You got a new puppy and you want to do everything right. You read all the books, and you’ve heard of course that you have to “socialize” your pup, so you take him everywhere, and have him meet everyone, getting treats and affection from all. You do this because you really don’t want him to be scared of any of this, and you think that having positive interactions means they won’t be, as only good things happen.

It’s not an illogical assumption, but it’s far from the best way to accomplish that, and it has downsides we are not giving enough air time to.

It’s also the wrong term for what your task really is.

The main behavioral responsibility we have in raising puppies and in helping any new dog to be a welcome member of society is to teach them how to not be attracted to strange dogs and strange people. To walk in our world successfully means to ignore the passers-by, both human and canine, greeting only those that are known to us or who make it necessary to get politely past.  Yet strangely, we call this “socialization.”

There is nothing social about getting a dog used to the world he lives in. Social time is a separate thing, and social skills are learned in very specific ways with trusted partners. Socializing is something people do at parties, where they are expected to talk with others. Socializing is not what you do when you are teaching your dog how to move through the world politely and without fear.

Yet we let everyone coo over our puppies, or we coo over everyone else’s. We make them the center of attention any time they’re around, and we even will go out of our way to try to interact with dogs we see, asking to give them treats, making ourselves very magnetic.  Why? To entertain ourselves? Because we like dogs and want a “dog moment” today?  Well, it’s at the expense of the good behavior of that dog, and we need to get realistic about this.

In many other countries, dogs are just like everyone else walking by you. They aren’t cause for stopping and asking about, making eye contact with, and offering to feed and pet.  They are just like other people’s children; none of our business, and certainly not ours to take social liberties with.

Dog lovers: do not seek to interrupt every dog you see, trying to have a social moment, making yourself important and relevant to a dog you don’t know well. Admire from afar, make a comment to the owner if they seem open to it, but ignore the dog. Going on your way is the best way have to teach that dog how to be friendly in this world. Paradoxical, but true.

Dog owners: do not seek to teach your dog that other people are a source of entertainment, affection, or food for them.  Teach them that you are the source of such things, and especially so if they can withstand their initial social urges toward strangers.

Then, give them social time with trusted friends in social settings, so that they develop and express those skills in the right manner, supported by you. Don’t let strangers train your dog to be hyper-social in the name of “socialization.”  Instead, civilize your pup, teaching her to be a good citizen. Let her habituate to her world, going from finding everything overwhelmingly interesting, to knowing that strangers are for leaving alone politely, and friends are for interacting with socially.