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Are you getting it wrong? Dog Socialisation

Updated: Jun 2, 2023



Are you getting it wrong?


Where we’re at risk of getting socialisation wrong is when we teach our dogs that they have a right to engage with every dog or person they see. This sets them up to expect everyone to be a potential new friend or playmate, making it hard for them to understand when it’s inappropriate to say hello to someone.


As humans, we understand it would be inappropriate and downright rude to try and interact with every person we met. If you were to grab everyone into a big hug or run over and shout in their face, it wouldn’t be long before you ended up in trouble. Yet we assume it’s healthy and acceptable for our dogs to effectively do exactly this to every dog or person they see.


If you approach socialisation with the goal of encouraging your puppy to greet loads of dogs, play with as many as possible and generally say hello to pretty much everyone and everything, their rate of interaction is so high, they will grow up thinking they should greet everyone.



The problem with this is that not everyone wants to greet your puppy, especially when the puppy cuteness fades and the adolescent phase begins. People are no longer desperate to fuss them and other dogs will have less tolerance for an annoying puppy-turning-adolescent. At this point, your puppy may also start to become independent and rather than following you closely on a walk, they take off across the field to greet other dogs.


When you attempt to control these behaviours by keeping them on a lead or stopping them launching at passers-by, suddenly your dog will find themselves confused and frustrated because they’ve grown up learning to greet everyone and interact with every dog they see. You, and the lead, are now stopping them from continuing this behaviour and that’s incredibly frustrating for them.


Finding a balance


Socialisation is always a balance, it’s not all about greeting and interacting with everyone, it’s also about learning how be neutral to other dogs and how to cope in a variety of social situations. Teaching your dog to calmly ignore most people they pass on the street is just as important as letting them politely interact with a few people too. Likewise, teaching them to ignore several dogs on every walk will build an invaluable skill for daily life, where greeting every dog is simply not possible or appropriate.


Under-socialisation


Under-socialisation is a risk too, if you don’t carefully expose your puppy to a variety of environments and social interactions, they won’t learn the skills they need to cope later in life. There can be a temptation to ‘bubble-wrap’ puppies and keep them away from other dogs or scary situations.


Again, it’s all a balance. Too few social experiences can be just as negative as too many or badly managed ones. Poor social skills can come from a lack of experience as well as negative experiences so it’s important to find the right balance and encourage positive greetings with suitable dogs and people (i.e. ones who will teach good skills and manners!).


Changing expectations


For dogs who find it hard not to greet everyone they see, or those who lack some manners in social situations, the starting point is to teach a better balance of interactions and put more focus on YOU being the best part of their walk!


1-in-3 Rule


  • To lower your dogs’ expectation of social interactions on walks, aim to only allow them to greet roughly 1 in every 3 dogs you see. It’s not an exact rule but keep in mind to balance how many interactions your dog has on a walk

  • When avoiding another dog, you can reward frequently while you pass it by applying a method like DMT or teaching your dog to hold eye contact in ‘heel’

  • You could change direction and play some ‘find it’ by scattering a few treats on the ground

  • Ignoring another dog shouldn’t always be about distraction, your dog still needs to learn to see another dog and calmly choose to ignore it

  • Allow them to look at the dog but then bring their focus back to you. DMT is ideal because it encourages your dog to look at the distraction and then turn back to you for the reward

The sooner you start teaching your puppy to enjoy ignoring others, the easier it will be for the skill to develop and become a habit. For dogs who have spent a long time expecting to greet everyone, it will take longer to change their association and teach new habits, but with consistency it will pay off.


Over-socialised?


If you have a dog who reacts with barking, lunging or other frustrated behaviours when they can’t greet another dog, it doesn’t mean they’ve not been socialised enough, it just means they haven’t learnt the skill of coping with frustration in these moments.


Throwing them into day-care or doing lots of group walks with other dogs is unlikely to improve the problem, instead they need to learn a balance in greetings and better social skills.


A dog who has been socialised with an emphasis on greeting and interacting with lots of other dogs, especially if this has involved lots of time playing, will also need to learn how to read signals from other dogs and how to respond and respect these appropriately. This can often be seen in dogs who have attended day-care, especially if it’s a large day-care centre or one with an emphasis on the dogs playing and interacting for a large part of the day.


These dogs are often well-practiced in inappropriate play and may struggle to read signals from other dogs. This can have a hugely negative impact on the other dogs who are exposed to these inappropriate social skills, some dogs at day-care will have a truly miserable time, fending off the inappropriate behaviours and trying to signal their discomfort.


Similarly, inappropriate dogs can make life challenging and stressful for other dogs they encounter on walks, being jumped on, barged around or sniffed excessively can be stressful especially if they’re ignoring all the signals asking them to go away.


Poor playmate choices


If puppies are only socialised with other puppies, or other playful dogs, they will only learn from these interactions.


They will probably learn some fairly inappropriate social skills and struggle to understand a wider range of communication signals from other dogs.


They won’t learn the appropriate manners of an adult dog or how to handle social interactions with dogs of different sociability or play style. It’s important for puppies to meet dogs who will ignore them, dogs who don’t want to interact and dogs with different playstyles.


This does NOT mean you walk your puppy over to a dog on a lead or you choose the grumpy old dogs and say ‘don’t worry, he needed a good telling off’ when your puppy gets pinned to the floor. Socialisation is NOT about letting other dogs teach your puppy manners because this will lead to more problems, not to mention the stress you put the other dog through when your puppy is behaving in a way that provokes a telling off.


