By Carol Besler-Snell on 06/01/2016
How the Term “Socialization” Can Be Misunderstood
Sometimes people don’t clearly understand what “socializing” a dog means—or the benefits of doing so. Socializing means exposing a dog to a variety of dogs, people, and experiences so they know how to deal with new and different things. Socializing includes teaching a dog how to get along with strangers, other dogs, children and other animals as well.
Be an Advocate for Your Dog
Socializing a dog should be done with a lot of thought and care. Done right, socialization can help a dog be more balanced mentally. Done wrong, it can backfire and result in unusually shy or aggressive behavior. Many trainers and dog owners misunderstand socialization and implement it inappropriately unknowingly, even when they have good intentions.
When applied properly, socialization introduces a dog to new things and situations that challenge him or her a little. It’s important to understand that these challenges can be worrisome to many dogs. The best thing that you, the owner, can do is be an advocate for your dog. Don’t push your dog to do/experience something too fast that seems to really scare them. Along the same lines, don’t baby your dog or coo “It’s OK” over and over. Doing so can convince your dog that there IS something to worry about, and they may get even more worried or scared.
The delicate balance for dog owners is to learn how to be their dog’s “coach.” That means exposing them to new challenges slowly and at their pace…but also letting them know that you believe in them and encourage them to learn and grow with this experience!
How socialization is misused and misunderstood
Too often dogs are placed in new challenging situations without feelings and prior experience being considered. For instance, some people believe that exposing their dog to lots of unfamiliar people and dogs will change their character. This is referred to as over-exposure or flooding. Essentially, it is too much too soon. Taking your fearful dog to Home Depot or Starbucks before having successful socialization lessons only intimidates the dog and makes it more fearful. You end up aggravating the problem instead of solving it.
Anytime your dog is not actively enjoying the socialization experience you present, it means the challenge is too huge, and he or she is not ready to overcome it. In this case, if you insist on forcing your dog, you do more harm than good. It’s kind of like throwing a child who is terrified of the water into the deep end of the pool. Sure, some people may advocate this, but most positive-reinforcement dog trainers will tell you that it is just unkind.
We bring dogs into our lives because we love them, and we learn a lot about their personalities as we bond with them. As you consider how to best socialize your dog, ask yourself about his or her character. What can they handle now? What can you safely and thoughtfully expose them to? How slow do you need to go? As you go, what improvements are you seeing?
Socializing the Dog-Fearful Dog
If you have a dog who seems fearful of or aggressive toward other dogs, it’s important to consider how—or if—you can expose them to other dogs to change their attitude. A good first step is to consider obedience training. Would it do your dog good to be in a class around other dogs—or would he or she be so distracted or scared that they would be worried/defensive the entire time?
Many dogs will benefit from the gentle push to be around 4-6 other dogs ON LEASH and get their minds involved in learning things instead of focusing on how worried they are about the other dogs. However, some dogs will do worse in this environment. As the dog’s owner, you are the best person to make decisions about whether class or private training is most appropriate for your dog. That’s part of being an advocate for your dog.
After training, there are other ways to socialize dog-reactive dogs. Taking them to the dog park right away is NOT a good idea. If you do, you are just throwing them in a situation where they are “on their own.” Another “deep end of the pool” circumstance.
Rather than the dog park, consider some slower and more controlled approaches:
1. Take your dog on a walk with another person and their dog. Two dogs heading in the same direction often have less conflict. They are each focused on their own goal of walking and sniffing and exploring. Initially, you may have to keep some distance from each other. But in slow steps, you can often get closer and make this walk a successful dog socialization experience.
2. Have a play date with another dog. Slowly have your dog meet just one dog who is non-threatening. Keep them on leash at first and at a distance. If they are super-stressed, you don’t have to get them closer or take them off leash. Small steps. Repeat often. Increase the exposure gradually and give food rewards when they act as you want them to. This will help your dog will feel encouraged and associate good things with the socialization experience.
3. Take your dog to a very controlled dog daycare for an assessment. Explore your options and check out which facility will most carefully introduce and watch your dog. Sometimes leaving things to the professionals is the best approach. But don’t assume every doggie daycare employs “professionals.” Some are free-for-alls that don’t have the best trained employees, so ask questions and observe!
Other Kinds of Socializing
Besides exposing your dog to other dogs, consider other things your dog needs to learn to be comfortable with—different looking people, trips to the vet, changes in schedule, etc. Each time you expose your dog to new situations, remember to be an advocate. Be positive, use a happy voice and treats for rewards, and back off when things seem too scary for your dog. Being a dog owner means being a best friend, a parent, and a coach. Think about the best coaches you have known or observed in your life. That is what your dog needs to become well socialized.