SOCIALIZATION SKILLS REVIEWED WHY MY DOG IS SOCIAL AND WHAT I CAN DO TO CHANGE THAT.
BY ERIK Hoffer
Some dogs just like other dogs while some find the whole experience of meeting a new dog a scary and confrontational event. When a dog is anti-social it is not because he is a bad dog, but more likely an untrained or insecure dog.
Dogs read you. They absorb your hang ups and fears as if they were their own. This takes effect from the time you get your dog. If you think your dog will be bad in a situation of if you are fearful of your dog being attacked or doing the aggression, then that is what probably will happen. Dogs read us and we need to become the stabilizing force in their lives not the instigator of negativity. Dogs adopt your fears and hang ups as well as your stability and confidence.
Think of your rescue pet as a dog with a history. That history can be positive or negative but you will never know until such behaviors rear their heads. That history can have trigger events that make your dog fearful, depressed, scared, aggressive or passive. These events are brought out when the dog is immersed into a situation that he has seen before and of course you have no idea what that was or will be. Puppy’s have no such hang-ups and they have a propensity to accept new things happily in so far as social skills are concerned.
Think of your new puppy as a blank slate where you create the images both positive and negative and you are the catalyst for all things great and small. If you suddenly grab your puppy because a bigger dog is coming towards it and protect him, he will quickly imprint that he needs to jump into mom’s arms when danger happens. If you yank his lead to extract him (rather than correct him) away from a situation then you have told him that you control the avoidance behavior and that he needs to hide behind you when he feels vulnerable. By making the rules you and you alone set the stage for success or failure when it comes to your dog’s social behavior.
No one wants your 85 pound GSD to want to jump into your arms when he feel threatened!
Let’s first talk about a dog’s desire to be part of a group and how they should be taught to perceive humans. This concept is primarily for house type family pets and not of course for K9’s or protection dogs. The fact that you want to have a social dog goes without saying, because all of us want to show off our pet in public. We want to be able to go to the park or dog beach with a well behaved pet. We want to be able to take the dog visiting and to meet new people or see new places with you and your family pack. We don’t want to fear taking our dog out nor be afraid that fluffy will bite your friends and family that come to your home or that he meets on the street.
In order to achieve a balance between good behavior and over-protection, you need to let your dog be a dog. Dogs like social behaviors. They typically like touch and praise as much as companionship of humans and other dogs or even cats. Dogs adapt to the pack mentality and when introduced into a group made up of people and pets, they are at home. If you don’t allow this social behavior to form it will never mature and will destabilize the pet into thinking that this social behavior is unacceptable.
Dogs who feel that meeting people or dogs is traumatic usually stems from the persons inherent fears and are usually not that of the dogs making. Dogs typically like to meet new dogs but they and only they can determine if the meeting is a positive or negative one. Un-neutered males can have issues, younger ‘teenagers’ want to control others, females who think they are the queens are problematic in some meetings and permanent re-homing, and some more dominate dogs don’t want to share the limelight. You can’t know who is who without allowing the dogs to develop healthy relationships and understand tolerance and mutual respect. Proper meetings are explained later, but allowing your dog to interact without over monitoring and ‘smothering’ usually produces positive results. Dogs quickly work out differences amongst themselves without intervention. No one wants to be stupid and allow their dog to get into it with another dog, so monitoring socialization should be done by someone who knows dog behavior and the owner should learn the signs his dog gives off when stressed or in danger. If you work with the dog to monitor meetings you will soon find that much of your underlying fear is just that, “your underlying fear’ not theirs.
Meetings between dogs is different from when two humans meet for the first time. The animal must first determine if the other pet means them any harm and how that interaction plays into the current situation. Dogs in a dog park may be fine but will get into it over a toy, hence that interaction problem would be non-existent in a different setting and under different conditions. It is surely up to the owner to protect his pet but also to allow the dog to be a dog and not to impose human feeling, fears and perceptions where none exists.
There is a great class known as CGC (Canine Good Citizen) taught in many clubs and dog schools. It establishes a trust between the dog and owner and allows the dog to more readily accept new situations and new people and dog parings. It is a 6 week course with an end test of meet and greet, long stays and downs and establishes a benchmark between the dog and owner on trusting one another in most any interpersonal situation. That is a great course to take if you are prone to walk your dog or take your dog in public where he can meet others on a constant basis.
Doing a dog meeting for the first time needs to be understood. Meetings can be on their own turf or in a neutral area where neither dog has ownership or the inclination to protect the home, toys, kids or his back yard. Neutral territory helps the dog to meet another without these extraneous stressors and therefore makes the initial meeting far more comfortable.
