You may have heard that socializing a dog is a key component to raising a great best friend. But what is a social dog?
Most people seem to think a socialized dog can play with other dogs, but it doesn’t end there. We tend to expect a lot more.
Socialized Dog: A dog that can listen around other dogs, plays gently, walks on leash without lunging/barking, greets people in a friendly manner, doesn’t mow over the toddler, is comfortable with the fact that people come in many shapes, colors, and scents; and understands the meaning of you can’t have that.
That last part is the most important part. The one thing that a socialized dog does more than anything else is ignore. As curious creatures, it is also the most unnatural thing for them to do. Yet we expect them to ignore people we pass on the street with their dogs, ignore the barking dog on the cafe patio, ignore the sick dogs and cats at the vet, ignore the squirrels, ignore the dogs behind the fences, ignore the weird dead thing on the sidewalk, and so on. In fact, I’d say about 98% of the things we encounter, we tell our dogs to ignore.
Socializing a dog is all about teaching a dog HOW to ignore, and WHEN and HOW to play.
Disclaimer: Before we go on, keep in mind that personality plays a role in socialization too. Some dogs are friendly by nature, some are stand-offish, and some are overly social. Some prefer humans to dogs, while others love nothing more than a good romp with another hound. Then there are dogs who are traumatized and have their own struggles. As your dog’s trainer, your first goal is to figure out what kind of personality you’re working with. If you suspect prior trauma, or are struggling with fear issues, hire a professional trainer. Things can get complicated when trauma and fear play a role, and it can go from bad to worse pretty fast.
In short: Consider your dog’s personality and tailor your training to fit. A good dog trainer will help you do this if you aren’t sure.
With that said, we’ve created this list of tips to get you and your dog on the path to social success. Consider your dog’s personality while reading these and modify accordingly.
1. Skip the rough puppy play. Puppies play like jerks. That’s right, I said it. They have no manners and they only enable each other to practice puppy behaviors, which are famously obnoxious, let’s be honest. They jump, body slam, skin pinch, pin, and take cheap shots. The ankle bite, leg sweep, and collar grab? All introduced by the jerk puppy. It’s a good thing they’re cute!
Older dogs don’t like that crap, and they won’t appreciate or tolerate it once your pup is full grown and still acting like a fool. I’m not saying pull your pup from mama and litter mates. Mama has a lot to teach, and those siblings can still help teach bite inhibition. But as you get into training, think twice before grouping your play-time-amateur with other amateurs. It isn’t going to give you the socially sound dog that you want. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise.
Instead, pick your dog’s friends wisely. These will serve as their dog teachers. As an 80’s kid, I always think of it like the difference between pairing my dog with Mr. Miyagi versus the gang from The Goonies. One stable, social, Miyagi of a dog can teach your pup the ins and outs of dog body language better than ten puppy goonies. The socially competent canine teacher will ignore your pup when they get obnoxious, possibly even walk away. They may put a paw on them to hold them down (puppy time-out), or even present a little growl, side-eye, stiff posture, or some teeth to signal that they have had enough. Good teachers use gentle discipline and define clear boundaries. The don’t enable naughty behavior.
If you’re wondering when you should intervene during dog interactions, the ignoring stage is ideal. Separating your pup after they have been told to bug off in any way is important, and may signal to the other dog giving the correction that additional (more aggressive) corrections from them are not necessary. This could save your pup from a much harsher correction in the future, teaching them that those subtle warnings are enough.
It’s easier to socialize a dog this way too. You probably have a friend with a canine Mr. Miyagi (and probably one with some Goonies too). Just hang out together, go for walks, and let your dog learn from the wisdom of his/her elders. Can you tell how hard I am fighting off the “wax on, wax off” euphemism here?
2. Avoid the dog park. The reasons the dog park can ruin a dog’s social skills are vast enough to be their own article. Dog parks do not socialize your dog. You socialze your dog. Dog parks enable them to act like gangsters and ignore you. I hear Guns & Roses’ Welcome To The Jungle every time I walk into a dog park. Seriously, if dogs had heroin addictions and meth labs, the dog park is where you’d find them pushing their drugs. It is survival of the fittest out there, and your naive pup is not yet fit for that kind of challenge. It’s like taking a toddler on a Son’s Of Anarchy “business run.” At the very least, someone is going to get punched. Best it not be your dog toddler!
Once mature, some dogs do OK in a dog park, while others will never enjoy it and shouldn’t ever go. That’s OK. Dog parks are not necessary in socializing or training a dog, and you don’t need more than a long lead (30 ft leash) and a field to teach a solid recall (come).
