Updated: Aug 4
What’s more important to your dog … You? Or other dogs?
People get so caught up on the idea that their dog needs lots of ‘dog friends’ in order to be happy and have a fulfilling social life. While this may work out just fine for some dogs, for many others it creates lifelong problems.
There is an obsessive focus on socialising dogs with other dogs. A desperate need for them to LOVE other dogs and be friendly all the time. While less attention is paid towards building our own relationship and strong bond with them. I hear it all the time … ‘I just want him to have doggy friends’, ‘I just want him to like other dogs’, ‘I just think he needs to socialise more’. It’s an attitude which suggests that if he has dog friends then everything else will be okay because he will be happy and friendly.
Of course, we all want a dog who is relaxed about interacting with other dogs and has perfect social skills. But sometimes our best intentions lead to the wrong outcome. It might seem simple to take the puppy to a park full of other dogs or send your nervous dog off to day care, expecting them to make friends and become a social butterfly. Afterall, they’re dogs, they need to play with their own species!
The problem with this attitude is that it totally disregards how the dog may really be feeling or what they’re actually learning. When you focus so much on socialisation with other dogs, it becomes easy to miss the signs when your dog is uncomfortable, worried or learning inappropriate behaviours. Behaviours which may seem insignificant in a young puppy can rapidly develop into more serious issues as the puppy matures into an adolescent. This can take us by surprise and we’re left wondering why our delightful puppy has suddenly turned into a devil dog when he sees another dog.
What is Socialisation?
Socialisation is about teaching your dog to feel comfortable in the presence of other dogs, whilst knowing he has support from you. It’s about teaching him appropriate social skills so he can develop into a polite, well-mannered adult. Socialisation is NOT throwing your dog into a room of other puppies and letting him get on with it, or letting your dog run up to meet and play with every dog in the park.
Socialisation should focus on your puppy’s behaviour and emotions. If he’s being bumped around by over-enthusiastic dogs, he’s probably learning that dogs can be scary, or he will be learning to treat other dogs in this way in the future. Think about what you want him to learn and whether or not your ‘socialisation’ is actually achieving this.
It should be noted that socialisation is not solely about meeting other dogs. In fact, this is only a tiny part of it so read through our previous blogs which cover the broader spectrum of socialisation.
The Risks of Inappropriate ‘Socialisation’
If you take the ‘let him get on with it’ approach to socialisation around other dogs, you risk all manner of problem behaviours developing. If you have a nervous puppy, he will only grow more fearful if he’s exposed to the wrong dogs without your support. If you have a friendly puppy, this friendliness could quickly become a challenging obsession without the right guidance from you.
One of the most popular ways to ‘socialise’ a puppy is to encourage them to meet dogs on walks, and while it might seem like a standard method of socialisation, it comes with a high risk. Those unfamiliar dogs may not be particularly tolerant of puppies so your puppy risks receiving a harsh telling off when he oversteps the line, some puppies will bounce back from this but others will be scarred for life. Some dogs may give a fair telling off, while others will have a more extreme reaction and could do some serious physical and psychological damage to your puppy. Not a risk worth taking.
You may find friendly, harmless dogs during walks to introduce your puppy to. While this may ensure he doesn’t receive a damaging warning, it doesn’t mean these dogs are teaching your puppy the right things. Mixing with dogs with poor social skills could teach your puppy some behaviours you would rather avoid. It might all seem fun and games while he’s a small puppy but as he matures, do you really want your fully grown adult dog to be body slamming other dogs or chasing them and pinning them on the floor. Always think about what he’s learning from the other dogs.
Before shipping him off to day care or taking him to ‘puppy parties’, think about what these situations are teaching him. A nervous puppy is likely to be completely overwhelmed by such intense environments and risks being bullied or harassed when he’s not yet confident around other dogs. The friendly puppy may be in his element but these environments aren’t set-up to maintain recall training or teach manners around other dogs so he won’t be learning these important skills.
