My Less-than-Stellar Puppy Socialization Efforts


There is nothing like realizing that you need to take a bunch of your own advice. In my case right now, I need  to do things with my own dog that I have been telling others to do for nearly two decades. Sheesh.

I started fostering my young dog Woody (and his eight siblings) in November. He was my first so-called “foster fail” (meaning, I decided to keep him) in nine years of fostering for my local shelter. But since I adopted him, I’ve fostered several other large litters of puppies, one after another, and this task has kept me tied pretty close to home. So I haven’t taken Woody to as many places as I would advise everyone else to do with their dogs.

I did take him to two rounds of puppy kindergarten classes with my trainer/friend Sarah Richardson (, for a total of a dozen classes, and a few “puppy social” sessions that Sarah offers as sort of bonus sessions to puppies who are currently enrolled in her classes. And I have taken him on a few errands to Home Depot, pet supply stores, and to a board and care home (sort of like a convalescent hospital, but with just six residents, one of whom is my cousin), and, of course, to the homes of a few local friends and relatives. That’s not enough!

The 11 Great Dane-mix puppies and their Great Dane mom I had been fostering for the past couple of months were finally well, altered, and ready for adoption, and they flew off the shelves of my local shelter; the entire dozen were adopted in less than a week. So, suddenly, I was free to travel, and I celebrated by immediately jumping into my car with Woody and taking a weekend trip down to the San Francisco Bay to see my son and a few friends.

The first thing I knew we needed to work on more is greetings. Despite my best efforts to ask for a controlled entrance, Woody entered each of my friends’ homes like he was home from the war and couldn’t wait to see all his loved ones again -especially the loved ones sitting on sofas in their living rooms. Those people were greeted with full-on leaps into their laps! But of course, he had never met any of these people before and had never been there before.

Fortunately, I had only enough time to visit my very BEST friends on this visit, and my very best friends are all dog lovers, so I think Woody and I are still welcome to visit again another day, but if the first two things hadn’t been true, I’m not sure the welcome mat would be getting rolled out again any time soon. And I’m sure not going to take him to see any elderly relatives until we’ve worked on this a bit more.

The other surprising thing to me was Woody’s reaction to certain people on the street as we walked. I’ve tried my best to introduce him to lots of different types of people – young, old, tall, small, black, white and every color in between – but there seem to be gaps in his understanding that humans are okay unless their actions prove otherwise. Walking around in Berkeley one day, he startled several times at the sight of elderly Asian ladies, twice at white kids who were wearing baseball caps, and once, quite dramatically, at a baby stroller.

Each time he hesitated as he saw certain people, growled, or started putting up his hair (raising his hackles), I call him, step or turn away to put more distance between whatever he was anxious about and us, and pop treats, one after another, into his mouth. I’d praise him for turning to look at me, to come with me, and to sit on cue. 

In the case of the stroller, it was still at least 50 feet away when he noticed it coming toward us and it spooked him. He stopped suddenly and puffed up quite defensively, growled and let out a loud, startled WOOF! I stepped quickly off the sidewalk onto the grass (we were walking by a park), calling him away and putting more distance between the lady and the stroller, and then allowed him to turn and watch as the lady who was pushing the stroller (who he couldn’t see at first, since the stroller was big and the lady was small!) walked by. As soon as he realized there was a person behind the stroller, his hair went down and he wagged his tail, but because his woof had clearly spooked the lady (and why wouldn’t it?), I kept him sitting until they were well past us.

I didn’t only respond to him when he was having a bad reaction. I’d also proactively say his name brightly at random times – whether someone was coming or we just passed someone, or sometimes for no reason at all – and popped a treat into his mouth. And he wasn’t all bad; there were some things I was very proud of accomplishing with him. He did really well at walking with me on a loose leash, and turning toward me or looking at me EVERY time I said his name.

We walked to a terrific pet supply store that I miss living nearby – the Holistic Hound ( – and he was a big hit in the store, greeting all the employees and fellow shoppers with a huge, waggy tail and decent manners, considering his enthusiasm for the merchandise. I was able to tell him “Off” and he complied every time, even though this meant not putting his mouth on the many toys, chews, leashes, and bags of treats that were right at mouth level. A few things got licked briefly, but he didn’t grab anything. I also left him with a store employee for a few minutes while I used the restroom, and I don’t think he even noticed I was gone – that’s a good thing, in my book. (I’m doing everything I can to make sure he doesn’t develop any sort of separation anxiety, which is one of the toughest things I see some of my friends dealing with in their dogs.)

An outtake from a photo session

One last thing he did well: I spent a little time on the trip taking some of the final photos to use in the WDJ 2017 calendar, and he modeled like a pro. Otto would have been proud of his sit-stays – this one on top of my car, the better to capture the sunset with the San Francisco skyline behind him! I got a better shot with another model (my son’s dog, Cole), but Woody did good!

So, all in all, I’m giving Woody and myself a “C” – on average, we did no better than averagein our first trip out of town together. And that means we have a lot of homework (and reading some back issues about socializing) to do.