Dogs are inherently pack animals, much like their wolf ancestors. Research shows that this mindset is deeply ingrained in Canis Familiaris, so to withhold such a thing from them would not only be a sin against that individual dog, but it would be a crime against nature itself so to speak. Science has actually proven that dogs need socialization in order to be happy and healthy (Range et al. 2014).
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It would be great if every dog owner could have their own pack, but the reality is that we all cannot afford or care for a multitude of dogs the size of a professionally run kennel. Nevertheless, there's clear evidence on how and why it's crucial for every dog owner to socialize their pet properly, especially for owners with just one dog in the household.
There are several reasons for this, and they can range from dealing with your Fido's mental health all the way to how the dogs interact with other animals as well as other people. If you want to ensure that your dog grows up to be a friendly, healthy and happy pooch, you need to make sure he gets the socialization that he requires, early.
8 Scientific Reasons to Socialize a Dog
Dogs that are not properly socialized are typically fearful of unusual or new environments. This can be avoided by exposing dogs, especially puppies at a young age, to various situation and environments.
In one study conducted on young dogs that were restricted of early experiences, including no opportunity to socialize with other dogs, there was an effect on emotional behavior, including fear and anxiety in dogs.
In general, in response to fear, dogs will release a stress hormone called cortisol, which is how scientists measure the level of anxiety in dogs (Villiers et al. 1997). In the mentioned study, the amount of cortisol that is released is dependent on how socialized the animal was; i.e. more socialized animals release less cortisol and adrenaline.
High levels of cortisol can have negative effects on canines. For example, high cortisol can lead to subsequent eating behavior, which could impact both weight and general health of the dog. Moreover, cortisol is also associated with a down regulation of immune system cells, such as lymphocytes, which can lead to health problems (Espelid et al. 1996).
On the other hand, an increase in adrenaline levels can result in an increase in systolic blood pressure and an increase in heart rate (Struthers et al. 1983).
2 It Allows for More and Better Bonding
Dog to dog interactions are not the only form of socialization that is important for your pet. It is equally important to form a human-dog bond, which Diane Fisher, PhD has covered in a previous article before.
In short, the relationship between humans and dogs can be analogous to the relationship between a parent and a child. In fact, in a study conducted on hand-reared dogs, it was shown that socialization with puppies as young as 16 weeks can help form that puppy-human attachment (Topal et al. 2005).
It was also shown that extensive socialization between dogs and humans can result in your canine favoring and being more responsive to his/her owner over an unfamiliar person and strangers.
Another later study looked at the effects of socialization of shelter dogs with inmates in a prison setting (Hennessy et al. 2006). The results showed that human socialization resulted in clearly positive behavioral changes in the dogs, which further supports it.
3 Vet Exams Are Much Less Difficult
Many dogs exhibit fear or anxiety when they visit the vet. In fact, data shows that approximately 78.5% of dogs show some sort of fearful behavior when on the examination table (Doring et al. 2009). Dogs that were properly socialized were significantly less fearful during vet exams than dogs that were not exposed to these situations, making a visit to the vet easier for the owner, the veterinarian and the dog.
Fear and anxiety can make it difficult for vets to complete physical exams. It has been shown that fear can result in a number of physiological changes in the dogs, including an increase in heart rate, higher hematocrit levels, and higher levels of cortisol and progesterone, none of which are good for the canine (Hydbring-Sandberg et al. 2004).
A dog's increased heart rate caused by stress at the vet makes it difficult for them to diagnose serious heart conditions. For example, sinus tachycardia is a heart condition that is characterized by an accelerated heart rate. In some cases, use of a sedative may be necessary to properly examine your dog. Sedation can have a number of risks, including the risk of heart arrhythmia.
4 Keeping Puppies in a Better Shape
Socializing a dog offers the opportunity to play with other pets. For dogs, playing isn’t about winning or losing; it gives them a physical outlet in the form of exercise which essential for the overall health.
Studies show that dogs that are solitary are typically more inactive, spending approx. 72% to 85% of their time sleeping; however, when dogs are given the opportunity to socialize with other dogs, only 4-5% of the time is spent inactive (Rooney et al. 2010).
Inactivity can lead to a number of health issues in dogs, including obesity. Obesity is considered to be the number one nutritional disorder among canines, affecting more than half of the dogs in the United States, according to recent statistics.
It's no secret to pet owners that overweight and obese dogs are more likely to experience a huge number of health problems, are at risk of early death and are often predisposed to a number of other diseases (German, 2006):
- orthopedic disease
- diabetes mellitus
- cardiorespiratory disease
- urinary disorders
- reproductive disorders
- dermatological diseases
- anaesthetic complications
More research has demonstrated how keeping your dog in shape will not only prevent a number of health problems, but even increase your dog's lifespan.