Never let ‘socialisation’ distract from teaching your puppy important skills. If he’s meeting every dog he sees, then he’s never learning to ignore some, which will create challenging frustration issues as he matures and he’s unable to cope with not saying hello to everyone. On-lead frustration often takes people by surprise and it can be hard to understand. It’s the classic, “he loves dogs when he’s off lead but he’s very aggressive on-lead… it doesn’t make any sense!?”.
When your dog has never learnt that he can’t always approach dogs, he will experience a high level of frustration when he’s prevented from doing so. With the lead attached, he can no longer run over to another dog and this will be incredibly frustrating for him, resulting in what appears to be a very aggressive reaction.
On-lead frustration often involves lunging around and barking, but when the dog is in this state of frustration and stress, it can quickly tip over into aggression. This could escalate to him biting a dog who gets too close, or re-directing his frustration and biting the lead or his owner.
Socialisation is not an excuse for a poor recall. If your dog is playing so much that he can’t listen to you, then you have very little control over his behaviour and this will lead to serious problems as he grows up. A small puppy who doesn’t recall may not be troublesome but as he gets older and bigger, it’s less forgivable. You may get away with a dodgy recall for a while but what happens when he fails to recall from the aggressive dog on a lead, or from the dog on the other side of the busy road?
Until we find ourselves in a more serious situation it can be easy to pass off a poor recall as ‘naughty behaviour’, but in reality, it’s only a matter of time before a failed recall ends your dog in trouble. A dog who can’t recall reliably can be classed as dangerously out of control, and no matter how friendly he is or how much ‘he just wants to play’ it’s no excuse for allowing your dog to approach unknown dogs, especially if they are on lead.
What Should We Do?
Work on your relationship with your puppy first. You should be the most important thing to him. You should be his support system when he’s worried, his safety zone if he needs to escape, his most fun playmate, and his number one priority.
Building this relationship and working on training is not something that should wait until he’s ‘fully socialised’. People will often say ‘oh let him be a puppy, start the training when he’s older’. It’s like these things are somehow incompatible. He can’t possibly have fun and be a puppy, while also learning how to behave?!
In actual fact, your puppy will have considerably more fun and gain more confidence if you are actively working on training alongside socialisation. Learning is a huge confidence booster, so if your puppy is learning how to learn, he will be developing an optimistic view on life. Training your puppy is a brilliant way to build a relationship and strong bond with you, he will see you as a source of fun and he will want to engage with you.
When you start training right from day 1, you can support your puppy through socialisation.
He can meet people and dogs, and experience new things while coming to you for support and practicing his listening skills. Training will enable you to put control in place to teach him he can’t make friends with every dog and he must still come back when you call him. These things might seem trivial when he’s a small puppy but they become major issues when the dog turns into an adolescent and their behaviour inevitably becomes more challenging.
Waiting to start training until your dog’s behaviour is unmanageable, leaves you playing catch up and potentially trying to ‘fix’ issues which are now unfixable. Starting from a young age means you can tackle challenges as they appear and your journey though adolescence will be much smoother!
Socialisation with Dogs
When your relationship with your dog is number one priority, you can begin the process of careful socialisation around other dogs. Remember socialisation is about teaching the puppy to be comfortable in the presence of other dogs. This does not mean he should want to play with every dog, nor does he even have to say hello to every dog, he should simply feel relaxed in their presence and be able to make his own choices.
It is recommended that your dog should only meet a maximum of 1 in every 3 dogs they see on walks, and if these are unknown dogs, it should be a quick sniff and move on, so that we don't create this huge expectation that every dog has been placed on the planet to play with your dog. Of these 1 in 3, pick the calmer, older dogs who will ignore your puppy, rather than a young, boistrous dog who will try to instigate play, and potentially teach your puppy poor social skills and bad manners.
