Creating a Socializing Plan

This is going to be a chapter in my second book which I hope to have published in 2020.  I will update this blog when it is published.

I still have edits and rewrites to do on the book but I wanted to share this part on my blog.

(c) Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training – all images and such on this entry are my property unless otherwise noted


Socializing begins at birth.  This blog entry will explain it  Social Butterflies

TN 2014 (2)

Uhura and Sarah on a warm summer night observing Gatlinburg, TN in 2014.  Picture by West Wind Dog Training.

As new owners, you will be told two main things (1) do not socialize your puppy until 14 – 16 weeks of age and (2) to get that dog every place and everywhere, the busier the better.

Both of these are wrong.  Read Social Butterflies linked above.  It addresses safer socializing with young puppies.  Waiting until a puppy is 14 – 16 weeks is like waiting until a human child is 5 – 6 years old before starting to teach him about life and manners.  Human manners training starts at birth.  Puppy socializing starts at birth.  Now to look at #2.  With socializing we have to look at each dog individually. What works for one dog in a socializing plan could be detrimental to the dog next to him.

I like to use several things when I am working on a socializing plan with a client.  I use these concepts for a host of things from working with a new puppy, a scared dog, or an over excited goofball with few social graces.  THAT SAID – if the dog is one with significant concerns, as a trainer is it my duty to help find a veterinary behaviorist if needed. 

I like working with a couple concepts with my owners:

Counter Conditioning is giving a positive association to something that once had a negative effect on the dog (or any animal).  For example, if Ivan Pavlov used an electric shock following a bell ring instead of present the dogs with food, the dogs would associate the sound of the bell with pain and become stressed when they heard the bell ring – even if no shock followed.  The dogs would have been conditioned to associate the bell with pain.  Now, if that shock was taken away and food introduced, the bell would eventually be associated with good. This is a simple explanation of counter conditioning. HOWEVER, the full sound of the bell may be too much for the dog, so we would add in desensitization.

Desensitizing is adding in small doses of what is bothering the dog while counter conditioning.  So, I would take that bell sound and lower the volume and/or move the dog away from it.  I would do this until the point where the dog was paying attention to the bell but not in full panic or even showing stressed behaviors.  I would want him to look up but be able to recover quickly from hearing the sound. Now I begin pairing things that are pleasant for my dog with the soft bell ring: food, play, etc. When the dog could care less about the bell, I would stop that session.  I would repeat this a few times until the dog just does not care about the bell at that volume and ideally is associating the sound with good things.  Now I would increase the volume slightly or move the dog closer to the sound and start that positive association.  My goal is to be able to have the bell sound at normal volume in the same room and have the dog either ignore it or look for good things to follow the sound.  If the dog begins to respond negatively, I step back, lower the volume and/or increase the distance, maybe get a higher value treat and start again.

I like Counter Conditioning and Desensitizing as I have found  they are easy for dog owners to understand and perform. Add in reasonable expectations (just because you feel your dog should do something does not mean it is in the best interest of your dog) and managing the environment (such as preventing people from being rude to your dog or being able to undo your work) and a well applied CC/DS program can be very beneficial.

Now I add in careful observation of my dog.  I use different mental images to help my clients:

Levels and Zones

We want to keep dogs below threshold/sub-threshold. This means the dog feels low to no threat if he is scared or not so excited that he is out of control and developing frustration behaviors if he is an over excited goofball.

Use street light meanings as a guide to help you observe your dog.

Street lights

Green – OK – go but always be aware of situations around you. Just because green means go when we are driving, does not mean someone will stop at the red light on the other side.  When you think your dog is giving you the greed light that he is OK in a situation, always be aware of your surroundings.  You never know when a driver will ignore a red light and put you in danger.

Yellow – CAUTION – be very aware of what is going on around and with your dog. What does a yellow light mean for drivers?  Be careful.  There is a potential for a situation.  Watch your dog’s body language even when you are in green light situations.  They could change to yellow light fast.  Many conditions are yellow light until we and our dog determines if they are heading to green or red.

Red – STOP – get out of there, no meaningful work can happen as your dog is too scared or frustrated. You do not want to run a red light with your car nor do you want to enter a risky situation with your dog.

Now rank your dog’s reactions to things:

Give your dog’s reactions a number. 1 is the lowest and 10 is where he cannot function, cannot revert to you, does not care about the food, voice or anything except running from, getting to or taking on the stressor.

