I've been working a lot with puppies recently, including my own (I'm a little bit in puppy heaven, to be honest!) and so I've had puppy topics on the brain pretty much 24/7. When working with and training young puppies the number one concern should be with making sure puppy is getting their socialization in before the 16 week mark. If you aren't familiar with what socialization is or how to do it properly, you can read more about it here, here, here, and here. This particular blog post is about one aspect of socialization that I like to emphasize to my students: letting your puppy "vote" with their feet.
Full disclosure, I did not come up with this phrase, and I'm not sure who did, but whoever they are I hope they know just how genius this concept is! So, what does it mean to let a puppy "vote" with their feet? It means giving the puppy (or adult dog!) autonomy and control of the environment in socialization opportunities. One of our first instincts when we see a young puppy is to reach down and try to snuggle with them, holding them close and smelling their puppy breath, then pass them on for everyone else to enjoy as well. But wait! Is that something the puppy wanted? Does the puppy actually want to be passed over to Great Aunt Lorraine? Or does the puppy maybe need a moment?
It used to be standard operating procedure in most puppy classes to play a game called "pass the puppy" where everyone sat in a circle and passed their puppy around, trying to expose the puppy to many new people. This game has fallen out of vogue though due to the fact that not every puppy is exuberantly social to every new person right off the bat, and by taking away the puppy's choice to approach the person in their own time we can do the opposite of what we intended, making puppies more worried about strangers and sensitizing them to these interactions.
So, what should we do instead? Let your puppy vote with their feet! When your puppy encounters a new person, animal, object, texture, and so on and so forth, place them on the ground at a safe distance where they seem comfortable and see if puppy approaches. If puppy does you can move with them, keeping slack in the leash and using a jolly voice to set the tone and help them understand they don't have to be worried. If they don't want to move toward whatever they're focused on you can feed them super yummy treats to help them associate the new thing with something wonderful and try to get them playing to loosen them up. See if they choose to investigate on their own terms and resist the urge to push or pull the puppy to investigate, this will often make things worse and sometimes cause your puppy to panic. Typically when given the option to choose whether to approach or not puppies will feel more secure and confident in future interactions and we will see their confidence grow over time.
This isn't just for puppies; this philosophy should be used for the entirety of your dog's life. If you're out walking and your dog actively chooses not to approach an unfamiliar person, respect your dog's "vote" and don't try to push the interaction. That's their right as an individual, and respecting your dog's early choices shows them that they can trust you, thereby boosting their confidence in these situations in the future.
Excellent illustration from the website of Lili Chin.