Rather than taking a chance on meeting unknown dogs, find some calm, friendly adult dogs who you can walk your puppy with (walk with, not stand in the park chatting, as being stationary can create conflict). These dogs will be good role models for teaching your puppy appropriate social skills and showing him that constant play is not generally what every adult dog desires. You then have the opportunity to practice recall and work on keeping your puppy’s focus on you, therefore ensuring you remain important even when other dogs are around.
You may regularly meet the same dogs on your walk, so get to know them and find out if they’re suitable for your puppy. Some may be good ones to use to teach him to ignore other dogs when asked, some may be ideal for a brief sniff and others could provide a quick play session. Aim for dogs who are calm and well-mannered as these will be teaching your puppy better social skills.
Always ask the owner before allowing your puppy to approach an unfamiliar dog, and keep a close eye on their body language. Things happen fast between dogs and what appears to be a polite greeting can turn nasty in an instant so read up on dog body language and be aware of all the signals before you allow your puppy to interact with other dogs. Knowing the subtle signs will enable you to step in before a greeting turns unpleasant and it could save your puppy from serious injury.
A puppy class is a good place to start but the focus should always be on YOUR relationship with your puppy. It shouldn’t be all about letting the puppies bundle together and play crazy games for an hour. The puppies should be carefully matched based on their temperaments and sizes. Putting a huge bouncy puppy with a tiny nervous one would result in some very negative associations being learnt by both individuals. Whereas, an equal balance of confidence will help ensure the experience remains positive. As confidence and control grow, different puppies can be matched, but they should be equally involved so neither is being bullied or doing the bullying!
Good Play or Bad Play?
Dog-to-dog play can be difficult to understand at times. What sounds like a nasty fight can actually be a really good interaction. Or, when it all looks fun and games, it could be completely unbalanced and end badly. Not all dogs are a good match, their personalities or play styles could clash, so never assume two dogs will get along just because they’re both friendly.
In good balanced play, the dogs should be equally involved, they should take regular breaks and their body language should remain loose and relaxed. One dog should not be ‘forcing’ the other into play, so if your dog is continually chasing another dog or ignoring signals that the dog isn’t interested, then he’s at risk of bullying the other dog and provoking a negative reaction.
A dog who is being pestered or bullied will be experiencing a lot of stress, either increasing his existing fear or teaching him to be fearful of dogs. Don’t let your dog cause permanent damage to another, whether it’s physical or psychological, it’s totally unnecessary to allow your dog to bully another.
If your dog is bullying, or being bullied, you need to step in. It’s not good play if one dog is being bashed around while desperately trying to escape. It might look like a game of chase or wrestling but if the other dog isn’t mirroring these behaviours then he’s unlikely to be having a good time.
In balanced play, the dogs will generally take turns to chase or they will handicap themselves so they take turns at being wrestled to the floor or being the wrestler. In good play there will be breaks; it shouldn’t be a continuous period of one dog being pinned on the floor or chased in circles. There should be regular moments where both dogs disengage and perhaps sniff the ground or wander off, they may return to play but it will be a mutual decision.
While good play is a healthy part of a dog’s life, it doesn’t mean you can’t maintain some control. Teaching your dog to listen during play is an important skill which will enable you to break up the play when it becomes inappropriate and keep control over your dog. Even when he’s playing, he should be able to come back to you.
Having ‘dog friends’ is hugely beneficial for many dogs but it should never be the number one priority or overriding aim of socialisation. Remember too, not all dogs enjoy interacting with their own species, and some are more introverted than others. Whether he’s an introvert or extravert around other dogs, you should still have total control and the ability to recall him or stop him approaching other dogs when needed.
When you make your relationship the priority and actively work on training, then everything else can start to fall into place. If you train your dog and play with your dog, you really can provide all the social interaction he needs. When YOU fulfil his social needs, you can then use positive, controlled dog interactions to enrich his life further!
At Adolescent Dogs, we regularly work with puppies or adult dogs who need more control or confidence around other dogs, and we have years of experience developing the social skills of a wide range of dogs, as well as assisting their owners in the process too.
Written by Naomi White