The first four numbers should indicate the dog is below threshold. This is provided the dog has not been taught to suppress body language which can make it more difficult to read what your dog is saying. Below threshold means the dog does not feel the need to react in a way we do not like.  He is not concerned enough to be overly afraid or have an over excited goofball outburst triggered.  Think of the threshold as a door threshold.  As long as your dog is on the opposite side of the door, he is OK.  The closer to the door, the more stressed or excited he becomes.  If he is allowed or forced through the door and over the threshold, he will react.

From 1 – 4, your dog is not really reacting adversely and is easy to work with using counter conditioning and desensitizing.   The dog reverts back to you, is easy to distract and redirect his attention back on you when he is between numbers 1 – 4.  Think of this as a green light.  It is OK to work and maybe even get closer.

1, 2 –      Dog is fine with whatever stressor/distraction.  He may even seem not to notice it.

3, 4 –      Dog is showing interest and is not upset but more curious.

After 1 – 4, the dog is beginning to get close to that that threshold and is upset/anxious/etc.   You need to stop getting any closer to the distraction or allowing it to come closer.  Your dog is harder to get to redirect back to you.   Remember to look for subtleties such as tension in the face and body, lip licking, looking anxiously about like a cheerleader in a slasher movie, panting, whining whites of eyes showing and other stress indicators.   If he is an over excited goofball he may be whining, wiggling, trying to pull against the lead, acting anxious as he wants to see that thing on the other side of the invisible door.   If you see these behaviors, your dog may be outside the first four numbers and into 5 and 6.  This is your yellow light – caution.  You are getting close to the dog’s threshold, he will soon lose his ability to handle the situation and you are leaving the zone where you can best work with your dog and entering the zone where he is too upset to work.

5, 6 –      Dog is slightly stressing/exciting but still reverts to owner human with just a voice cue, shows interest and not panicking or lunging.  Your dog may be getting visibly upset but can still redirect his attention to you though may not be able to keep his attention on you for long.

Dogs should not be allowed to get past their threshold: I never want a dog to get past 1 – 4. Levels 5 and 6 should be avoided.  Now we go on to what would be a red light area for your dog.

A dog who is 7 or above is above threshold and you cannot really redirect this dog. You are driving him through a red light and putting him and even others at risk.  You have shoved him or allowed him through that invisible door and over that threshold.  You must become happy, encouraging and get him out of there.  Trying to call your dog away often does no good especially if the dog is stressed and unable to respond. If your dog is barking and lunging at something, do not stand an allow him to do it.  Do not punish the behaviors. Do not yell, panic or “freak,” just get happy and get out of there – you help him escape.

7 –           Dog is entering fear/stress/excitable zone, harder to get to revert, keeps looking back to the stressor/distraction, even when owner has food or a toy present.  Still maintaining some level of control but it is not much.

8, 9 –      Dog is reacting in a way we do not want and almost no redirection possible.  He may quickly look at us but is more focused on the distraction.

10 –         Dog is now in full-blown terror/aggressions/hyper-excited and cannot redirect at all.

Keep notes on your dog’s progress. Remember that the closer or louder a distraction is, the harder it may be for your dog to handle it.  If I cannot happily say my dog’s name and have him look at me and wait for instruction or he keeps looking at me and then going back to the behaviors I do not like, the dog is not ready for that level of stimulus at this point.  I have to make it easier for the dog.

I like a dog to recover fast – within moments if possible. Recovery means the dog settles down, is not trying to escape or charge the stressor, he can respond to his name, focus on you and be back under control, his body language is calm. He may not be accepting of the situation at this time but you have him back and responsive to you on a solid level.  However, since I am working to keep my dog below threshold, I should not be putting him in stressing situations over and over so he feels the need to react in a serious manner.  By reading body language I can do this.

Here is an entry with body language information – read the second part which is linked to the bottom.

Remember, there will always be things that some dogs may not be able to handle. There will always be distractions or stressor that no matter what work is done that the individual dog may be too overwhelmed when presented with the stressor. It is your job to indentify these things, see how far you can safely bring your dog to be able to handle the situations and sometimes just avoid it altogether.  Taking notes, keeping a log and monitoring progress is important.  Also, trainers need this information to help adapt whatever program they developed.

I recommend keeping another chart to see if triggers for the fear or over excitement can be discovered. If triggers can be identified, the situation is easier to work with because I can set up scenarios to help the dog.  Sometimes there are no discernible triggers.  This means we have to be seriously vigilant and watching our dog’s body language.

Please remember, that just because I am helping a dog learn more self control or to better handle fears, I am NOT guaranteeing he will be perfect and able to handle anything. Just because your dog is not panicking at the sight of playing children, for example, does not mean he will tolerate a child running up to give a hug.  Do not ever mistake the ability to handle a certain situation with a dog being accepting of everything.

Here is a sample of a chart  to keep track of my dog’s reactions to different stimuli.


