The common believe when a dog adversely reacts to dogs or people or both is that he wasn’t socialized enough. Although having been raised and kept in isolation can be the foundation for this, many dogs act out not because they don’t know dogs and people, but because they do.
Fact is that when socializing is done wrong it creates a shitload of, potentially long-lasting, behavioural problems.
How to do it right? In a nutshell, exposure has to happen at the dog’s
comfort level. In other words, the dog has to feel safe. Not be safe by your
criteria, but feel safe. That is the only factor that matters.
The first few weeks before any socializing begins with a new pup or dog, she should be given time to acclimate to her new home. Not physical segregation, but allowing the dog time to find safety in a routine: “That’s where I eat, that’s where I sleep, that’s where I pee and poop, how to I fit into this new group”, and so on. No demands. We need to create the security that all basic needs are met to free the brain for learning new stuff. Behaviour happens in the brain.
Next come variations within the home. Dogs as young as 5 weeks are able to
recognize and remember patterns and that is anchoring, but we don’t want a dog so stuck in a narrow rut of normalcy that she freaks out with the slightest detail change.
You want your dog to get acquainted with the idea that sometimes unfamiliar to her people enter the home. Randomly, and not every day, invite family and friends to drop in, including with their dog if that dog is socially normal. If you don’t have children, borrow some. No cookies needed here. Tell your guests to refrain from making a big fuss because what we are after is that people entering isn’t a big deal, and if we are successful we will neither get a fear response nor anticipatory excitement and over-aroused jumping and barking when the doorbell rings. Of course the canine guest could trigger some happy arousal – and that is okay. We don’t need to quell all excitement.
Also randomly, 2-3 times a week, change things up a bit within the home
setting. My rule of thumb: 90% stays the same and 10% changes. For example, place something arbitrary you found in the basement in the yard, rearrange a piece of furniture in the house, borrow a large vase from a neighbour for half a day and put it in the bedroom. No coaxing. Simply place the object and let your dog be curious about it at her own speed.
Exiting and entering from a different door is a change, feeding at a different
spot (but not a different time – basic need food has to be predictable), and
introducing new foods (carefully).
Although associative learning is more important with a young pup and newly adopted dog than operant obedience, you can introduce cues in these early days.
If I’d teach anything, it wouldn’t be sit, but leave and wait, follow and come,
playfully, making it a game, using a high rate of reinforcement. Absolutely no corrections. No demands at that stage. Your pup or new dog can’t do anything wrong.
We want to build on the curiosity to changes in the home when we begin to
take the dog off turf. We want our pup to be curious about the world, and
ideally we want to tackle that as organically as we do with our children.
Orchestrate opportunities to evoke curiosity, and then let your dog figure things out by himself. Free sniffing is a component here, but also watching with the eyes. When something catches a dog’s attention they are not certain about, they naturally halt. An older dog might simply stop moving, a pup often sits without being asked to – both are brilliant. Be brilliant too and don’t interrupt that process, not even with a treat, or you interfere with that important observational and social learning. Some owners combine the appearance of every new stimulus with a game of tug with the idea that their pooch associates new stimuli with something good. Science-wise that might make sense, but distracting is not socializing. What happens in real life is that you overshadow what’s in a dog’s surroundings, and he’ll never really notice all the normal occurrences and could still be spooked by them later. Things you thought your dog was familiarized with, seemingly trivial to you like a parked car or a garden flag, could scare the rap out of your juvenile because real learning about it never took place. Real story.
Be smart about where you take your dog. Curiosity is not possible in a pet
store because we can’t allow the pup to put his teeth on all that enticing loot
within reach. Being restrained from it though can be quite frustrating, and then the experience is not good. Choosing a dog friendly hardware store instead where sniffing and exploring is allowed, is better.
Being curious equals welfare, and familiarity with many things leads to
readily acceptance of new things. Conversely, preventing, or worse yet
correcting a pup or dog from being curious carries the risk of making him
nervous of, and consequently reactive to, novelties in the future = neophobic. So don’t curb your new pup or dog’s making sense of his world even if you sometimes don’t like what he is curious about, unless, of course, it could harm him.
Curiosity is one side of the making positive life experiences coin, and choice
is the other.
Choice to approach or retreat; to be approached or not, is critical during the
Let’s chew over what social means.
