One of the worst things that ever happened to pet dogs was having the term “socialization” come to mean “playing with people and other dogs.” Socialization is the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating norms, customs, values and ideologies, providing an individual with the skills and habits necessary for participating within their own society. Most of us would prefer that our dogs were a bit more calm, listened to us better, and exhibited more self control, yet most of our “socialization” efforts seem to contradict those goals. No part of your training needs to contradict any other. What socialization really amounts to is that your dog is exposed to as many things as possible. This means they see, feel, hear, smell, and taste (where appropriate) as many things as possible, and that each of those experiences end positively.
The (Unfortunate) Norm
You are walking down the street and a stranger runs up to you and gives you a chest bump, or hugs you and kisses you on the mouth. Maybe they grab your ass. You yell at them and then tag them in the mouth for being so rude. Self defense, of course. They look at you like you’re crazy and then a fight starts.
This sounds like an awful scenario, but it’s how “good” dogs ROUTINELY overstep boundaries because they were never taught that there were supposed to be boundaries. And those dogs are often responsible for creating more defensive dogs than the one odd-ball-actually-aggressive dog you might encounter.
The same thing happens with people. How often do random strangers, who would never have spoken to you otherwise, come up and interact with your dog (hopefully asking first, but that’s certainly not a given)? Would it be the “norm” for them to come up to you and mess up your hair or to even ask to touch you in any way? What about your child? Is that appropriate? People often speak of wanting their dog to have autonomy and then they take all of that away from them in favor of letting random people and dogs grope them.
We are TEACHING our dogs to behave in the EXACT ways that society is trying very hard to stop people from behaving towards each other. Not only that, but when it’s repeated often enough it becomes the EXPECTATION of other dogs and the general public that they get to interact with your dog without any concern whatsoever for whether your dog wants that interaction or not.
A Simple Concept
Everything else in this post can be summarized by the following concept:
If that person isn’t someone who you have, or would, invite to your home, they don’t need to have interaction with your dog. If that dog isn’t one that your dog will be interacting with regularly, they don’t need to have any interaction at all. From your dog’s perspective, strive to have the default behavior toward other people and dogs be to ignore them. Finally, to find success and balance with your dog, allow them to directly interact with other people, other dogs, and various other distractions only in direct proportion to their ability to ignore those things in favor of focusing on you or any task you ask them to perform. With dog-dog interaction, your ability to be polite precedes your permission to play. Even well socialized dogs can have undesired responses to things. It is common for certain breeds or types of dogs to go through protracted development periods, and to see lots of new behaviors emerge during adolescence.
For the most part, we would like our dogs to simply ignore environmental distractions. The best way to do this is to place them in situations, appropriate to their level of training, where they are stimulated by these kinds of things, but are taught to ignore them in favor of doing something else like an obedience command, or interacting with us through play. For most dogs, desensitizing to environmental distractions simply entails keeping them in the situation long enough that they work through any excitement, anxiety, or fear. And going through that process repeatedly. Keep your dog safe by not letting random people, dogs, and stuff interact with them directly. This helps assure that even a moderately stressful situation has a positive (and controlled) outcome. And pay attention to your dog. If they are completely overwhelmed then you may need to move to a quieter or less active place to start.
Exposure To New Things
Most dogs who did not have experience with a particular thing (or had a bad experience with it) when they were going through their puppy development phases will have a default response to new things that is less than ideal. They will generally be overly cautious, either offensively or defensively. Your job when these things come up is not to baby them, or feel sorry for them, but to be their fearless leader as you show them there is nothing to be concerned about.
Exposure To Infrequent Things
Adult dogs that do not experience certain things regularly, and did not experience them when they were puppies, will likely need routine maintenance with respect to those things. A dog that has poor social skills might make amazing progress if routinely put in social situations. But if we stop maintaining those skills, they will very likely get “rusty”. This is particularly true when what we want our dog to do is counter-intuitive to their instincts. The term “instinctual drift” is used to define the tendency of an animal to revert to their instinctual behaviors absent the influence of motivation that maintains trained responses.
We want our dogs to be friendly with people, but we often allow things to happen that would make anyone uncomfortable. You would not allow a random stranger to come up and grope your spouse or your child, yet we often allow such things to happen to our dogs. Interactions between your dog and people (including all adults and children in your household) should be structured so that they are learning experiences until everyone involved shows that they are capable of acting appropriately. And they should be agreeable to all involved, including your dog. Anyone unwilling to participate in the correct training of your dog when it comes to in person interactions, should not be allowed to interact with your dog. When in doubt, please ask people not to touch, stare at, or talk to your dog, but also train to prepare your dog for those things because they will happen.
Dogs In Your Household
It is best if all dogs in the household are expected to follow the same rules. That said, there is no need to have as much structure in place for dogs that show they are capable of making good decisions on their own. Always exercise caution. Dogs, from the smallest to the largest, are still predatory animals. They solve problems with their teeth. Things like “sharing” items, allowing dogs to take things from one another, and allowing play that borders on violent are recipes for disaster. We can’t count how many times where “everything was fine…” until it wasn’t. Be proactive and avoid having significant problems.
If you are going to bring a new dog into the home, the dogs should spend a lot of time occupying the same space (like in the same room) but not able to directly interact with one another. Use crates and tethers. Do this until you are pretty sure that the dogs are bored with each other. Allowing them to play right away, interact right away, and “work it out” on their own is rarely a good idea. With dogs, boring introductions are best. You want your dogs to bond with you first, then with each other so that you maintain the role of leader, guide, and mentor.
In order to have our dogs remain calm and under control in the presence of other dogs, we must teach them that that is the expected behavior. We do this two ways: through obedience, and through calm off leash interaction. For dogs that know each other well, more invigorating play is acceptable. But we recommend that this is limited to two dogs, so that no single dog gets ganged up on. Please exercise good judgement and remember that dogs are dogs. There will be disagreements and it is important that you are ready and willing to step in and advocate for your dog, or correct them, as is required by the situation. It is better to be proactive, and prevent an issue before it happens, then to try to address something that has already taken place. Again, when in doubt, do not let your dog interact with unknown dogs. As a general rule, find a few dog friends for your dog, and stay away from dog parks.