Overview: Why Service Dogs Need Lots of Socialization
In our previous post, Puppy Socialization: Why and How to Socialize Your Puppy, we went over what you need to know to socialize your puppy. This post builds on that foundation to talk about additional socialization issues for future service dogs. (If you haven’t read that post, please read it, then come on back.)
The basics of puppy socialization are the same for all dogs who live in a human world, whether they will be pet dogs, service dogs, police dogs, or therapy dogs. However, for service dogs, there is a greater imperative for the dog to be socialized to all the possible types of environments the dog will work in as an adult. There are two reasons for this need for “super socialization” for future service dogs (FSDs):
- Service dogs must be in a relaxed, happy, working state of mind in distracting environments or potentially stressful situations that many pet dogs would rarely be in, or would not be expected to behave well in. In order to be able to work in these situations, dogs must be completely comfortable.
- The more a puppy has positive experiences with new things during the critical socialization period, the more the dog learns that new things in general are not scary or dangerous. So, exposing a puppy to lots of new things in a positive way will also help this dog, in adulthood, feel serene around new things he has never experienced before. Lots of effective, positive socialization “inoculates” a puppy to “neophobia” (fear of new things) in adulthood.
FSD Socialization Tips and Tricks
- Make a list of all the places or things your puppy has already been exposed to. Were there people, objects, animals, or locations where she seemed nervous or overexcited? Make a plan to revisit those, starting with a less intense interaction — e.g., have your puppy further away, ask the person to be more low-key, make the sound quieter — until she’s more comfortable. Increase the intensity very slowly and make it a truly positive experience.
- Imagine several scenarios of where you want your adult service dog to work. Make a list: What will he see, hear, feel on his way to that environment? And then in that environment? What will be moving, making noise, or smell very tempting? Make it a priority to socialize your puppy to these things.
- Pay attention to touch, textures, and surfaces! We humans tend to notice people, places, animals, sounds, sights, but not so much the texture of the ground beneath us, but dogs pay a LOT of attention to surfaces. It’s not uncommon for a service dog to get totally distracted and unable to work when their handler walks up a flight of metal stairs, over a sewer grate, onto an escalator, or over other “weird” surfaces. My country dog was freaked out by sewer covers and white lines painted on pavement (especially at night — see next bullet point). Some good places to find diverse textures and surfaces are children’s playgrounds — when not in use! — (sand, wood chips, and the equipment itself can make a good place to play to experience height and different textures), cities (sewer grates, subway grates, pavement, cement), malls/buildings (elevators, escalators, wheelchair lifts). You can do this at home by making a game of your puppy walking on bubble wrap, or filling the bathtub with empty plastic water bottles and playing a game in there.
- Pay attention to weather, time of day, and lighting. Make sure to sometimes take your dog out at night. If he has experience with socialization in the dark, it will seem normal to him. Also, make sure to do some trips in the snow or the rain. We often avoid training in bad weather, but if you want your dog to work in this weather, he’ll need to get used to it, too.
Special Socialization Challenges for Service Dog Owner-Trainers
- For super friendly dogs, associate “focus on me” with exciting distractions. Remember: Your puppy does not have to interact with everything to have a positive association with it. Just being around some things and feeling happy, calm, and relaxed is good socialization. If you have a super-friendly puppy who wants to greet all people or all dogs, spend many socialization outings rewarding your puppy for happily focusing on you when you’re around dogs and people. Every once in a while, after your puppy has offered you terrific focus and control, reward that with a chance to greet a friendly person or dog, then call your puppy away for extra great food rewards, play, or affection from you.
- Train both “settle” and “work” in exciting environments. Service dogs have two job requirements: 1. performing trained assistance or obedience skills, and 2. lying around relaxing and conserving energy when they’re not working. Most of us tend to socialize our dog well in one area and not as well in the other, so make sure you work on both.
– To train your puppy to work around distractions, bring some really exciting treats and ask your pup for some simple behavior such as making eye contact with you, hand targeting (touching his nose to your hand), or sitting.
– Equally important is to sometimes ask your puppy to settle away from home. Do this on walks, at a friend’s house, or at a dog-friendly store or office. Bring a mat or towel and quiet activities for both of you. Put the mat down, tell her to settle, give her a chew, and read your book or check your email. Every once in a while, quietly place a treat between her paws so that she learns that settling will be unpredictably rewarded. If she gets up, tell her to settle again. Start with five minute settles in more familiar environments and increase in time to longer periods in totally new places. When this is going well, hand the leash to a trusted friend and go out of sight for at least five minutes so your pup can settle in strange places without you, too. (I know it’s hard to imagine wanting or needing this with a service dog, but it happens more often than you might imagine.)
Are there environments you want your puppy to work in or be comfortable in, but they’re not accessible or comfortable to you? For example…
- Children’s playgrounds can be great for introducing your puppy to strange textures, but few of them are accessible to people in wheelchairs or with mobility limitations.
