For me, this is arguably the most important aspect of dog training. As a social species, we can understand the benefits of healthy socialisation, because when we can relate to others, understand their motivations, and control our impulses when unsure of someone's behaviour, it is a great survival tool! It is no different for our dogs, in fact, good social abilities is possibly even more important for dogs, because how they deal with other dogs and people determines in many ways how their life ends up. Sadly, many dogs who lack good social skills are far less likely to integrate into our modern world and more likely to end up on a pound, with an uncertain future.
I think that socialising your dog can be done much better than it is currently. What I mean by this is that the idea of socialisation as we know it is a little confused. We want our dogs to be well behaved, happy and 'social', but at the same time, we are unsure of how to make that happen. I do shriek a little when I see some puppy schools and training centres socialise, via thrusting a group of dogs with different personalities and thresholds together, without too much thought on the perspective of the dogs. This is not necessarily a bad approach, but one on my philosophies on best practice training is that no matter how well we think we are doing, we can always do something better and as the guardians of our dogs across their entire lives, we should always be asking ourselves in this profession; how can we do better by dog owners and their dogs?
Firstly, to be able to manage a dog's socialisation, we need to understand who that dog is. His genetic predisposition (his DNA), and upbringing will determine who he is and who he grows up to be. Dogs who are bred from parents who were not well socialised, prone to anxiety or aggression and did not live in harmonious social environments are going to be far more likely to pass these short-fallings on to their offspring. It is logical and research shows that a combination of genetics and environment shape the behaviour of an individual, whether that be a human being, cat, dog or even a goldfish!
So, it seems that whilst the genetic background to a dog plays a large role in their temperament, our role in their upbringing can impact on their personality and coping skills in social settings. This means that dog owners are able to contribute a great deal to the social abilities of their dog and whilst it may be easier to do this with a puppy, a dog of any age can be managed when it comes to interacting with others. The question is, how willing are you to get to know who your dog really is and if their personality does not meet your expectations, are you willing to socialise them based on their social ability instead of your expectations? For many of my clients, this is the most difficult hurdle to cross. Once a dog-owner accepts their dog's capability and threshold, the hardest part is over.
I have come up with some practical tips to help not just the puppy owner looking for the best ways to socialise their new family member, but also ways for those who may have adopted a dog or who have always struggled with their dog's social skills learn to manage the issues that are most common in social settings.
1. For dogs of all ages, try to ensure their social interactions are positive and controlled. This means they are with dogs of similar energy levels and who are well socialised and have good impulse control.
2. Make social interactions short and sweet where appropriate. Don't wait for one dog to get sick of the other, resulting in a scuffle or fight! It is difficult to come back socially after ra dog has been attacked. Sometimes, it is impossible!
3. Get to know the body language of your dog. Is the tail between their legs, or relaxed and heavy? Is the white of their eye obvious, or are their eyes 'soft'? Is their mouth relaxed and open or is it closed and stiff? Are they avoiding/antagonising another dog, or are they approaching with friendship by sniffing and even dropping to the ground exposing their belly? These are just a handful of many important observations to make that will determine not just how your dog is feeling but what the outcome of an interaction may be.
4. Carry out the exact same observation in point 3, but this time apply it to the other dog, instead of yours. How is that dog feeling? If they are showing signs of anxiety, fear or aggression, it is best to keep your dog away!
5. Make social encounters fun! Use high value food. This sort of food is usually wet, not dry and something your dog doesn't usually have access to. What this does is condition your dogs association of other dogs into positive experiences. If your dog is anxious, give them yummy food for looking at other dogs at a comfortable distance. If your dog has shown aggressive tendencies, reward them with yummy food for looking at you instead of the other dog. (CAUTION: never attempt these methods with aggressive/anxious/fearful/hyperreactive dogs without the assistance of a qualified and experienced behaviourist. This is for the safety of not just your dog and the dogs around you, but the safety of people, including you.).
6. Respect your dog's threshold. The threshold is the amount of social stimulation your dog can handle comfortably, with an ability to learn. If dogs are pushed beyond this, they often shut down and are wither unable to learn, or learn that the experience is a negative one, making them more reactive next time . A couple of good ways to tell if you have crossed this is when a highly food motivated dog will not take food, or if a usually energetic/playful dog freezes up.
7. Find places where you know the other dogs and where your dog enjoys interacting with them. Often this is NOT an off lead park, but if you do find a public space where people you know visit with well socialised dogs, make the most of it! If you can't find a place, then network with others on social media, on this blog and start your own!
8. start as early as you can. Puppy schools that are run by qualified and respected trainers are essential and invaluable.
9. If you and your dog do encounter a negative social experience with another dog, try your best not to make a big deal of it. If you become anxious and uncertain, whilst you are tethered to and in control of your dog, they will naturally feed off that emotional energy.
10. If your dog is not the jovial labrador who 'loves' everyone, then please know that is ok. Take the pressure and stress off your shoulders and work with what you've got. Ensure you and your dog as well as those around you are always safe by keeping your distance, and depending on your dog's ability, work with a great behaviourist who respects you and your dog's needs.
So it seems that whilst humans and dogs are highly social animals, the world isn't wild anymore for us. Living in artificially constructed social settings means we both have to adapt together. THis means identifying how to set your dog up for successful social experiences is essential and the younger/earlier, the better. Identify your dog' ability and comfort levels and manage your expectations based on their threshold. Always put safety ahead of everything and get the help from a professional where appropriate. Lastly, enjoy your time with your dog as much as you can. Their interests vary like ours do. Some adore to chase each other's tails for hours, whilst others who are happy to acknowledge another dog at a large distance. Like us, dogs are all different and deserve to be respected as individuals.
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