Against conventional belief, it is not being everyone’s best friend or accept
rude impositions from others, but to function in the environment one lives in without anxiety and frustration. My goal with my dog is that environmental stimuli are perceived as neutral, perhaps briefly paid attention to but otherwise regarded as irrelevant to their life. That is how we define being social for ourselves, do we not? A friendly nod and hello from a fellow human we encounter on a walk is nice, but we aren’t interested in being groped or having a long chat.
Regrettably, being groped without consent is exactly how socializing is still
widely implemented when it comes to dogs, especially with puppies and the
under 20 pounders. What unfolds is that their human at the loop end of the leash restrains, while the general public, kids and dogs included, approach hands outstretched’n’all, and little or no attention is given to whether the dog feels threatened with the too much too quickly too close.
If we want our dogs to feel comfortable around dogs and people in the future, so that we can take them with us wherever dogs are allowed to be, choice – and again that means no manipulation and coercion not even with a cookie – is key.
The dog’s space bubble must be respected, and when necessary protected, or there a considerable risk that she becomes increasingly more sensitized and reactive to increasingly more things from an increasingly larger distance. Space issues are safety issues. Always, and for all animals. We clearly get that when it comes to us.
Because choice to just walk away isn’t an option for a dog on a leash, and
even when off leash there is the emotional bond and dependency to his humans, the onus is on the person to act on their dog’s behalf. In nature, too, young animals have the backup of their elders when they bravely put themselves out there. As curious as one might be, novelty in itself carries weight and can make one feel a bit queasy. Harking back to the human comparison, travelling to foreign lands, starting a new job, attending a social event where most guests are strangers, is exciting and at the same time for most of us also just a little unnerving. Or a lot.
For the owned pup and dog, that secure base to explore from and safe zone to return to is the person they are with, and you must be that consistently because relinquishing safety to another requires a huge amount of
trust. The more this happens though, the more your dog will socially reference, look to you for information when he is uncertain, and follow your trained cues instead of “attacking” the problem on his own.
How far a dog’s sense of self and safety extends outward depends on her
nature – larger for dogs on the more cautious end of the spectrum, and her past experiences – larger if they were aversive, or perceived as such.
Learn to understand doggish, then listen to your dog. Watch her when she is presented with something new, when someone comes closer. If she needs more space, create it. A few steps are often enough. Then let her observe and process from the farther distance – if she wants to.
If a person insists to say hello to your dog or have their “friendly” dog have a sniff, demand that they don’t. Even the friendliest dog and kindest person can be felt as threatening. If your dog says no, it is no. His job is not to be an
antidepressant for strangers or entertainment for their dog or kid.
If your dog is frightened by something that surprisingly popped up, or you
miscalculated where you took her, get out of dodge. Change the situation for
Keeping that at the fore, take your dog to many places: walks in your ‘hood,
multi-use on-leash parks, towns and cities, new to you subdivisions, boardwalks, restaurant patios, places where there are buskers and street musicians.
Switch between quieter spots and busier places, or just quieter spots if that is all your dog can handle at the moment.
Sit on a park bench with your pup by your side or on your lap and watch the world go by. Maybe share an ice cream or have a picnic.
Take your dog to places frequented by kids. Playgrounds and near schools
during recess are good options because the kiddos are busy doing their own
thing and chances are less that they’ll crowd your dog. Again, it is exposure
only: allowing your dog to watch what young humans do: skip, run, screech, flail arms, mock fall, make snow angels.
Neither choice nor curiosity are an option in your run-of-the-mill group class.
What I unfortunately still see is the pup or newly adopted dog thrust into a room full of strangers and expected to learn right away, to sit on command and focus on the handler or else, depending which philosophy the facility follows, loses out on the treats or kibble or experiences pain and discomfort when corrected for expressions of distress.
If you sign your pup/dog up, and it is definitely not a must-do to end up with
a mannered pooch, pay attention to space and the quality of the instructor.
Your instructor should be able to adjust criteria to what your dog needs and put the relationship before obedience. You should be able to increase the distance to other participants if your dog needs it, or leave early if he is overstimulated or overwhelmed. And no passing the puppy around. That can be scary for many puppies. Don’t play along.
A word about dog parks, etc. Without having kept a formal statistic, reactivity to other dogs is the major behavioural issue I am hired for. I see many more dogs barking and lunging on the leash then a decade ago, and I believe that the popularity of puppy socials, busy off leash parks, and daycare, has something to do with it. By the way, I
also see many more out-of-control, rowdy in their interactions with other dogs, dogs.
Where is the problem?
Lack of choice and overstimulation!
