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.


4 thoughts on “Socialization and Fear

  1. Judy Fridono

    Thank you for mentioning Puppy Prodigies in your article. Our Neo-natal & Early Learning Program is designed to provide puppies with a long-term advantage at an early age in an effort to effect adult behavior tendencies.

    We focus on early learning because a puppy’s first seven weeks are a time of tremendous growth and development. Early learning experiences have profound implications for later success in life. From birth to seven weeks is the time when the greatest changes, physically and behaviorally take place and a time when basic personality is shaped. Behavior is never entirely inherited or entirely acquired. It is developed under the combined, interdependent influences of hereditary and environmental factors. However, it can be guided and modified by the influence of experience. Therefore it is possible to modify behavior by modifying the environment through early conditioning and training.

    Thank you also for mentioning Surf Dog Ricochet who was a puppy in our program that we slated to be a service dog. As she grew, so did her interest in chasing birds. After many months of working on controlling her impulses (which she did very well with), the decision was made to release her from the service dog role, as we couldn't guarantee her instinct would never surface, which could be a risk to a person with a disability.

    Rather than focus on what she couldn't do, the focus was placed on what she could do, which was surfing. She now raises funds & awareness for charitable causes through her surfing. She has raised almost $50,000 in the last 10 months, largely in part due to an inspirational video of her journey that went viral Her early socialization and training compliments her work, and exemplifies the importance of early exposure as this article outlines.

    Kudos to Linda Michaels for bringing it to the forefront.

    Judy Fridono
    Executive Director
    Puppy Prodigies

  2. Lisa H.

    Our first dog, Patton, is a product of Linda's knowledge & skills and we couldn't be happier!
    As working pet parents, we needed an educated & reliable professional to help us socialize Patton as a puppy. Using only positive reinforcement techniques, Linda shaped Patton into the most wonderful, energetic & friendly dog. Amongst many other training techniques, they went on "field trips" where he was exposed to a variety of places & people. The result; A confident & happy pup! Patton has an energetic nature which is infectious. He makes people smile & laugh wherever he goes 🙂
    We can't say enough good things about Linda & how crucial her expertise was in training Patton during his early developmental weeks/months. Linda's ability to not only train, but to connect with her pet clients, is a unique combination. She & Patton have a strong bond and will forever be the best of friends.

    Lisa H.

  3. Linda Sackman

    Hello everybody,
    I am a life long dog owner, but all I ever knew from up close were “normal“, happy, reasonably socialized, well-taken-care-of dogs. Not that I did not know about the less fortunate ones, but I let myself be paralyzed by my own sentimentality. I was one of those people who love animals to the point they can not bear the sight of them suffering, thus rendering themselves unable to do anything about it. I have worked in various fields of animal care but only recently have I mustered all my courage and started volunteering at a dog shelter. I got my MA in psychology/animal behavior and I read my fair share on behavioral problems that arise from lack of socialization, but nothing I ever read and no dog I ever worked with prepared me for what I was about to see.

    The rescue shelter is full of dogs whose history we can only guess. Maybe apart from the very young puppies, each and every one of them has a problem that was preventable. Some are, hopefully, treatable. With loving care, patience and positive reinforcement methods. Some, however, will most likely never fully recover, because of the abuse or neglect they suffered in their sensitive periods. For some, maltreatment is all they ever knew. Many of the shelter dogs are intolerant of other dogs, and almost all of them are fearful and shy to the point it debilitates them in their everyday routine. They are erratic, unable to walk on a leash, never mind without it. The tiniest stimuli startle them and trigger defensive aggression displays. Many do not let themselves be touched. Its truly heartbreaking.

    I feel blessed that I met Linda Michaels, who kindly agreed to supervise me online. Since day one, I realized training basic obedience with a “mentally intact“, happy dog is one thing and trying to rehabilitate the damaged ones is quite another. Linda has been talking me through my baby steps, for which I am very grateful.

    I am writing this to strongly support the notion that it is absolutely crucial to educate the public about how to raise a balanced dog. Teach the importance of early socialization, bring attention to training options, starting with puppy classes. Raise awareness about seeking help if needed. I wonder how many of these shelter dogs ended there precisely because their owners failed to recognize the need for conscious pet parenting.

    And last but not least, strive for a "new-forever-home re-socialization program" for adoptive parents who decide to take an animal from a shelter. Teach them about their pet´s special needs and give them positive tools how to handle the challenges. That way we might be able to reduce the number of adoption failures due to the dogs social impairment.

    Rome was not built in a day but I am very hopeful that one day the basic information about early socialization and positive reinforcement training methods will be a key part of responsible pet parenting and that help will be available and affordable...and ultimately that there will be no homeless, abused or neglected pets.

  4. Linda Michaels Post author

    Thank you so much Linda for your well-thought out and poignant reply. Both Victoria and I have a foundation in shelter work and we both know first-hand the heartache and joy that comes with it. My experience at a shelter insured I would become an adamantly non-aversive trainer as I believe there is no excuse for harsh or neglectful treatment of our beloved dogs.

    I recognized from the first time I met you that you could go far. I am so inspired that you took direction and got right out there to begin your shelter-education and are now already a respected Kennel Manager at Pet Orphans which is a wonderful facility. I am so proud of you. How much you have accomplished and how far you've come in just a short time in understanding the challenges we face, and the kind methods of treatment that can in many cases save these darling animals.

    It's a joy working with you. Hope to see you at the Expo!
    Warmest regards,

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