3. Where should you go? Everywhere but the dog park.. on leash. Pet stores, hardware stores, parks, trails, cafe patios, friends’ houses, obedience classes, etc. Not only will your dog get to meet all kinds of people with lots of opportunities for you to help them practice their manners, but they’ll see all kinds of objects and smell all kinds of smells. They’ll be less reactive to noises too. These places offer the perfect setting to get your dog used to being surrounded by dogs and people that they may or may not be able to meet. I stick with the 98% rule, only letting my dogs meet about 2% of the dogs we encounter. The dogs that I choose to let them meet are also practicing good manners and aren’t giving off any unfriendly or overly intense body language. The greetings are usually brief, and then I take that opportunity to teach my dog how to walk away. Greeting politely while on leash and walking away without a jumping fit are learned skills, and they are taught by you, not other dogs.
4. Interrupt rough play. So you found an awesome playmate for your dog and they love to kick up some dirt together and co-sniff all the squirrel poop. Great! But before you pour that Mojito and kick back in your favorite patio chair, remember- parenting is hard, and you have a responsible member of society to raise here.
You are the ultimate teacher in your dog’s life, therefore you must monitor play time to set boundaries and limitations on what is acceptable. Clocking the other kid in the face is not OK, even if you’re a dog, and even if the other dog doesn’t seem to mind. The dog equivalent of rude behavior during play is more like pinching skin with teeth, scratching too hard, mounting (don’t hump your friends, Junior!), body slamming, climbing over the top of, or rolling their playmates like little grass burritos. Letting a puppy go all Lord Of The Flies during play time only teaches them that playing out of control until you see red is OK. It’s not. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, but it will happen less often if you stop the play session as soon as you see overly rough behavior.
To interrupt just walk through and separate while giving a light but firm correction. If the dogs are unresponsive, you may have to pull them apart and separate them for a few minutes. If they get right back to it, separate longer after each break up and interrupt sooner. I use “break!” command for my dogs. At first I did it ten times in a row. Two weeks in, I didn’t even have to get up from my chair. That was eleven years ago, and to this day I am glad I took the time to stand up and parent those heathens, raising them into the fine, mannerly, and gentle fur beasts that they are today.
Keep in mind: play time is just practice for war. That’s why rough play can turn into a fight quickly, especially in mature dogs. Three or more dogs are also more likely to fight. Too much energy can get out of hand and it can become toxic.
4. Teach your dog to sit, stay, leave it, and look at you on command. Then practice all of them around other dogs and people. Begin at 20 to 40 feet away from distractions,then increase your proximity slowly, challenging your dog within their ability to be successful. Obedience classes are great for this since they will teach you how and keep you consistent. Also practice everywhere you go. These tools are necessary in teaching your dog the fine art of ignoring things. Use these commands to redirect your dog away from distractions and to the behavior that you want.
5. Master loose leash walking and work on heel. Not only will your dog be a lot easier to walk, they will learn to keep an eye on you for guidance when in public. Their trust in you will also increase. Leash training is all about trust and the acceptance that a dog cannot always have what a dog wants. If your leash training is on point, your socialization is too. It’s a win win.
6. Don’t give up. If socializing your dog at first isn’t completely embarassing, count yourself as lucky. Puppies are jerks, remember? That’s why they have you to teach them how to be upstanding citizens. It doesn’t happen overnight though. Sometimes you may feel overwhelmed and discouraged. This is especially true with big dogs whose bodies grow much faster than the civiIized part of their brains. It can feel like managing a caffeinated monkey in church sometimes, but that doen’t mean you get to quit. Quitting makes it worse and waiting until they get older only makes it more exciting and scary. I have clients tell me they quit taking their dogs out when they were young because it was hard. And then they try again later only to find they have much bigger issues to resolve than before. Dog reactivity is a common one. So they call me. And guess what we do then? We take that dog out! Take control and practice – those are the only things that work.
7. Socialize for life! You put in your time training, so when are you done? Never! MUAHAHA! just kidding. Sort of.
You got a dog to hang out with, go fun places, do fun things, right? The good news is: that is all you have to do. Once you’re past those chaotic puppy stages, you’ll have a nicely socialized dog who’s fun to hang out with. The only thing you have to do then is keep hanging out together. It takes about 20 minutes out in public per week to maintain a dog’s social skills (in addition to walks and regular exercise). Leave them at home for weeks at a time though, and those skills will start to fade. This creates stress, anxiety, and extra excitement – all of which will pollute your dog’s behavior when out and about.
If it has been a while and you are afraid of how your dog may react, exercise them a little first. Run around the yard, practice some obedience, then go. At least then you aren’t taking a shaken coke can out for a leisurely stroll around a bunch of strangers.
We no longer live in a dog’s world of open land and free roaming dog packs. Instead we have a society where the law states that a leash must be attached to a slow moving bi-ped (that’s you!) in order for your dog to be in most public places. It is unnatural for a dog to live in our human world, but if we take the time to teach them our rules, they do adjust nicely. Our efforts in socializing our dogs should suit the requirements of the environments we expect them to succeed in. It’s not always easy, but it’s only fair, and your dog will reward you for the guidance with good behavior.
Wag on, wag off.