The socializing key determinant, choice, is difficult or impossible to uphold in crowded places, and some dog parks, puppy socials, and daycare, are crowded.
In addition, not all are supervised properly and no attention is being paid to
compatibility of the play groups. In such places, the self-assured pup practices being obnoxious – even if one stops playing because the game is too rough rowdy Rover simply moves on and annoys another, and the cautious and timid pup is overwhelmed by the commotion and becomes fearful when her cut-off signals are ignored.
Even for an even-keel puppy uncontrolled play with peers could be
detrimental. Internationally acclaimed dog trainer and award winning author Nicole Wilde says that young dogs don’t yet have the advanced social skills to handle high arousal play, and that sentiment is shared by the famous Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas, who says that a few minutes play with peers every-so often is okay for a pup, but in a small group that also includes an adult, or more than one. “Dogs learn how to be a proper dog from dogs who already know.” I
love that phrase. So be careful who your puppy’s teachers are.
A socially normal adult is also the best reader when the energy in the room
goes up and will interfere – or by watching him you know that you should.
Interfere benevolently. The expressions can still look aggressive to people, but the difference is that there is no fear instilled – the pup on the receiving end is still interested in social interaction, but approaches more politely.
Benevolence even with a badass pup. Teaming an aggressive youngster up with a meaner and bigger dog to clue him in will make him fearful, more defensive, and more aggressive – if not against that dog than he’ll target a weaker one.
For a pup who is already fearful of dogs even a small group can be too much. In that case exposure has to be one dog at a time, starting with a very gentle, socially savvy adult who loves puppies. It is a lot easier for a fearful dog to read one other dog than several, and the overall energy is lower too.
But for the more self-assured and confident pooch who likes the company of other dogs every-so often daycare and dog social can work. Just not exclusively, because if off leash groups is all a dog experiences, she rehearses constantly that NOT paying attention humans whenever dogs are in the mix is a thing. Dogs become such a magnet for that dog that she’ll seek dogs out anywhere she goes. At that point it is beyond competing attention with the person she is with: Dogs are the big deal,
and arousal (excitement, anticipation, frustration when on the leash and unable to act on impulse) goes up each time one is spotted, even smelled. Behaviourally that plays out with not listening to a come or leave cue, barking and lunging on the leash, and frantically pulling after scent trails.
Leash reactivity is not always because the dog feels defensive, but can also be rooted in frustration.
At least in a daycare and training facility there is some supervision; at the dog park there is none. If you go, choose the park wisely, have good enough
obedience to be able to cue your dog out of a pickle, make it a normal
occurrence to be on the leash at times on off leash trails (not in the smaller
fenced-in spaces), and leave if there are dogs who are rowdy and inappropriate (or when yours is).
Although stipulated by bylaw in just about every municipality, not all dogs
who frequent such spaces have reliable obedience, and not all owners
understand when things get heated. No, dogs will not sort things out by
themselves, not without a lot of distress – distress that can linger. A seasoned dog with years of great experiences can overcome the odd bad one, but an impressionable young puppy, especially a cautious-by-nature one, or newly adopted dog who knows how many bad experiences he’s had in his past, could be affected for a long time.
The dilemma is that play with dogs is part of normal social development, but a small group with compatible dogs yours likes and where all humans are on the same socializing page provides that. Studies showed that even having just one dog friend is enough to meet a dog’s social needs in that aspect (The Domestic Dog/Second Edition 288).
So it’s okay if you opt out of larger dog groups and instead look for compatible play mates. That also allows you to create opportunities for your dog to form relationships with dogs that encompass more than intense physical interactions, something Alexandra Horowitz, professor
and senior research fellow and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard
College, Columbia University, says is crucial for a healthy relationship between dogs. She defines play as: “an interaction between partners who are also functional in other contexts”, including on leash walks together, training together, and just hanging out. That easily happens with dogs who see each other regularly privately, meet for hikes, and who live in the same household. It can even happen in a carefully run daycare facility that has a fairly stable group of dogs that hang out with each other, rest, sniff, share toys, engage in relaxed jaw wrestling games in addition to charged-up physical romps.
