What’s the Difference Between “Socializing a Puppy” and “Puppy Socialization”?

When you get a puppy, you want to do the right thing. You talk to other puppy owners, friends, relatives, and to dog professionals such as veterinarians and dog trainers.

You may read books and also articles on the Internet. Everybody’s talking about “socializing your puppy” and “puppy socialization,” but everybody has a different idea on what those terms mean.

Socialization” is not the same as “socializing,” but people use them interchangeably. There are different meanings even if you look these terms up in reference books.

Let’s get the correct definition from Dr. Ed Bailey, Professor Emeritus in Animal at the University of Guelph in Canada and Scott and Fuller, who did a humongous research study on dogs in the 1950s culminating in their book Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. They all say that “socializing” occurs when two dogs (or animals) hang out together and interact. Socializing occurs throughout the dog’s life.

Socialization and Communicating With Dogs and Humans“Socialization” is a two-fold process that takes place early in a puppy’s life, generally before he’s 12 weeks old. During primary socialization (puppy to dog or puppy to puppy), puppies learn how to communicate or “to speak dog” with other dogs and puppies through body language and vocally in various situations. Secondary socialization occurs when the puppy learns how to interact with another species – humans, cats, birds, hamsters, etc.  – because the puppy is forming social relationships, (especially with people).

The socialization process takes place when the puppies are learning to interact and communicate with another living being before 12 weeks.

Period, end of sentence, that’s it. Huh? That probably is not what you thought it was. Here’s why…

Scott and Fuller said that 3 to 12 weeks is the critical socialization period when puppies learn how to become dogs. They did further research into habituation (decreased response to a stimulus, i.e., getting used to something) to the environment and found that habituation occurred roughly during that 3-to-12-week period. They talked about “socialization” and “habituation” separately, as did many authors of subsequent articles and studies. At some point, the terms seemed to have morphed together”) so that “socialization” included “habituation” (maybe because they take place during roughly the same period and it’s easier to say “socialization” instead of “socialization and habituation”).

Why is that important?

Because today, if you read an article or talk to someone who discusses “socializing your dog to a crate,” that person does not know what s/he is talking about. You can’t socialize your puppy “to” anything. You can help him to habituate or get used to a crate, which is “behavior modification” – oops, there’s yet another term –  which is changing a response to a stimulus.

How did all this gobbledygook happen?

Up until 25 or so years ago, dog training was relatively straightforward – you put a choke chain on your dog and “taught” him commands. If he performed correctly, then he was praised. If he performed incorrectly, then he was punished by saying “no” and jerking the choke chain. (That’s the way I learned how to train my dogs back in the last century.) Those methods were based on the way military dogs were trained during World War 2. Any dog who didn’t learn that way washed out.

As more people began owning dogs and they became a part of our family, we began to look for better ways to train. This paralleled how the methods we used to teach children were changing.  So dog trainers looked to scientists, especially behavioral scientists, who gave us more scientific methods along with different jargon – operant and classical conditioning, stimulus control, the four quadrants, etc.

The early scientists/trainers understood the terminology, but it’s sometimes confusing when we lay people try to grasp a concept without knowing the meaning behind technical terms that we had never heard of. Most dog trainers are not scientists, so we thought we knew what the terms meant and began using them in a way that was understandable to us but was not necessarily technically correct. And these misunderstandings spread.

Whew! That’s the end of that discussion and the end of all scientific terminology. Now let’s talk about how to help your puppy get used to living in the real world.


caryl wolffCaryl Wolffdoggie manners

Caryl Wolff is a dog trainer, an author of several books and articles, and a dog behavior consultant certified by five dog trainer organizations.  She provides training and behavior consulting services to clients in the Los Angeles area and by telephone across the US.  You may contact her by email at caryl@DoggieManners.com or visiting her website http://www.DoggieManners.com

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