What is socialisation?
Google defines socialisation as: the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. I like this description as it says nothing about playing, or good experiences. If you look up “socialisation with other dogs” online you’ll see lots of references to, making things fun, treats and toys. But, actually, I think these pieces of advice are the very reason so many dogs struggle so much.
Appropriate socialisation with other dogs is about being calm, respectful and understanding boundaries. It’s about learning how to react and respond appropriately in a variety of situations and personalities. Not only will proper socialisation help them cope better in adult life, it will also keep them safe. A bouncy, playful puppy is at risk if they think every creature they meet wants to be their best friend! They must know how to recognise a dog that doesn’t want to play, as easily, if not more so, than a dog that does.
Keeping socialisation real
Dogs like to interact with each other in different ways, just as we do. Some people like to play sports, some like to read, some like to play board games, others love a good party, some knit. Dogs are no different. They like to chase, sniff, frolic, investigate, wrestle, or just walk together.
Every dog has to learn how to assess other dogs needs and behave appropriately towards them. They all have to learn what a rude introduction looks like, and how to be super polite. They also need to know how to say “oopsie” if they get it wrong.
As pups, other dogs will be forgiving of their rudeness. It is expected that a pup needs time to learn boundaries and social etiquettes, but often we intervene and dis-empower our dogs when we think things are going wrong. If a bouncy pup tries to chase a dog that only likes a polite sniff, there will be some kind of conflict.
But who started it?
The dog that growls is often labelled as the bad dog, but what about the fact that the puppy just bounced all in his face. The pup ignored all gentler attempts to say NO beforehand. If the puppy is protected from the growling dog, will they ever learn to be polite? What about the growling dog? If we scold them, are we adding to their anxiety and taking away their right to say NO?
How to do it?
The critical socialisation period is between 0-12 weeks. During this time, a pup is particularly accepting of new experiences. Their mum will start telling them off if they are too excitable or rude. They will also start learning how to play appropriately with their litter and pack mates. They’ll figure out who likes rough play, and who likes a gentle chase. They’ll learn bite inhibition, how to make new friends and how to stay out of danger.
When they leave home, they’ll start putting it all into practise with real world people and dogs. If the dogs leaves their family before 12 weeks of age, you’ll have to take on the role of mum and littermates so they don’t miss out. Dogs that don’t get these early experiences can find it difficult to accept rules and boundaries from others later on.
Dogs must learn how to meet other dogs in real life, not just at puppy parties and play groups. So incorporate socialisation into your normal, daily walks. It’s important for your pup to be around dogs of all ages and types, as well as dogs that are on and off lead.
You are aiming for a dog that is calm with calm dogs, playful with playful dogs, and avoiding of dogs that aren’t feeling sociable. So be mindful of that when you choose dogs to approach in the park.
Keep leads loose
Once you’ve picked out a suitable dog to meet. Your greeting should be done on a very loose lead, or no lead, so both dogs can be polite and say “hi” without restriction. They should not be rushed, if either dog is hesitant then don’t force it, give them a moment. Some like to pause and consider before moving in for the “handshake”. Once they have assessed the other dog, allow them freedom to first sniff the neck, then sniff the bum. After the initial greeting they will decide what to do next.
I hate to see dogs straining on the lead to meet each other. Greeting a dog nose to nose, eyeball to eyeball, is so rude and will cause tension and arguments. Imagine meeting a new colleague at work staring them right in the eye – eyeball to eyeball, without so much as a “I’m Caroline, nice to meet you?” Instead, relax your lead fully and let them meet in a natural, polite way. Dogs they know, or dogs that very obviously match their energy, might skip straight to the interaction. But, experience will help your dog learn who these safe dogs are.
Remember, socialisation with other dogs is not about playing with every dog. It doesn’t even have to include playing. Maybe your dog is a sniff hello/goodbye kind of fella. If that’s the case, it’s perfectly ok to be that dog.
Know your own dog
The important thing is to know your own dog, and know what they want. You might also need to accept that what your dog wants is not the same as what you want. I’ve lost count of the number of times a leaded dog has given out “play with me” vibes to the other dogs, and then other dogs get yelled at because they come running over! If you are regularly plagued with playful dogs coming over to you on the walk, you might consider what vibes your dog is sending out behind your back!
Knowing your own dog also means knowing their energy and their play style. If your dog has boundless energy for wrestling, then you might need to make friends with someone who has a dog to match. Or at least stick to the large play areas in the park. Likewise, if your dog is a quiet sniffer, she’ll need a friend to dander the paths with. If they always clash with the dogs you are meeting, they can become frustrated and this can lead to behavioural problems down the line. Imagine being a board game lover but always being forced to go to the football!
Re-socialising Your Dog
The socialisation period ends at 12 weeks, but that doesn’t mean you can’t socialise your dog after that. At least half of my clients are working on socialisation in one degree or another. The process is ongoing throughout your dogs life and even well socialised dogs can become reactive or anxious if social skills aren’t kept up. New experiences will always affect future behaviour. It’s just that it takes a bit longer to accept new things the older you get.
The trick is to keep things calm. Over excited dogs don’t think straight or consider the best way to achieve something. So, take it slowly. If your dog has become fearful or hyperactive around dogs then they won’t start accepting them calmly into their life in a matter of days. They’ll need plenty of good experiences to change their attitude permanently.
Packs walks are a great way to show your dog how other dogs talk to each other. If your dog is anxious, then creating space and re-introducing dogs slowly will help.
Failing all that, it might be time to get someone to help you. Getting help from an experienced behaviourist will mean your dog is properly assessed, a training plan can be designed that is perfect for you and your dog, and you can be supported while you work with your dog.
How can I help you with your dogs behaviour training?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in and around the Dundee area, and as far as Carnoustie, Broughty Ferry, Monifieth, Tayport, Newport, and Longforgan. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!