You need to guide your puppy through all interactions. Socialisation is not just about your puppy, it’s also about the dogs they interact with, so don’t be selfish and allow your puppy to harass others in the name of ‘socialisation’. Puppies and young dogs, especially those who have spent a lot of time interacting with other young, sociable dogs, may lack the skill of reading signals from other dogs.


Being growled at or warned off can lead to even more inappropriate behaviours like bouncing around, barking or trying to instigate play. On the other hand, some dogs will react very badly to a warning from another dog, they may retaliate and counter the warning with increased aggression.


Improving social skills


To teach better manners in interactions and improve social skills, there are a few simple ways to ensure greetings remain positive and provide a good learning experience all round:


  • Slow the approach: don’t allow your dog to run over from a long distance or at speed, the further away they are, the less control you have. And fast approaches can be threatening.

  • Recall your dog as many times as possible on the approach to another dog

  • Use DMT to bring their focus back to you

  • Drop treats onto the floor to encourage them to break eye contact from the other dog

  • Give a release cue to signal they can interact

  • Keep the greeting short: start with just 2-3 seconds of sniffing before calling your dog back and rewarding them. If appropriate, you could allow another sniff or let the dogs play, but keeping the first greeting short means you can walk away and move on if needed. Make sure the other dog is relaxed and comfortable if you allow another greeting and don’t allow your dog to hassle them if they’re not interested

  • Mix up the interactions: aim for some interactions to be a quick sniff, some can turn into a play session and others you pass with no greeting

  • Keep play controlled: play is great if your dog enjoys it but always make sure the other dog is equally involved, just because a dog is running and being chased, does not mean they’re having a good time so maintain some control and check both dogs are happily engaged:

  • Recall after 10-20 seconds of play, reward both dogs and then see if they want to continue the game

  • If either dog is not interested, end the game and don’t allow the other to harass them

  • If you see any inappropriate or unwanted behaviours, call the dogs away and give them a moment to calm down

  • Always watch for signs it’s getting too much for either dog, for example, one dog trying to disengage and sniff the ground, stress signals like yawning, ears pulled back, tail tucked under … these could signal the dog is uncomfortable with the play

  • Remember to match dogs evenly, some enjoy a more physical game while others will find this too much, so end the game if one dog is being bullied or it seem uneven

  • In an equal game, the dogs should mirror some behaviours and they should take breaks regularly so look out for these as it indicates healthy play and a good balance!

  • Be clear and consistent and use a longline: if your dog lacks skills in interactions, it’s no good trying to work on it unless you prevent the unwanted behaviours being practiced. Use a longline to make sure your dog follows your cues and to enable you to safely move your dog on or prevent interactions when needed


Sometimes it feels easier to just let the dog off the lead because it stops the difficult on-lead behaviour and because they enjoy the freedom of socialising off-lead. While this might make your walks less stressful, it won’t be teaching your dog anything and it will just further reinforce those inappropriate behaviours. It will also do nothing to improve your dogs’ behaviour when you do have to keep them on a lead and greetings aren’t possible.


Remember that all social interactions have an impact on the other individuals involved, so don’t think selfishly about what your dog or puppy needs, also consider the other dogs or people who encounter yours.





If your dog is behaving in a way that has a negative impact on others, put some management in place and work through the behaviours to improve their social skills and teach better manners.


Taking control of who your dog plays with


Rather than solely relying on dogs you encounter on walks, you can meet with people who have well-mannered dogs and set up walks with them.







Keep to a few rules though:


  • Choose dogs with good social skills who will be good role models and not simply teach more inappropriate play or frighten your dog

  • Meet with owners who have control over their dogs. A free-for-all play session isn’t what you’re looking for. Everyone should be able to recall and control their dogs when needed

  • Go for a walk rather than standing still in a field - tension and frustration can rise when the dogs are simply running around you playing. Go for a walk and keep them moving to encourage more relaxed play

  • Use these walks to allow short durations of play between the dogs, before calling them away to practice control and encourage breaks in the play

  • If the dogs are happy simply walking together and show no interest in playing or interacting, this is a good thing and your dog will learn huge skills from this

  • Don’t allow your dog or puppy to hassle others you’re walking with, remember it should be positive for everyone and not a case of allowing the dogs to ‘sort it out between themselves’


Not all socialisation is good socialisation but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to teach your dog new skills, it might require more time and effort, it might also require some compromises and a change of your own expectations for your dog, but it can be done.


Written by Naomi White


If you need some support with your dog's social skills, we offer lots of great support options for you and your dog:


  • Residential Training: your dog comes to live with one of our trainers in their home for an intensive training stay. Our trainers have the ability to expose your dog to other dogs in a safe environment and can teach your dog the skills needed to suit their training needs

  • Online Academy - you'll find hundreds of step by step video tutorials on how to teach key skills such as dis-engagement games, recall, lead walking, impulse control, DMT and focus exercises. Alongside this, you can watch our Walk With The Trainer videos where we follow a dog in training on a walk so that you can see the practical application of every exercise and implement it on your own walks

  • One to one - work with us on a one to one basis and we'll go for a walk with you in public, showing you how to teach the essential skills your dog needs and then how to implement them on your walks

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