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Understanding Socialisation

09/09/2017 - Puppy Training

We hear often about the need to socialise our puppies or dogs but how many of us actually understand what socialisation truly means.  Ask most people and the answer they give is that socialisation means introducing their dog to other dogs so they learn to get on.  Well yes, thats part of it but there is far more to socialisation then just letting your puppy/dog charge around with other dogs.


What Is Socialisation

Firstly we need to look at the definition of ‘socialisation’ in dog training.  Socialisation means to provide your new puppy or dog with positive experiences in a variety of new environments and locations including meeting people, other dogs and exposure to different surfaces etc.  It is important to remember that socialisation is an ongoing process and is happening all the time whether you want it to or not so we have to be  aware of what the dog is experiencing at all times.  Functional socialisation does not have to be direct interaction between the puppy/dog and people or things for example, it can simply be good experiences in the proximity to any new stimuli.  Therefore it’s not always necessary to allow your puppy/dog to meet other people or dogs, sometimes just being around other people/dogs and rewarding your puppy for paying attention to you instead of everything going on around him is just as important.  In fact, if you’re not in a situation where you can control the interaction i.e.people or dogs you don’t know, this kind of protective socialisation can often be the better option, especially for nervous dogs.  Nervous puppies or dogs can quite easily become overwhelmed and before you know it, if the dog or person is too forward and pushy, your puppy/dog is having a bad experience.  Where as, if you have the puppy/dog just being around other stimuli, especially that which your dog may be worried about and you are rewarding for attention, then the puppy/dog may think things aren’t that bad after all.  This then becomes a positive experience which is what socialisation is all about.

In dog training, there are many guidelines but not a lot of rules.  If we keep in mind that every dog is as individual as we are, it then leads that in socialising your dog, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ answer.  We have a tendency to compartmentalise our time into training and then letting the puppy/dog just get on with things. As puppies and dogs are learning all the time, more so puppies, we need to be paying special attention to this and what they are doing and feeling.  We also need to maintain socialisation as the puppy gets older as it’s not uncommon to actively socialise your puppy well at the beginning but then stop, thinking job done.  It then comes somewhat of a surprise when as the puppy matures, he suddenly begins to react to things simply because he is not really use to them anymore.  Another area of importance we have to pay special attention to is the environment we expect our puppy to grow up in.  If you have a herding breed for example then you need to socialise your puppy around other animals or if you live in a city you need to socialise around traffic etc as well.          


You Cannot Correct Away Fear

A word of warning here.  Take care with a young puppy or fearful dog in using aversive, corrective  techniques during socialisation (or at any time for that matter) such as pulling/yanking, lead jerks, shouting etc.  There is absolutely no need whatsoever for these techniques at any time but during the socialisation period, they can do untold damage to the dog.  A lot of ‘bad’ behaviour in dogs is often rooted in insecurity and dogs who bark or aggress towards other things often do so because they are uncomfortable.  Aversive corrections may stop the behaviour in the short term but they will not address the underlying issue.  If for example your dog barks or lunges at an approaching dog and you jerk the lead or yell at the dog, it isn’t making things better, in fact you are making them worse.  If you perceive your puppy/dog is afraid of something, you need to work on building up his confidence, not chastising him.


Distraction And Redirection

I briefly mentioned earlier the importance of avoiding situations that are beyond our control such as people or dogs you don’t know.  This is incredibly important.  Out in the real world, we don’t know if the person we are about to meet likes puppies/dogs, or if they know how to greet them properly.  Some people just can’t contain themselves especially around puppies and can sometimes be loud and over the top, just as some dogs can. You just don’t know how people or other dogs are going to behave.  There are a lot of dogs out there who have not been socialised correctly themselves and so do not know how to behave around other dogs.  This can sometimes lead to a bad and lasting experience for your puppy/dog.  It is far better in these situations to move out of the way and to interact with your puppy/dog as previously advised than to take a chance on something going wrong.  There will always be someone you meet who thinks it’s funny to do something silly like ‘bark’ at your dog, or stamp their feet or reach out to your puppy/dog or those who shout from a distance as their dog comes charging up to you ‘he’s fine, he just wants to say hello or play’.  These kinds of interactions are not particularly useful especially if your puppy/dog is the nervous type.  

If you find your puppy/dog is totally focussed on approaching people or dogs, remember that distraction is your friend.  Dangle a toy or treat in front of your puppy’s/dog’s nose, make him interact with you and show him that being with and focussed on you is far more rewarding than anything else.  Incidentally, distraction and redirection also works for other things such as puppy biting etc.  One thing to remember here is that restraint builds drive and creates opposition so avoid attempting to drag your puppy/dog away or hold him back from what you see as an unwanted stimulus such as people or dogs.  To do so will only create a feeling of frustration in the puppy/dog and could lead to them desperately wanting what you don’t want them to have or do.  Distraction, distraction, distraction.     

If possible, an easy way to avoid the above is to socialise your puppy/dog around people and dogs you do know and trust such as friends and family.  By this I don’t mean just popping around for a cup of tea whilst the dogs get to charge around, I mean arranging things so that you can meet them out in the real world as you would someone you would meet out on a walk and who will carry out your wishes in regards to your socialisation training regime. 



