What is the purpose of socializing dogs? Why is it important for a puppy to meet many friendly strangers, other friendly dogs, go in a wide variety of places and be exposed to a wide variety of environmental stimuli?
Here is a simple way of looking at the value and purpose of socialization. Think of the brain as a having a sensory information funnel that feeds information as fuel for behavior. Information is poured into the top of the funnel which drains down through various processing filters. Some information isn’t relevant or even noticed, so a lot of that information is discarded. Each filter in the funnel collects, interprets, analyzes, and sometimes stores the information though a succession of stages. New information is compared with stored information. That processed information fuel then influences behavior.
The implication of this information processing, regarding socialization, is enormous. Sometimes, the flow, storage or retrieval of information becomes blocked. What’s in there is going to remain in there, or what’s in there is going to be resistant to change. If behaviors are a result of what has been processed, and new information is blocked from being collected, interpreted, analyzed, or stored, then it becomes very difficult to modify some behaviors. In most cases, such blockage is adaptive and serves a useful purpose. It’s useful for a dog to remember a friend. It’s useful for a dog to know how to relate to other dogs. On the other hand, if a dog hasn’t received enough useful information, or its memory is stuffed with a lot of harmful information, then the resulting behaviors can be pathological.
Many of us are familiar with the concepts of “critical periods” or “sensitive periods”. These are sequential stages of social development which tend to permanently shape the character and abilities of a dog. At each stage, the brain is especially open to selectively store information types that are useful for survival. Once those stages are passed, then these memory storage area doors are generally blocked in or out, or it is very difficult to store new information in those areas. The efficiency of these information processing filters which use memory storage are also affected during these periods.
What a dog perceives is greatly determined by this multi-staged information processing system. If a dog can’t process and store certain types of new information, or access appropriate stored information, then the dog is going to have behavioral problems. So, for example, a dog that is fearful of, and doesn’t warm up to, strangers could be viewed as having blocked information processing functions. The normal inflow of safety information is blocked. Thus, the dog can’t reciprocate friendly gestures and will act as if they don’t know the person the next time they meet. The behaviors and the mood of such a dog are impaired.
Early, proper socialization pours socially appropriate and functional information into memory stores which can be accessed by the various processing filters which can then be used by the dog to make good decisions. The more useful information in these memory areas, the quicker and better the dog will be able to feel and act. Furthermore, since many of these memory areas tend to block new information from coming in after these critical or sensitive periods pass, it is important to purposefully pour in the right types of useful information at the right times. The flip side of this for a good trainer is to understand ways to attempt to unblock some of these memory areas, or to support new memories in new areas, to help create new moods and behaviors. That’s the art and science of good behavior modification.
There are ways to approach socialization deficits that can be successful, relying on brain plasticity and sufficient time and effort. Some areas of memory are more easily unblocked than others, and some sensitivities and efficiencies can be influenced with the proper methods. Another other common approach involves using pharmaceuticals to attempt to override the natural neurochemical processes, but we are a long way away from these being universally successful.
Unfortunately, many training approaches are clumsy gimmicks. These techniques are used to block the responses instead of seeking to unblock these memory areas or to affect the sensitivities of these perceptual and decision-making filters which cause the responses. Just blocking a dog from doing some behavior you don’t like doesn’t mean it is good for the dog or that it will be successful. Some methods being used in the dog training world don’t come from a good place and will break down many dogs.
For long term success, it is a lot easier to properly socialize a puppy than to attempt to modify established memories, sensitivities and resulting behavioral patterns.