5 Understanding of Social Structure
Socialization with other dogs is important in developing social structures, including the hierarchical relationships between dogs. Interaction with other dogs, as well as humans, helps dogs develop roles of leaders and followers. This is beneficial for the dog's mental health as well as functioning later in life.
Canine experts explain how dogs often use play to form social bonds with their owner, as well as with other dogs. Research going back decades ago and confirmed today shows how this form of social play, particularly in puppies, helps to develop the social organization of dogs as adults (James, 1951).
Socialization in large groups can teach dogs about learning, competition and cooperation. For example, dogs have been observed in studies to equalize or self-handicap themselves to maintain a playful environment with other dogs. Even the simple observation of other animals playing can provide important social information to your dog.
Socialization as a puppy also helps dogs to recognize its family members, such as its parents (filial imprinting), social relations (fraternal imprinting), and human imprinting, according to scientific literature (Dehasse, 1994). This crucial period is also important for pets to learn the difference between dogs and humans.
6 Better Emotional Well-being
It's been proven that companionship is absolutely necessary for your puppy’s emotional well-being. It is vital for young dogs to get a lot of time and attention to mature into adult dogs. Studies on social deprivation in dogs showed that behavior can become abnormal (Fox, 1967). In addition, social isolation can lead to signs of depression, like keeping to themselves and not interacting with others as adults.
The most cited study on the effects of social isolation is the case of the rhesus monkey, where 3 months of social isolation resulted in a number of serious physical and mental issues (Griffin et al. 1966). For example, monkeys had withdrawals; in one case it was so severe that it led to starvation because the monkey refused to eat food.
Other negative effects of social deprivation in dogs may include a lack of adaptability to new situations. While there's little research on this with canines, a similar recent study with chimpanzees showed that social deprivation can result in little species-typical behavior and a lack of grooming, among other things (Turner et al. 2006).
7 Improved Intelligence and Behavior
Much like humans, dogs exhibit a profound ability to learn and behave by mimicking others of their kind. In a study conducted on 60 juvenile Labrador and Golden Retriever dogs, it was found that socialization groups, in addition to training, resulted in a higher success rate of dogs in the guide dog program (Batt et al. 2008).
Research also demonstrated how proper socialization can result in a number of positive behavioral attributes in dogs, such as orientation, purposefulness, curiosity and confidence. Socialization can also improve communicative signals between the owners and their dogs that have the potential to facilitate social interactions.
Approximately 31% of individually housed dogs suffer from behavioral problems as per most recent study, compared to only 11% in group housing (Mertens et al. 2015). And furthermore, of the dogs that were housed solitarily and later adopted, 53% of adoptive parents complained of behavioral issues, which is to be expected.
8 Reduced Aggression
Last but definitely not least is the fact that proper socialization of dogs will reduce aggressive behavior and problems related to aggression in dogs. We've discussed the scientific literature on canine aggression in greater detail before.
A retrospective study conducted in Spain revealed that approximately 52% of all behavior issues with dogs are related to aggression (Fatjo et al. 2007). Despite some prejudices, housing dogs in groups rather than solitary does not lead to an increase in dog fights. In fact, 91% of social confrontations between dogs are resolved through typical behavioral rituals, rather than through aggression.
Another study of 4,000 dog owners showed that dogs who were not given opportunities to play and socialize were more likely to become irritated, and resulted in a number of typical canine behavioral issues, including anxiety and aggression.
Moreover, several studies going back decades show how puppies that are not socialized between the critical period of 3 days to 12 weeks old exhibit rapid aggression towards peers and rarely engage in group play (Stelzner, 1967). This demonstrates the importance of social experiences early in life in the subsequent development of desirable behaviors.
Take Home Message
Given all the evidence we've seen in scientific literature (and the above is just a tip of the iceberg, with more research available for the curious pet owners), it's clear that socialization in puppies and dogs in general is an important part of dog care.
One of the worst things a dog owner can do to their canine companions would be to isolate them from the world at large. Exposure to different things, environment, a variety of situations and especially other people and dogs does unspeakable wonders to the minds, health and well-being of dogs, such as those mentioned above.
Canine experts conclude, and further studies confirm that indeed many behavioral “faults” that are often described by frustrated dog owners may very well be curbed by proper socialization followed by focused training. Early socialization is always better and more important, but if you're late to the party, do not ignore it completely, and maybe try to ask a professional canine behavior expert for help.