’t it? There are some great socialization checklists out there to help you organize your thoughts like one from Dr. Sophia Yin (9) and the Pet Professionals Guild (10) or you can make your own! The key is to remember that each puppy is unique. You will want to observe your puppy’s body language carefully as you work your way through your list. If you notice your puppy is more worried or stressed about certain categories, take more time there to help your puppy through. And remember that your goal is positive associations with novelty and quality is important over quantity. Focus on socialization while you are in the critical period and save the obedience skills for later!
3. Kutsumi A, Nagasawa M, Ohta M, & Ohtani N (2013). Importance of puppy training for future behavior of the dog. The Journal of veterinary medical science / the Japanese Society of Veterinary Science, 75(2), 141-9 PMID: 23018794
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