Socialization and Fear

Is your dog low on the “social butterfly” scale?

If you’re wondering why your dog is not more playful with you, other people or dogs and what you can do, take heart. Most dogs can learn to be more playful and affectionate. Sometimes we have to train a water-shy Labrador to swim and socialize. Try to be realistic about your expectations for your dog and remember that Lassie was, in reality, a long line of actor-dogs raised by an animal trainer. Chances are, you have a real dog.

Sociability in dogs is believed to be driven by three things: genetics, early developmental experience, and the triggering details of an event. Fear is adaptive to survival and thus, easily acquired and difficult to dislodge as it is deep-seated in the brain. Many frightened dogs will run away or hide if possible. Others have an active defense reflex and will go after what scares them. If this is your dog, please seek professional help.

Early Development and Early Exposure. A dog’s fear of strangers may be inherited. but some studies show that the experiences in early development and socialization can trump the effect of genes. Neglectful or aggressive mothering, and relationships between siblings can have an effect on your dog’s later psychological development. The critical period of social imprinting occurs within the 3 -12 week window, although the ideal age to transition a puppy into a forever home is 7-9 weeks.

What happens during the critical period may dramatically affect your adolescent and adult dog. Expose your puppy or rescue dog to 100 new things in the first 100 days, enrich the environment with gradual, gentle exposure to new people, places, things, other friendly dogs, and moving objects. Encourage early chew-toy training, task training, and housetraining. Take your dog with you every other time you go out and make sure that your dog’s socialization is a series of positive experiences. Dogs often behave one way with their family and household pets, and differently with strangers.

You can watch some amazing early puppy training videos at Puppy Prodigies on YouTube. To set your dog and your family up for success, check out a free resource, Before You Get Your Puppy by “puppy guru”, Dr. Ian Dunbar, available at .

Event Triggering. Negative associations from the past or unfamiliar stimuli can be triggers that generalize from one specific trigger, to wider and wider categories of events. Some fears can produce a state of hyper-arousal and chronic stress in your dog.

In regard to training, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior advises, “Training should be based on positive reinforcement with frequent rewards, praise, petting, play and/or treats. Positive and consistent training is associated with fewer behavioral problems and greater obedience than methods that involve punishment and/or encourage human dominance.” 2008. Whatever the source of your dog’s fears, the treatment is the same--desensitization and positive associations using slow, incremental exposure. Over-exposure to a feared stimuli, aka flooding, often further traumatizes a dog.

Insure the safety of all dogs and people, and remember that every good treatment plan begins with management. First, avoid getting the old response in order to make room for the new response and create new positive associations by linking a mild version of the fear with something your dog adores Work to get the right amount of exposure and stimulation balanced with a sense of security and safety. Your best guide is body language. Learn to read your dog’s body language, so you can recognize fear: mouth clamped shut, ears pinned back, tail between the legs, attempts to hide, run away, growling if trapped, or air snaps.

Food can be the initial bridge to change your dog’s response from one of fear to one of positive experience. For more help see, The Cautious Canine: How to help dogs conquer their fears, by Patricia McConnell, PhD. For great online information check out

Take it slow and think of Ricochet-- trained to become a service dog from the moment she was born, but who had a penchant for chasing birds. Ricochet’s new-found talent for surfing has made her Del Mar’s most loved surfdog-fundraiser who will be appearing at our upcoming Surf Dog Surf-a-thon She has a video gone viral on YouTube.

If your dog has people-aggression or severe separation anxiety fear-based issues, please consult a behavioral consultant for professional help.

Linda Michaels, “Dog Psychologist,” MA, and Victoria Stilwell-licensed Del Mar dog trainer and speaker may be reached at 858.259.WOOF (9663) or by email: [email protected] for private obedience instruction and behavioral consultations near Del Mar and the San Diego Coast. Please visit us at  All rights reserved.

Originally published in sdPets Magazine. Aug/Sept 2010 Copyright 2010. Linda Michaels, MA Psych, CPDT-KA. All rights reserved.

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Positively Expert: Linda Michaels, MA

Linda Michaels is a VSPDT trainer, dog training columnist, and owner of Dog Psychologist On Call in Del Mar, CA. Linda holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology with research experience in Behavioral Neurobiology. She is a Behavioral Advisor for the Wolf Education Project (WEP) in Julian, CA and Art for Barks in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.


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