Downeast Dog News

Where There is Joy, There is Infinite Possibility

A different angle on socializing
By | Apr 01, 2021
Photo by: Sarah Lescault Photography Maple and Pippa, Joyous Together at PupStart

The 10 or so puppies at PupStart, my day school for puppies, are playing, investigating our enriching and invigorating environment, engaged with each other and with us, tails up, loose bodies… JOYOUS.

While this delightful and downright adorable scene takes place, a sudden, novel noise erupts from the sidelines.


The puppies very briefly turn their attention to the source of the sound, then return to what they were doing: immersing themselves in Happiness.

Why is this? Why didn’t they get frightened or try to run away?

Start with a Fabric of Joy, then add Threads of Novelty

I underestimated the Power of Joy when I created PupStart seven years ago, but it quickly became apparent how important and useful Joy is when we are socializing our puppies to their strange and unpredictable new world. This world is full of surprises and potentially scary things; things that can, with just one exposure, establish long-term fears. We need to intentionally help build resilience in our puppies early on so that they can handle what is thrown at them as they prance down life’s crazy roads. There is a lot we can do even within our homes. In these unprecedented Pandemic Times, it’s even more imperative that we maximize all opportunities to help our puppies grow up to be as confident as possible.

Confidence builds Resilience.

Recommendations for socializing puppies often include terminology like, “expose your puppy to these 100 things”… followed by a detailed list of people, animals, surfaces, etc. Those 100 things are definitely important, but absent from most instructions is, “Start with Joy,” and “make sure associations are positive.”

Novelty absent Joy may result in Fear

Imagine the PupStart scene described above, but instead of puppies playing, they are standing around doing nothing (hah! like that ever happens!)


All attention is focused on the novel sound. Some puppies might startle and instantly bounce back, but the risk is great that many puppies will have a fearful response. I call this an “uh oh moment.” Uh Oh Moments can be very difficult to recover from, and they tend to persist into the future. It will be difficult to get all the puppies to engage in play after that BOOM. Time-consuming damage control might even be necessary. It’s more efficient and humane to create resilience through an intentional and strategic blending of novelty into joy. Attempting to blend joy into novelty is far less likely to be successful.

The puppies didn’t have a fearful response to the BOOM while they were playing because we very carefully controlled the timing, intensity, proximity, duration, and direction of the sound. We do similar things with visual stimuli such as umbrellas flapping, bicycles or wheelbarrows moving, a person using a walker or crutches, etc. We start out being quite subtle, then we gradually increase the intensity based on the puppies’ reactions. If there is any indication that any one of the puppies might be on the cusp of an Uh Oh Moment, we adjust things accordingly. We have to err on the side of the least resilient puppy.

Skills and Games

Before you take your puppy out to expose her to novelty, build up a few good, reliable Tools of Joy first. Here are some suggestions:

• Default eye contact

• Hand targeting

• Perch (front paws up on something)

• Tug with a special toy (not something your pup always has access to)

• Find it (treats hidden in a towel or similar item OR toss a treat)

• Settle mat with a tasty chew

• Heeling

• Chase (chase you)

A Shift in Approach

We’ve been taught to expose puppies to novelty in order to socialize them, but I would like to shift that thinking a bit:

“Play games with your puppy in new environments, employing Tools of Joy.”

Choose locations carefully so that novelty is nothing but subtle background. Manage the intensity of the novel stimuli. Start small, then gradually build. Maintain Joy. Back off if she shows any sign of fear.

Start in the House

You can do a lot to socialize your puppy in your own home! When your puppy is really happy and engaged in play, have someone in the household drop something on the floor at a distance. Start out with a small sound, then increase it. Stop after 2 or 3 reps as long as she's still joyous. Be creative!

What happens if your dog has an "Uh Oh Moment"? Tune in next time....

Happy Training!