Many dog owners want to have a well socialized dog--a dog that they can take out to all different kinds of places. They want their dog to be able to join in on all of their activities. However, many dog owners often confuse reactivity, overfriendliness, and rude behavior with being “well socialized.” I’ve seen dog owners let their dogs pull them towards another dog, that is clearly uncomfortable, claiming, “it’s okay, my dog is friendly!” The situation then quickly escalates to aggression because the “friendly” dog pushes the anxious dog to its limits.
What does “socialized” mean?
A well socialized dog is NOT a dog that is pulling its owner towards the dog across the street. A well socialized dog is not constantly trying to react to everyone--even if it is just overfriendliness. A well socialized dog is polite and interacts when given the cue, and has a calm energy and presence. Sean O’ Shea of The Good Dog Training describes socialization as “teaching your dog how to behave and exist in the world properly.” Although the popular belief is that “only interactions create a well socialized dog,” this isn’t true. Let’s apply this to our kids: allowing kids to socialize in a free for all, in any way they want, even if supervised involves a lot of risk. Allowing another child to bully yours, or push yours to their limits can cause behavior issues. The same can be said for our dogs. Proper socialization means correcting your dog for making poor choices. If you are walking your dog down the street and he chooses to lunge when another dog walks by (even if he just wants to play), a correction needs to be made in order for your dog to understand that is not allowed. If a correction is not made your dog will not know what behavior is expected of him.
How to properly socialize your dog
Enforce petting protocols. Most people do not know how to properly pet a dog. Some people will put their face right next to your dog, some people will start kissing your dog, or try to hug your dog. A lot of people will go over your dog’s head to pet. I have a “DO NOT PET” collar on my dog because I want people to ask before they pet my dog. I usually have her focus on me, and give her an okay. This way she doesn’t think she can just approach anyone. When people do come up to her, I ask that they wait til she’s calm and sitting, and I ask them not to let her approach first.
Exposure and corrections for arousal. Exposure is very important, for any dog of any age, breed, or background. When I got my puppy I made sure to take her to crowded spaces with lots of people, dogs, and noises. I wanted her to be used to all different kinds of sights and sounds. However just exposure is not enough. If your dog becomes reactive towards something (for example skateboards), you need to be able to correct this dog and bring down its arousal level. Dogs often react out of fear or anxiety--they often think that they have to stick up for themselves because their owners can’t. A correction brings down the arousal level and lets them know you are there and it’s okay. Do not pet your dog or speak to him reassuringly, this often reinforces unwanted behavior.
Structured pack walks. Look up in your local area if any place, such as a training center, hosts pack walks. Pack walks are exactly that--people get together and just walk their dogs. Interactions are not allowed, and if they are, you must ask first and the interaction usually cannot be face to face. This is great for reactive dogs and dogs that have low confidence. Walking together with no interaction teaches a dog to just exist. No reacting to other dogs or other people unless given the signal. This is how I introduced my Labrador to my friend’s reactive German Shepherd. We did pack walks for over a month before introducing them, and the German Shepherd went from trying to eat my Lab’s face, to being best friends with him.
Set boundaries. Having boundaries such as a crate as a safe place, or a placemat for your dog to sit on is very helpful. Even something as small as not allowing your dog up on the couch unless he is given the okay sets up respect. This way your dog won’t be immediately at the door when someone is knocking, or jumping up all over your guests. For example--you can have a raised cot by the door. Everytime someone comes to the door you can give your dog a treat, but only if he sits on the cot. That way it reinforces positive and calm behaviors. The dog is not to greet the guest in any way he wants--he must be given the okay and be calm first.
Remember to reinforce the behaviors you want and to correct the ones you do not want. Allowing your dog to become overly aroused is not what you want--generally this leads to reactivity. Remember to reward your dog when he presents good behavior, and correction when he exhibits bad behavior. Do not pet your dog or treat your dog to distract him from reacting; this reinforces bad behavior. Remember your dog looks to you to see how to react and it is up to you to teach him and correct him. If you are uncomfortable at all, please hire a balanced trainer!