Dogs relationship with their own species can be funky. There always is the
genetic factor and what happened in the first 8 weeks, but also know that social appropriateness and friendliness are not the same. Even the most diligently socialized dog, once an adult, isn’t necessarily friendly or interested in interactions with unfamiliar dogs. It was dogs our feral born Will knew. She was trapped by a humane society when she was 10 weeks old and in good physical condition, which indicates that mom-dog was able to care for her pups and others likely didn’t beat her up. In her foster homes, and with us, she only experienced benevolent and playful dogs. We took great care that her experiences with new dogs were good too, did go to off leash areas but multi-use trails, did go to dog socials but the space was large and the dogs selected. Yet, once she reached social maturity she did not tolerate any stranger dog in her space and told an offender who ignored her warning stare very sharply to “take a hike”. However, she never injured a dog or caused lingering fear in one. She was, in fact, fantastic in schooling puppies and juveniles. Always appropriate, but not friendly.
So your dog really doesn’t have to get along with every other dog to be
normal. Even some puppies don’t like other dogs in their space, and if they don’t as a pup, they likely never will, no matter how hard you try to socialize. If you have such a dog, you’ll have to protect his space bubble for a lifetime, or he will have to.
With people, aside from you the only time when safe handling is required is
with your veterinarian, depending on your lifestyle your dog walker or daycare staff member, and depending what breed you own, your groomer. The best chance to achieve that is not a 100 hands-a-touching in the first 3 months, but that your dog experiences that hands, yours and the hands of your chosen professionals, as gentle and safe, and that there is at least a degree of choice.
I get it: Groomers and veterinarians don’t have all day, but even there we have a movement that gears toward consent whenever possible.
It is not the more the better with a pup, and an overload of stimuli does not
make up for time lost with the newly adopted older dog, but when we prioritize what the dog needs when we socialize we can prevent future problems and make things better for the dog who already is uneasy. Key is the right kind of stimuli in the right amount at the safe for the dog distance.
The more encounters the dog can check off as safe, the safer she will feel (and be) in the future. Focus on that, and that your dog gets help whenever she needs it, which includes the choice to walk away.
Doing it that way means that socializing is a slower process, and that is the
crux. New puppy owners often feel under pressure to fit as many experiences as possible into the “socializing phase” we are told runs out quickly.
True, there are these first 20 or so impressionable weeks, but when experiences are perceived as aversive, again and again, the outcome can be as detrimental as making no experiences at all with the wider world.
Even if you tried, packing every possible life form your dog could encounter, every single object or situation, every surface to walk on, into that 20 week frame is impossible. For example: You get your pup in the spring or early summer, and when she is 6-8 months old she sees people bundled up in winter coats and toques.
We got Davie at the age of 16 weeks in late winter and then had an especially dry spring and summer. By the time she, for the first time,
heard the sound of a car driving on a wet road she was almost a year old. She startled but quickly relaxed – because by then we had established a pattern of her freely and at her comfort level exploring new things, and we also had a relationship where she trusted me to keep her safe. Both are equally important, and both take time. Time you have. Trust me.
One more thing. Support is to provide a roadmap that makes a pup and dog
feel safe, and safe again when he’s uneasy. It is a myth that by paying attention to fear that you reinforce it and make your dog more fearful in the future.
magine you are afraid of heights and find yourself stuck halfway up a ladder, frozen shut. Would your fear disappear if everyone on the ground ignored you? How would that change if someone would assure you and guide you, rung by rung, back on solid ground?
It is nonsense to believe that ignoring our dog’s fears magically makes her
more confident. As long as the trigger is present, so will the emotions, and with it the expressions we don’t like. Conversely, each time we help our dog out and act on her behalf, increase distance, change the situation, or guide her into a behaviour that brings about a feeling of safety – and trained cues can be safety cues, she gains trust.
Even if there was a slight chance that a dog who receives attention when she expresses fear signals will use these in the future as an attention getting
behaviour, so without the emotional aspect present, so be it. I run that risk
because it is still better than not offering safety when my dog needs it.
Protecting and helping is not babying. Your dog doesn’t need your pity, but
for you to make decisions on his behalf. Done right, he will develop a sense of general safety when in the environment, and then he will be able to deal with an occasional stressful event without it having a lasting adverse impact.
Life is life, and distressing moments here and there are unavoidable, but if the foundation is solid, mastering little stressors together can increase the bond. The key word is together – you being on your dog’s side. Always. You must be your dog’s spokesperson and ally even if he just behaved badly. All he did was express that he felt overstimulated or overwhelmed, in any case distressed, and it’s exactly then when he needs your support more than any other time.
If you take the stranger’s side, where does that leave your dog?
Silvia Jay – August 18/2020 – www.silvia4dogs.com