So what do we mean when we talk about ‘balance’ in dog training.  Well, the concept of ‘balance’ is your puppy/dog gets to have positive experiences with other dogs and people in direct proportion to how engaged he is with you and how well his training is going.   So basically, if you can’t get your puppy/dog to pay attention to you no matter what you do, then don’t let your puppy/dog go off charging around with other dogs all the time.  Lot’s of people let their dogs off to play with other dogs as a means of socialising or exercising their dog which is fine when your dog listens to you as it allows your puppy/dog to develop some social skills but not so good if your puppy/dog then becomes obsessed with playing with all other dogs all of the time.  It is therefore better to restrict time playing with other dogs and instead teach your puppy/dog to pay more attention to you.


Neutral People and Dogs Are Your Friend

There is nothing more valuable and beneficial to you than a neutral dog.  A neutral dog won’t be interested in your dog, won’t be afraid of your dog, won’t aggress towards your dog and won’t react to your dog if your dog suddenly reacts. So basically, a dog who remains calm at all times treating your puppy/dog with about as much interest as he would a piece of furniture.  In an ideal world, every puppy/dog owner would have access to a dog such as this as they are worth their weight in gold.  As an aside, I’ve often wondered about these ‘reactive dog’ classes’ where reactive dogs are all put together in a confined space like a village hall somewhere.  Surely putting a reactive dog into a class full of neutral dogs who don’t care about a dog ‘kicking off’ is a far better solution.  Anyhow I digress, the same principle applies to a neutral person.  Unfortunately, a puppy is quite often a magnet to people who somehow develop super-human powers and can spot a puppy from miles away.  They then come charging up, coo-ing and argh-ing at your puppy in a loud voice and intent on touching and petting, even trying to hold your puppy.  Even if you ask them to ignore your dog as you’re training it, some people just can’t help themselves.  However, a person who acts naturally around your puppy/dog, who ignores them and gives them time to either approach and say hello or not is also worth their weight in gold and is an asset to your socialisation regime.


Critical Development Periods 

Puppies go through Critical Development Periods just the same as children do therefore   the need for positive socialisation and life experiences during this period is imperative.  However, it’s also important you don’t isolate your dog during this time frame either.  Again, a neutral, older dog (if you are lucky enough to know one) can be a tremendous help especially in playing engagement games in as many different locations and environments as possible.  Puppies can be over the top when playing with another dog so it is extremely important the other dog has enough about him to correct the puppy without sending him to the vets.  If puppies are allowed to ‘rough house’ with another dog without the appropriate correction then puppies may start to think they can play like that with all dogs and not all dogs like or can tolerate puppies so be careful.  Over correction from a dog to a puppy could lead to the puppy becoming nervous around other dogs which in turn could lead to a fear aggressive behaviour in the future. 


Socialisation Does Not End With Puppyhood

As previously mentioned, socialisation is an ongoing process.  If you stop exposing your puppy/dog to new positive experiences then your puppy/dog will regress.  This is what catches a lot of people out as they think they have ‘socialised’ their puppy/dog so don’t make an effort anymore and then wonder why their two year old dog has suddenly become fearful around people/dogs/places etc.  

You also need to be extremely careful with a fearful puppy/dog in your attempts to make them interact directly/socially with new people or dogs or indeed, anything they find scary.  Trying to coax an already fearful dog into confronting his fears head on is only going to make matters worse.  You could in fact create a downward spiral that will prove really quite difficult to correct.  Think about it, if you were afraid of heights and I was pulling you towards a cliff edge whilst all the time telling you everything will be fine, you’re not going to be too pleased now are you?

Counter Conditioning is the best way to address a dogs fears.  For those who don’t understand what counter conditioning is, it basically means to ‘re-teach’ your dog to have a pleasant feeling and reaction towards something that he once feared or disliked.  You do this by associating the feared thing with something good so that it predicts good things for the dog.  If you do it often enough, the dog will eventually learn that when the thing he fears appears, good things will happen.


Taking Your Puppy To The Vets

We have to take our puppy/dog to the vets at times during their lives be it for initial jabs or illness.  The vets can be a scary place for a lot of puppies and dogs, not only the waiting room where they are expected to sit quietly amongst other animals whilst waiting to see the vet but also by the smells, being asked to stand on the weighing machine or being poked and prodded by the vet.  Again we need to make this a positive experience.  The more you can take your puppy/dog to the vets the better even to just sit in the waiting room for a while whilst employing techniques such as ‘counter conditioning’ as mentioned above.  Take some of the dogs favourite treats with you and ask the nurses or receptionists to give them to the dog.  Same with the vet.  It’s much better for you and the dog if you can socialise to this environment instead of battling trying to drag your unwilling dog through the door. 


So you can now see there is far more to socialisation than just letting your puppy/dog play with other dogs.  Remember, the more you do with your new puppy/dog, the more places you go, the more you engage your puppy/dog, the happier and more balanced he will become.  The happier and more balanced your puppy/dog is, the happier you will be and the easier your life will be.