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Socialisation - what is appropriate for your dog?

From my experience when people want their dog ‘to be good with other dogs’ they need the dog to demonstrate a range of skills that have been honed by practice and maturity.

I’ve been working with dogs long enough to remember when the advice was ‘socialise, socialise, socialise’. This advice came off the back of a small study of dogs that appeared to have fewer behaviour problems if they were taken out and about before 15 weeks of age. Keeping puppies at home until that point was the standard veterinary advice. A document I have from that time reads: “The most urgent priority is to socialise your puppy to a wide variety of people, especially children, men, and strangers before he is twelve weeks old.”

When I began training puppies socialisation meant:

  • Introduce the puppy to as many strangers as possible - one book I have, recommends a 100 folk in 4 weeks, I’m not sure I know that many people!

  • Make sure your puppy is hugged, handled, and restrained by as many people as possible, especially children. Ask them to touch your dog on their muzzle, paws, tail, collar, and rear end.

  • Take your pup into as many new situations as possible, expose them to heavy traffic, public transport, busy shops, other pets, strange dogs, and the local park. We used to give out charts where people could tick off as many new events as possible within a 4 week puppy class session.

  • Get your pup into a puppy class where they can romp off lead with other pups. In modern times this has been supplemented by, get your puppy into a day care facility.

Although this advice was well intentioned by those of us giving it out, many years of teaching classes of dogs labelled reactive or aggressive has shown me why this misunderstood socialisation protocol just doesn’t work and can impact a dog’s whole life, as well as the life of the family.

One common myth is that if you don’t let your dog play freely off lead with other dogs they won’t be ‘good with dogs’ in the future. This is a myth because if your pup was raised in healthy litter that had plenty of space to play, then they have already developed lots of social play skills and these won’t be lost. The other problem is that we aren’t defining ‘good with other dogs’ fully.

From my experience when people want their dog ‘to be good with other dogs’ they need the dog to demonstrate a range of skills that have been honed by practice and maturity.

These skills don’t arise by accident, they need time and practice with other skilled canines. If these skilled canines are not available then the dog needs to be guided by an owner with clear and practised strategies.

When we walk down a street, we rarely react on the surface to every person that we pass, however our brains are working behind the scenes. Our brains are discriminating and assessing, asking questions such as ‘is this someone I know, someone I should move away from, is this person a threat, an opportunity, should I change my behaviour or keep going’.

These are complex skills that took us time to learn, there were mistakes and errors of judgement along the way and our dogs need to go through a similar process.

We also need to remember that our dogs will never attain the same level of experience as a human adult and will always need a degree of management, this is where the Walking Together training comes in.

What can you do?

Begin with a list:

Strangers: Dogs who share communal space, such as parks, streets, vets waiting rooms. In contact for short periods, often in passing. Avoid conflict as a priority.

Depending on your dog’s personality they might want to strike up a closer short-term relationship (e.g. conversation) or avoid any contact. Neither is better, they are both fine as long as both parties agree.

Acquaintances: Dogs seen regularly; at class, the park, day care, group dog walks, neighbours through the fence, but not going to be sharing the home.

Family: Dogs that come into our home, eat besides, sleep with, share toys with

You can repeat this list for people. Who does your dog really need to have a close relationship with, who needs to be tolerated and who needs to be treated as no more than a tree, someone who is there but irrelevant to your dog.

The latter two categories are where our dogs need social skills that come from extended periods of play or contact. Yet many protocols try to apply inappropriate social skills with strangers that have no long term benefits for our dogs.

Street Walking

When dogs are walked towards each other, on lead, at normal human walking pace, for instance along a pavement, then the dogs will experience this as hostile behaviour. The canine social protocol would be to stop and then politely wait for an invitation to approach. The space between the two dogs would be large enough for them to turn around and leave without conflict.

The human social protocol is to keep walking, making some form of socially acceptable acknowledgement, or looking away as we pass. Alternatively, we may make ourselves as small as possible, stand back against a wall and let the person pass, neither of these make sense to our dogs and without training they will react to the behaviour of the other dog rather than yours. We inadvertently push our dogs into behaving badly by stripping them of their own inherited social protocols.

Intrusive Approval

We have also inherited a presumption that we all have the right to touch and handle other people’s dogs and that everyone has the right to touch your dog. Many dogs find this unasked for touch unpleasant and aversive, yet if the dog objects to this handling by a stranger then the dog is wrong, labelled aggressive or under socialised. We need to remember that this presumption is cultural, only certain countries make this assumption. If your dog has come in from a country where dogs are not treated this way then the genetic history for accepting human touch may be weak or not present at all. Alternatively, the dog that craves touch from humans and has been reinforced for being ‘friendly’ can often become the nuisance dog.

Our goal is to maintain politeness, whilst protecting the long term interests of our dogs. Teach our dogs to respond to and with people and other dogs as appropriate.

Return to your list if you are unsure of where another dog or person fits into your dog’s life. By having clarity of the different protocols for each category of dog or person, and teaching these protocols to our dogs, we can avoid the conflict and long term behaviour issues that come from a well-meaning, but inappropriate social agenda.

Need more help? Lead handling skills and strategies are covered in depth in the Walking Together online resource Socialisation, Familiarisation and Habituation for rescue dogs is covered in the Rescue Dog online resource

I am also available for online and in person consults, please contact me to make an appointment

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