Socialization is hot on my mind these days, because I’ve been in the thick of it for a few months with Noelle and Horton, my puppies. Puppy socializing, in a nutshell, is teaching your puppy about the world – that there is more in the world than what he sees everyday in his own backyard. The reason that this is important is because dogs will naturally acclimate to the things that they experience all the time, but they do not automatically generalize those feelings to the things that they have never seen before.
When a puppy is young (less than 6 months old), it’s pretty crucial to start the socialization process so that your pup understands that the world is wide, and he does not need to be afraid. There are essentially three categories that you should work on socializing your puppy with: new locations and experiences, meeting new and different people, and meeting new dogs. In this article, we are going to talk about how you can safely introduce and socialize your puppy with dogs. We want the experiences that he has at this tender age to be good ones, so that he grows up to be a happy, well rounded adult dog with great social skills.
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I recently worked with an older Black Labrador named Luke. Luke is an awesome dog, and is a great match for his owner. He is obedient, he is funny, he is smart, and he is a great companion. However, before his current owner got him, Luke lived by himself in the backyard in the country. As far as his owner knows, Luke never met any other dogs, and believe it or not, that had a big impact on him.
The major issue that we worked on with Luke was firstly, learning how to be calm and rational around new dogs. At the beginning, he would simply lose his mind and start to bark and lunge toward them, so first we fixed that. Once we got that taken care of however, the next step was to teach him how to speak to other dogs. This was a huge challenge for him, because he had never learned how to communicate with his own species once he was separated from his littermates!
Luke’s story is an example of why it is so critical that you help your puppy learn to socialize with other dogs, and to do it in the RIGHT way. If you’re wondering, we had incredible success with Luke! He still needs reminders to stay relaxed around other dogs, and he needs breaks to calm down when around them, but he is continuing to learn with the help of his wonderful owner!
So here we go: 4 rules to help you socialize your puppy correctly with other dogs!
1. Avoid dog parks
If you’ve read my stuff before, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my aversion to dog parks. On the surface, they seem like a great idea, and a great opportunity to socialize your puppy with new dogs. However…they are not! Don’t be fooled!
With dog parks, there is far too much that you simply cannot control. You cannot control another person’s dog and how it acts around yours (and often, that dog’s owners cannot either!). You cannot control other dog’s vaccination schedules. And you cannot control what other people’s dogs’ training and socialization has been like up to this point. You may walk in with the best behaved dog in the world and still have it traumatized in a dog fight because another well-meaning but uninformed owner was not able to control their own dog who has poor social skills.
Rather than dog parks, maybe sign your pup up for a puppy obedience class. Often, instructors will give the puppies time to socialize and play at the end of the class. This is in a much more controlled setting, with fewer puppies, and under the watchful and knowledgeable eye of the training instructor. Play is super important! You just want to make sure it is the RIGHT kind of play!
2. Find a mentor dog
In a similar vein, see if you can find a friend who has a dog who would make a great “Mentor Dog.” A Mentor Dog is an older dog who is well socialized, and has great social skills with other dogs. They are friendly and playful, but they also are willing and able to tell your puppy off when the need arises.
This is important. Just as discipline is important for human children, it is crucial for puppies to learn that there are behavioral boundaries that they must not cross when interacting with other dogs. I can always tell when a dog comes to my home for Residency Training and he did not have those boundaries taught to him by another dog. In a word, these dogs are simply “rude.” They invade another dog’s space, they ignore signals that the other dogs may give off that they don’t want to continue to play, and they tend to be more rough than their playmate. It’s easy to pass it off as “he just wants to play,” but that has the same hollow ring to it as “boys will be boys.”
So, rather than having to deal with that mess, it’s much easier to find a dog to be your puppy’s mentor and to teach them proper etiquette! Set up play dates, and don’t be afraid if that mentor dog needs to snarl and snap at your puppy when he starts to cross the line into being rude…but at the same time, do not let things escalate if your puppy does not listen or back down.
Stand up for your puppy
If you have your puppy socializing with other dogs, you may find yourself in a situation where they get crowded, overwhelmed, or another dog is not playing appropriately for them. Especially with young puppies, this is not alright for you to allow to continue. Having your puppy get overwhelmed, bombarded by rough play, or even attacked by another dog can be traumatic to them, and can be difficult for you to help them overcome as they grow.
When I was growing up, we had two littermate Australian Shepherd puppies that we were casually looking for homes for. Zippy and Herbie. Now remember, these puppies were littermates – they should have been great to play together at only four months old! However, as they grew, their play changed from fun romping to Herbie constantly harassing, picking on, and eventually being more and more aggressive toward Zippy. We did not step in when it first began, because it was so odd for puppies in the same litter to be acting this way at such a young age. However, the consequence of us allowing it to continue for as long as we did before realizing that we were facing a real problem was that Zippy spent the rest of his life wary and even reactive toward other dogs.
When you see signs that your puppy is not enjoying an encounter with another dog (tail tucked away, ears plastered back to his head, wide eyes showing the whites, and even a little puppy snarl), it’s your job to step in and stop whatever is happening. Whether that’s scooping your puppy up and taking them somewhere less crowded, or shooing off or redirecting the other dog to a different activity, step up for your puppy. This helps get them out of a scary situation, and it proves to them that they can trust you to take care of things when it gets overwhelming. That will come in handy as your pup grows up, and for your whole life together!
This can sometimes be difficult, especially if you are living in the city where leash laws reign supreme. However, it is very important, not just for your puppy’s exercise quotient, but for behavioral reasons as well.
When your puppy is on a leash and they encounter another dog, you probably tighten up your leash to keep any shenanigans from happening, don’t you? It’s perfectly natural for a human to do this, BUT it is not natural for a dog to feel completely restrained while investigating a new possible playmate. Most of their body language, how they would move and invite each other to play, is completely inhibited by that iron grip you have on the leash. This can actually CAUSE problems where there would not be an issue otherwise. That tension on the leash causes tension in your pup’s body, and can lead to reactivity and escalation, rather than a pleasant and friendly meeting.
The best thing that you can do when your pup is learning to play with other dogs is take them off the lead, as long as you are confident that they will be safe if you do so. If you are in a secure area away from traffic, and if the dog or dogs that you are introducing them to do not have any reactivity issues toward other dogs or puppies, off leash is best. It gives all of the dogs involved the freedom to move, to investigate, to leave if they are overwhelmed, and to have wild races if they decide to go ahead and play.
Socializing your puppy with other dogs is a pretty important part of them learning to be happy, well-adjusted citizens. While your puppy does not need to grow up to be a dog who is friends with every dog that he meets, it takes a lot of stress out of your life when your pup knows the basics of dog etiquette, and is able to peacefully coexist with other canines!
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