- Many people want their adult SD to help them navigate environments (e.g., crowds, people behind them, cities at night) that currently trigger symptoms for them.
- Rain and snow are a common hindrance for wheelchair users or people with poor balance.
If you are challenged by certain environments yourself, it is important that your puppy has some positive socialization experiences in those situations. You also want to take care not to share your negative associations with certain people or places with your puppy (more on that below). Avoiding these situations is only a good option if you think your adult dog will never need to be comfortable or work in those environments. For example, if you live in a warm climate (and plan to stay there) that almost never gets snow, and one day there is a freak blizzard. Since this dog won’t need to work in snow, you can both stay in (though it’s a great opportunity, if you’re able, to give the puppy a totally new experience!). But in most cases, you’ll want your puppy to get socialized to things that may be challenging for you. Here are a few options to consider:
- The best course may be to hire a trainer — who uses positive methods and is experienced with puppy socialization — to take your puppy on socialization outings. (Tips on finding the right trainer.) Make a plan for what you want your puppy to be exposed to — is it a certain location, type of weather, time of day, or is it more general — “crowds” or “city noise”? Plan to have the trainer do several outings during the puppy’s critical socialization period (before 20 weeks) and then periodically over the course of the puppy’s youth (into adolescence) so that long-term positive associations can form with these environments.
- Another good option is a trusted friend or family member who is savvy about dog body language to take your pup on outings. Ask them to take your puppy for outings in places or around people that are stressful for you.
- When all else fails, can you fake it? Dogs learn a lot of how to feel about the world from how we act. If you are afraid of strange men, can you pretend that you just love having a conversation with the male checkout clerk at the pet store? If you are afraid of large dogs, can you act like it’s the most fun ever to walk past your neighbor’s pit bull? Can you give your puppy a delicious treat every time you see, hear, or smell the things that give you the heebie-jeebies? If you cannot actually get into the space that has the thing you want your dog to see, do, or experience, can you get close enough to train near it so that he has a good experience in its general vicinity?
This is a sentiment I hear often from people with PTSD who are training service dogs to help with anxiety, agoraphobia, and other related symptoms. And I get it. When I had multiple chemical sensitivity and was training my first service dog, I was appalled to discover that she loved the smell of fragrance and wanted to follow people who were heavily perfumed. However, there are several reasons you do NOT want to socialize your puppy to fear the same things you fear:
- If your dog makes negative associations with things (people, animals, objects) in your environment, those associations will take the form of negative emotional reactions — and their associated behavior. Dogs don’t have theoretical dislikes of things. They have intense emotional reactions. This means if your dog doesn’t like men or people with facial hair or people in hats or crowds, he will not just calmly try to steer you away from them. He will show his dislike with fear (slinking, hiding, rolling over, panting, drooling) or aggression (barking, lunging, growling, biting). A reactive, fearful, or aggressive dog is not a service dog; it is a behavior modification project. This will mean…
- Your dog will be under distress. While you may be able to understand that your feelings are not necessarily rational or related to what is truly happening in the moment, your dog does not. If she becomes distressed, anxious, or fearful around the same triggers you do, she will be suffering from those states, the same as you, but she won’t have the understanding you do of why.
- You will not have public access with your reactive or aggressive dog, and you’ll have another set of problems. Business owners have the right to ask a person accompanied by a dog who is disruptive, aggressive, or otherwise acting unprofessionally to remove the dog. I have seen far too many owners trying to train service dogs where the dog has already bitten people or the owners have been asked to remove the dog due to aggression. This is a costly and stressful situation that is much better prevented.
- The most important reason: Your dog will not be able to work around these triggers — and in many other situations. The main reason people want their dog to fear, dislike, or avoid certain things is the idea that the dog will be able to alert them to these triggers or to lead them away from them. But a dog in a reactive or fearful state cannot think. (Imagine trying to take a math test while riding a roller coaster.) So your dog will not be able to perform the behaviors you need him to perform; he’ll just be freaking out. And dogs who are reactive or fearful in one situation may very easily have those emotions bleed over into other situations over time, increasing the situations in which the dog cannot think and work well.
One Step at a Time
We often have a sense of urgency and great expectations when we bring home a puppy to train as a service dog. But trying to accomplish everything at once can lead to pushing ourselves or our puppies too hard. Instead, prioritize good, basic puppy raising – socialization, handling, bite inhibition – to raise a healthy, happy, well-rounded pup. Other useful guideposts are your pup’s developmental stage, temperament, and breeding, and your household and lifestyle. Check out our other puppy training posts for more information on these topics.
Want Hands-On Help?
If you’re raising a puppy to be a future service dog, we can help. For people in Western Mass., and the North Quabbin area, we can work directly with you and your dog. If you’re out of the area, we can do service-dog specific consulting with you and your trainer to keep you on track. We also offer service dog training workshops and presentations to groups of potential owner-trainers (disability organizations, community groups, dog training facilities) and to dog trainers and other dog professionals.