Bad with Strangers or Other Dogs? Over Socialization Could Be To Blame
Socialize your dog! Every day! With EVERYTHING!...
That’s what you’re told, whether it’s a puppy, an adolescent or a rescue of indeterminate age.
Excitable? Socialize it!
Quiet? Socialize it!
Shy? Socialize it!
Scared? Socialize it!
Reactive? Socialize it!
Aggressive? Guess you didn’t socialize it!
First off let me just start by saying that socialization is not the be all end all problem prevention or problem solving solution. In fact, poor socialization can be just as bad if not worse than limited socialization.
To be clear socialization is NOT -
Dragging them through streets filled with people and other dogs…
Taking them to farmers markets, street fairs, flea markets and shops on peak shopping days…
Pushing your dog up to every stranger and asking them to pet them…
Taking them to school pick up for every child to mob and touch…
Letting every dog regardless of manners, history, and self-control, greet your dog...
The above examples would be overwhelming to almost any dog and significantly backfire in many cases, especially if the dog is already unsure. In fact if they are at all shy, scared, or reactive, you are seriously worsening the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. This message conflicts with everything EVERYONE tells you. Every person on the street, online, and from wherever you got the dog is telling you to socialize it. Well I’m begging you to stop!
Socialization IS NOT EXPOSURE. Repeat what you just read out loud. This is important and why everything you’re doing is going to backfire. Socialization is a lesson for your dog in how to interact with their world… AND FEEL SAFE DOING SO!!! This is why when your 2 year old dog goes to “say hi” to a stranger/other dog, they lunge, bite, growl etc. This is because they have learned through “socialization” that these behaviors are necessary to feel safe in their world. Aggression and reactivity is simply your dog coping with their environment based on what they have been exposed to in the past.
Have you taught your dog that other dogs all want to play with them, 24/7, as crazy and uncontrolled as possible? This is going to backfire when your dog drags you through the streets to accost other dogs and eventually leaps on the head of a sick, arthritic, or socially selective dog… they are going to get attacked and possibly significantly scared by the experience. And it won’t be the other dogs fault. It’s your fault for not teaching your dog how to handle the world outside.
The reason that simply exposing your dog to the world causes these problems is because you’re not creating any positive input. If I dumped a box of spiders over your head and said “I’m socializing you to spiders” you wouldn’t be socialized, you’d be traumatized. Socialization needs to be thoughtful and structured with intentional positive associations just like any other training session. To be clear, by positive associations I don’t mean “petting and treats from strangers is positive” because it’s not. <GASP!> WHAT! HOW! NO! REALLY?
Here’s the thing… think for a moment of all the times kids are forced to get their picture taken with Santa or the Easter Bunny. Are most of the kids happy? How many are crying? The ONLY reason they are doing it is because you are making them and in your mind you are rewarding them with presents. It isn’t making the kid like the stranger.
Don’t do this to your dog.
The steps to successful, appropriate socialization are straight forward:
Pack high value food like boiled chicken cut into pencil eraser size pieces. Have your dog on a comfortable but secure collar or harness with a 6 foot (non-retractable) leash. Plan where you’re going and who you are going to interact with. Plan what you are going to say to people and how you will instruct them to interact with your dog:
“Please talk to my dog but do not pet them.”
“Please only pet them under the chin if they come up to you.”
“Please pet my dog only while I am feeding them.”
No treats from strangers!
What?!? Yeah I know, more mind blowing info, but seriously it is much easier for your dog to maintain manners, feel safe, and for your to control the situation if you are the giver of food. When your dog is with a stranger, either being talked to, sitting patiently, being petted, or you want to end the interaction, you need to feed your dog. Don’t skimp out unless you’re practicing VERY advanced skills, which if you’re reading this and need to apply it… you’re not so DON’T SKIMP OUT!
Have an exit strategy
When your dog is showing the slightest inclination of being done, say “S/He’s done, thank you!” and guide your dog around with chicken directly against their nose - like a magnet, out of the person’s reach. Ideally even if the interaction is going well, stop the interaction every 5-10 seconds and reset if the dog is willing. This prevents your dog from getting uncomfortable, helps your dog pay better attention to you later on, and allows for multiple repetitions ie faster learning.
Give your dog a choice
Always have enough leash slack that your dog can choose to move away or not interact. Also make sure if they try to move away that you don’t let the person chase them, reach for them, or that your dog is at risk of getting stepped on or run over. Think ahead to make sure they have room to make a choice. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to say hi to your best friend, mother, boss, etc. If you force them, you will erase your training, damage your dog’s trust and teach them to react in a more uncomfortable, fearful, or aggressive manner next time.
What about other dogs?
This one is a little more tricky but still completely doable.
No dog parks
Yes I know I might lose you here but if your dog is not socially confident and does not have good manners, they do not belong at a dog park. Period. Dog parks seriously ruin young dogs if you do not have these two skills prior to attendance.
Pick your dog’s friends
Carefully choose the dogs your dog interacts with. These need to be dogs that have proven records of interacting with your dog’s age and play-style. Shy, uncertain and reactive dogs need to start out only interacting with calm, mature dogs that will pay little attention to your dog.
When in doubt, keep your distance
If you don’t know the history of a dog in your vicinity, instead of interacting with the dog, reinforce attention on you, and calmly watching the other dog. As with the other instructions - Don’t skimp out unless you’re practicing VERY advanced skills, which if you’re reading this and need to apply it… you’re not so DON’T SKIMP OUT!
Just say NO!
Any time a person or owner with another dog tries to force themselves or their dog on your dog say NO! This is important. If they force themselves or their dog on your dog, you are undoing your training and damaging your dogs developing confidence and public skills. Walk away. If they freak out, that’s on them.
Here are a few more things you can say:
“S/He’s not feeling well”
“We’re training, please don’t distract my dog”
“No thank you”
Your dog’s successes and failures are your responsibility. Be thoughtful and careful when socializing your dog. Be intentional and supportive (with FOOD and EXITS) in all interactions and you won’t have to worry about under or over-socialization again.