Have you noticed that your dog listens well in the house, and maybe even in the backyard but not so much on walks, family gatherings or other areas of high distraction? This is because need to proof your training. A large part of this is exposure and socialization. The more you expose a dog to new environments, people and things, the better their ability to listen. IF you do it right that is. Yes, there must definitely is a right and a wrong way to socialize your dog. Socialization is not meeting all the people and dogs. And in fact, that can cause either A) a reactive dog or B) an over excited dog. You do not want either of these. The goal is comfortable neutrality. So, the million dollar question. How do you achieve that? This is achieved through short, positive outings where the focus is on your dog's comfort level and their ability to focus on you and not the environment. The most important thing is your dogs comfort level. If they are scared or overwhelmed then this is not a positive experience. Never force your dog to approach something they find scary. Allow them to observe at a distance that makes them comfortable. Do not try to convince them it isn't scary. The only thing this does is tell them that they can not trust you to keep them safe that they need to take action to keep themselves safe and as they mature this will turn into reactivity.
So, start slow. Go places at times when it won't be busy and encourage eye contact with you. Listen to your dogs cues, watch closely their body language and keep things short. 15 minutes at most when you are starting and often less with younger dogs. Never let strangers approach your dog or touch them. The dog gets to decide if they want someone to touch them or not. If you have a dog who loves people, then make sure attention is only given when the dog remains calm and can still direct focus to you when asked. The same applies to other dogs. Do not just let random dogs approach your dog even if the owner says its friendly. There is a right and wrong way to do introductions and this is not something that can be taught in a short blog. Seek out the help of a qualified trainer to help with this to ensure it is done correctly.
This is just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to proper socialization and exposure. It is important to remember that slow is fast. Do not go faster than the dog can handle and that is different from dog to dog. As always, if you are struggling or having questions on how to achieve a neutral dog through proper socialization and exposure, contact a qualified trainer near you.