Stressor/Distraction Dog’s Level

(1 – 10)

Dog’s Reaction/Body Language Human’s Reaction Recovery Time
Child ran around corner of his house, screaming, firing a water gun 7/ 8 Dog panicked and tried to escape, ears pinned, tail tucked Walked dog across street and kept going until dog stopped trying to run and began looking back at child without panicking, stayed quiet, allowed dog to observe child from distance while feeding him treats when he looked at child About 2 min from point we stopped to where dog was looking at child’s house and not worrying
Or for a goofball


Dog saw person with a dog


6 Wagging tail, ears up, bouncing, excited yips, dancing at end of lead. Walked dog across the street, had him sit and focus on me and a treat. Immediately


How humans respond when their dogs are reacting in an undesired way is crucial to the final outcome. When we react in ways that increase stress and anxiety or cause frustration, we can worsen the dog’s emotional state and thus worsen how the dog will react next time.  For example, a dog behaving in a way we call aggressing towards another dog is an indication of some form of stress.  When we punish the dog, yank his leash and yell, we increase the chance he will escalate his aggressing next time.  Alternatively we run the risk of the dog ceasing his body language while still emotionally agitated therefore increasing the future risk of the dog being put into a position where he will explode behaviorally because we no longer see any definitive body language.  We also run the risk of taking the overexcited and happy goof ball and make a dog that no longer has a positive association with the distraction and begins to dislike it.  When we keep a dog exhibiting fear in that state of fear by forcing him to face things head on, we increase the chance of an increased fear reaction, even the dog attempting to fight next time instead of trying to escape. Just because a dog stops responding does not mean he is OK.  The dog may have shut down.  Nothing works, therefore he stops. He is not better, he has just stopped responding.

By having an owner track stress levels, stressors, reactions and such, I can look for patterns to help create a program for the dog and owner.

In or Out of the Zone

Now that you have begun to identify what stresses your dog and the severity, distances you need to be from the stressors, etc. need to be added into a counter conditioning and desensitizing program. Different things will elicit different responses at different times and distances.  Your dog may be able to handle a bike at 50 feet away but a dog at 20 sends him into a frenzy of barking.

Break your distance from the stressor into zones. The closer your dog is, the harder it will be to work with the dog while desensitizing and counter conditioning. 

[STRESSOR] —-  Zone 1 —- | ———–  Zone 2 ———– | —— Zone 3

When a dog is in Zone 1, he is too close, he is reacting, and you will get a 7 – 10 reaction from the dog.

When a dog is in Zone 2, he should be anywhere from a 3 – 7 depending on how close you are. The further away from Zone 1, the easier it will be to get your dog to respond.

When a dog is in Zone 3, he is able to look at the distraction, not be bothered and even ignore it.

The goal with desensitizing and counter conditioning is to reduce the size of Zone 1 while increasing Zones 2 and 3 by using the 1 – 10 stress levels.

Again, we need to be rational. Expecting a dog to love all dogs, all people, be able to tolerate every child racing into his face to give a hug, etc., is irresponsible.   If your dog is not dog friendly, I would not expect him to be able to walk in a dog dense area when everyone is out for walks.   If your dog is intolerant of children, I would not walk him through a play ground, take him to a school bus stop or your nephew’s football practice.  By charting and reviewing progress, we can determine if our dog is ready to move on to the next stage of work.  When your dog is handling something well (low stress levels) at one zone, start moving closer – but just a little bit!  Look at your dog’s reactions and continue until your dog begins to enter stress levels 5/6.  STOP, and begin working with your dog to give a positive association.  You will combine the stress levels and zones to help change your dog’s emotional response to various situations.  At some point, you may notice your dog not improving, you may have hit the level of your dog’s tolerance or you may be pushing things too fast and your dog developing a negative association with the stressors.

Finally, some dogs are always in such a high state of stress that they may have undergone physiological changes and need medications to help get over that emotional hump while using behavior modification.   This needs to be discussed carefully with me (if you are a client of mine) or a good trainer or behaviorist (if you are not a client of mine) and your vet.  Pills are not a magic cure for stress and anxiety.  Medication needs to be combined with behavioral work to achieve the best response.  If your dog is severe, you may be referred to a veterinarian behaviorist.  This is someone who can apply both medical and behavioral work together at a level the average trainer and veterinarian cannot.  This would be like a well-trained psychiatrist in humans:  trained in both medicine and behavior.  If you are referred to one, please take it seriously and make an appointment.  If there is not one in your area, ask your veterinarian to contact the closest one and ask for advice. Have this advice given to the trainer so we can all work together.

(please see (c) note above)

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