The best meetings involve two people, one handling each dog while both are on a leash and have an appropriate correction type collar. What we do is pick a neutral area. We place both dogs on a leash and monitor them carefully throughout the process. We stand 15 feet away from one another and talk for 10 minutes or until the dogs settle down and lay down or are disinterested in one another. No laser locked eyes, no barking or posturing, no aggression at any level. Once that is done we take both dogs for a short 200 yard pack walk all the while being calm and just chatting. Loose leads, no angst, no trepidation and surely no corrections needed throughout the walk. If the dogs do that OK then the next step is a quick 1 second butt sniff, which is done while holding the neck collar and lead such that neither dog being sniffed can turn around and snap at the other. Once that is done and there are no problems we will typically do it again and then allow the dogs (while on a leash) to interact. They will again do their own sniff meet and greet and if that is OK, typically they can still play together while still toting their leashes. This is a great way to get your leash peed on, but it also gives you the control you need if the dogs do get into it or begin to show aggression toward one another. Never take your eyes off them and allow them to interact until you are certain that they have accepted one another. If one postures for dominance, correct him. If he continues to posture, assess the viability of the introduction and decide if this will or will not work. Only experience and observation can indicate issues, so be careful, as no one wants to get their dog or themselves hurt for no reason. Not all meetings go well but done correctly you can make a great number of them become instant successes.
Being social doesn’t mean that your dog is going to be perfect with all dogs. That distinction is limited to a select few which are typically in the 5% range. Some breeds like Golden’s reach the 80% range in super friendliness but when it comes to GSD’s that trait is more of a learned behavior than an inherent one. This is not to say that GSD’s are aggressive but as in any herder or working dog, they have an inherent need to control things as that is in their DNA. By suppressing that behavior you take nothing away from them, because they will pretty much always know what to do and when, if the situation warrants it.
A super friendly dog who has been properly socialized and is dog and people friendly will, most of the time, defend and protect where he feels the need is there or his master, pack or family member is in eminent danger. Socialization doesn’t mean that the animal is so desensitized to others that he will change his predisposition to action when he thinks it is necessary. GSD’s think constantly and determine what is best by their training and instinct. Proper training for social behavior will not change that but enhance it by allowing your pet to know the difference between play and danger, threats and play and protection and partnership. Your dog will know you and your family and quickly learn your triggers, your fears and read your body language in most any situation. The dog will then determine, by his training and your leadership, what to do and when. If your dog looks to you for direction and doesn’t receive it based on a fear response, he will typically act on his own. If the message is to stand down by you after a situation presents itself, the dog will respond appropriately. Training and time spent with you enables the dog to determine a course of action. Socialization training therefore is the primary factor in allowing your GSD to decide who to meet and greet and who to stay away from or protect against. Leadership and dominance by you helps the dog to feel confident enough to put himself in most any situation comfortably. Where before he had your leadership, he would act on instinct, but now after training, has the tools to determine how each situation affects him (and not you or the pack) and act accordingly. Most dogs in this situation will not back down if there is flight or fight scenario but knowing they are outgunned will be determined by them and they will leave. Avoidance behavior is a basic component of socialization because when presented with a stressful situation, your ability to refocus the dog and remove him from the issue or problem becomes his best defense.
Socialization amongst animals is essential for all dogs. You can’t have your dog chasing others or behaving badly when other dogs are around. You don’t want your dog to be the ‘excluded’ one in all events, so make sure that you take the time or take lessons on socializing your dog. Having others willing to help is essential to effectively learning social skills. Training classes with more than 8 dogs is the best want to tune your dog into you, to the exclusion of others. Getting 8 people and their dogs to come over when you wish is impossible, so find a socialization group class, Schutzund or dog schools where that training methodology is the norm. Training socialization one on one DOESN’T WORK. Your dog has to understand the concept of acceptance in order for him to be able to interact with you at the dog beach, at a restaurant or dog park. You can’t correct the dog with just one other dog present because he will not get the concept of focusing on your to the exclusion of others (regardless of how many or who) each time he is presented with a social situation. Having your dog be able to pass others in close proximity, such as doing figure 8’s around other unfamiliar animals promotes acceptance and turns your dog’s attention to you to get visual cues and guidance on how to behave. Dogs are quick studies. They no more want to fight it out with another dog than you wish to confront another person. They need to learn tolerance and the ability to ignore irrelevant animals and people in their space and turn their attention to you or the task at hand.
Keep in mind that not every dog will become Lassie and not every dog will be suitable for therapy work. Not every dog however is Kujo and you need to find where your pet fits in the scheme of your life and train him or protect him accordingly. Socialization isn’t an overnight program. Anything worth something takes time and dedication, so don’t be frustrated if Fluffy doesn’t get it at first, because with the proper training and reinforcement he will.