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Emotional Conflict During Socialization

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Stress During Socialization

Socialization is providing the opportunity to learn about new experiences.  Learning new things can be stressful because the puppy steps out of its comfort zone (“green zone”) into a slightly less calm emotional state (“yellow zone”).  This is a natural reaction of the body which actually increases their attentiveness and ability build on what has been learned before and have recognized as safe.  

As with any learning, puppies need to develop a positive feeling around these new experiences.  If the experience is too intense, puppies are pushed out way out of their comfort zone into what we will call the “red zone”.  Sometimes unexpected intense experiences happen but if allowed, the puppy will retreat, regain its comfort zone and possibly re-approach in its own way and time.  

From WSAVA, “exposure to mild stressors and handling early in life stimulates hormonal, adrenal and pituitary systems that result in animals that perform better in problem solving tasks, have greater resistance to disease and can better withstand stress later in life. However, excessive stress is not helpful.”  Therefore, it is our job as puppy socializers to expose our puppies to an appropriate level of mild stressors and help them build resilience.

Successful socialization provides these learning experiences through a variety of experiences which become progressively more intense.  A common example of this is exposing puppies to a wide variety of different-looking people: different heights, widths, people wearing different clothing and hats, people who move in different ways, etc.    Think of what your puppy will need to be comfortable with as it grows into adult-hood and provide the puppy with the foundation of learning.  This enables the pup to build on and generalize to a wide variety and greater intensity after it leaves.  

A common – and easy – mistake to make, is not focusing on the needs of each individual puppy. Of course, this is a challenge when you’re working with a whole litter! But it’s important to adjust your socialization strategy to the individual pup and not place them in a situation or environment that is too overwhelming for them, even though their littermates are coping well in the same environment.

In order to support our puppies appropriately, we need to understand puppy body language, recognize when our puppies are receptive to our socialization activities, and understand when we need to take a step back and reduce our criteria in order to better support the pup.  The scale of engagement will help you learn to recognize the puppy’s body language and level of emotional readiness to learn.

Scale of Engagement

During socialization, we want to make sure our puppies are in a state that means they are still learning something – e.g., that the socialization session is being successful and productive.  To measure this, we use the below Scale of Engagement, which ranks a puppy’s emotional (learning) state from 1 to 5. The scale is color-coded:

  • Items 1 and 2 are green
  • 3 is yellow
  • 4 is orange
  • 5 is red.

Green indicates that puppies are comfortable and can potentially be challenged further. Once puppy is in the yellow category, we need to watch carefully and allow the pup adequate opportunities to self-modulate the stress they’re experiencing, or if needed, we can step in and offer some support. Ideally, puppies should be moving between these green and yellow zones – this tells us puppies are learning new things but also coping well with the natural stress they’re experiencing and are developing healthy strategies to manage that stress by themselves. This is an essential skill any working dog needs!

If puppies are slipping into the orange category, this is our warning that the puppy is becoming overstimulated. We need to support our pup through this obstacle and end the session on a positive note, ideally once the puppy has returned to the yellow or green categories.

The red category means the puppy is overwhelmed and has been pushed too far – reminiscent of a dog “shutting down” – remember, this behaviour does not always mean cowering or running away; it can also mean the puppy has completely disengaged from the handler and is scavenging or crying or is otherwise completely “done” with the session. We never want a puppy to reach this category, but if they do, make sure to prepare for your next session by lowering potential stressors (e.g. reducing the 3 D’s or the expectations from your socialization session) or providing more support.

1 Engaged Actively engages with handler/environment without showing any signs of stress. Consider increasing the 3D’s to allow puppy the opportunity to reach the yellow (learning) zone.
2 MOSTLY Engaged Actively engages with handler/environment but may shows signs of mild stress. Pups may leave the green zone and enter the yellow zone. The pup will often show this by lip licking or sniffing in response to an exciting or stressful situation the brain will release a chemical into the body, creating a build up of emotion energy which reduces their ability to learn. Your role is to give the pup time to release the emotional energy
3 Learning Opportunity / Sorting out / Processing / Uncertain Should the pup enter the yellow zone it will need to be given time to release the emotional energy. You can assist the pup by adjusting the distance, distraction, and duration and this will usually result in the pup returning to the green zone. The ability of a pup to return to the green zone by itself helps develop self-modulation, which is an important attribute in guide or working dogs.Requires some encouragement to engage with handler/environment/ and/or shows mild stress signals
4 Learning Opportunity / Sorting out /  Processing / Uncertain  Requires substantial encouragement to engage with handler/environment and/or shows moderate stress signals. Warning: Puppy is quickly reaching a state in which it will be unable to learn positively. During this time, the puppy may show reactions to objects, stimuli etc that it previously appeared to be comfortable with.
5 Overwhelmed Uncomfortable. Unable to engage with handler/environment and/or shows severe stress signals.Pups in the red zone (shown by jerky movements, trying to escape, increased scavenging or vocalisation) are not able to resolve the stress on their own. Your role is to help the pup by adjusting the 3 D’s. The aim is ideally for the pup not to enter the Red Zone because you have given him the opportunity to release his emotional energy while still in the yellow or orange zones.

References and Further Reading

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