Puppy socialisation - we are told so often how important it is; we must get our pups out and about and meet as many people/things/places as possible before the magic 16 weeks. Now, don't get me wrong, I absolutely agree that socialisation is an essential part of rearing a puppy, however, I also believe that a lot of the time, people go about it completely the wrong way. There are a few different takes on socialisation that I have seen:
1) Get the pup out there to see as many things as possible, whether they like it or not, so long as we can tick the list
2) Go to a puppy play session, so that they can interact and explore different things and play with other dogs
3) Make sure the dog has lots of positive experiences, by getting different people to feed the pup when they meet them (making sure that they sit nicely and don't jump up), and letting them say hello to all of the friendly dogs they meet.
So what is wrong with that? You might ask.
When pups are young and going out for the first time, you are the place that is their 'safe zone', where they can retreat to if they are worried by anything.
In example 1) Being dragged towards something that you are scared of will either make you more scared, and/or it will ruin your trust in that person who is dragging you. Being near you is no longer a guarantee of safety
In example 2) exploring new things is great - it helps the brain to make connections, helps your pup learn that new things are not something to be feared. However, free play with other dogs can create several problems. If it is not closely supervised, the bold pups learn to bully the quieter pups, the quieter pups learn to be afraid of other dogs, which can lead to them learning to snap and snarl and generally be reactive to other dogs as they get older. They may just learn that playing with other dogs is great fun! Let's face it, how can you compete with the fun of playing with your own species. This can then lead to the dog learning to ignore its owner because it would rather play with other dogs.
In example 3) Absolutely, all experiences during socialisation should be positive, the more negative experiences a dog has, the more likely they are to be reactive/nervous as they get older. The problem is that if your pup learns that everyone in the park is going to give them a treat/make a fuss of them, then as they get older, they still believe that this will happen - so when they are off lead, they run up to people and don't come back when you call them. The same with dogs, if they are brought up thinking that every dog will play with them, they are more likely to charge up to every dog they see.. with potentially disastrous consequences.
So what should you be doing?
Your dog needs to learn to pay attention to you around different distractions. Dogs learn in a very context specific way; so if you teach them to sit in your garden, this does not mean they understand the word sit on the street, in the park etc. They have to learn to generalise the cue to different places, by teaching them it in different places. Likewise, your dog needs to learn that different things in the environment; different types of people/animals/noises/traffic etc., are not scary and can be ignored. It is much better to teach your dog that by ignoring scary stuff but paying attention to you/playing with you is the best thing ever. So your dog learns to be unafraid of things in the environment, but is so used to you being the most fun/rewarding thing there is, that they are happy to hang around you and ignore the other dogs/people that are around. I believe that most people want dogs that will chill out if their owner stops to chat to someone else (with a dog or not) and then happily come away with them when they move on. This can only happen if your dog is more interested in being with you than other dogs.
Training in halls in a class situation can be difficult. In a hall you are minimising difficult distractions and as a trainer, you are showing/telling your clients what to do with their pups, and you will practise this. Unfortunately, this can be difficult sometimes for people to translate into the 'real world' and they are left unsure what to do and frustrated by their dogs behaviour as soon as they get out and about.
After many years of running classes, I believe that the best way to train/socialise pups is to take them out into the real world situations that they will face, with your trainer on hand to help you to deal correctly with the different scenarios and to help you avoid the pitfalls.