The great thing about perfect autumn weather is that it is an ideal time to walk dogs outside!
This is great for many reasons, and I’ll talk about the joys of fall walking soon. But first, I want to talk about the social aspect. As more people and dogs get out on the trails, we run into some encounters. One of the hardest things is to be the owner with a not-friendly leashed dog with another dog (even friendly!) running toward you.
Socializing dogs and social encounters can be a tricky business. The owner of the snapping dog may be trying their hardest to get everyone out and be responsible. Dogs, just like people, have off days socially and may just not like certain dogs. So even two friendly dogs can have a rough day. They may be friendly in a safe setting, but territorial at their homes. They may be friendlier when their owners are present, or when their owners are absent. I will talk about some ways to socialize your dog, and ways to keep everyone safe in the process.
It is best to start socializing your new dog as soon as you get them. It is never too late to start, but once bad habits become ingrained they are harder to break (as with all bad habits.) That is OK, it will just take more work! Many people think that it is a great idea to take puppies to a dog park to socialize them, but this is like tossing a baby into the deep end on their first time in a pool. They will be socialized, but that doesn’t mean it is the type of socialization you WANT. It is often too many dogs and far too overwhelming for a puppy.
Puppies should be introduced to new dogs in a safe, one-on-one situation. Playmates of the same size, age and energy level are ideal. However, “baby sitter” dogs which are older and very tolerant are also great playmates. Once your puppy or dog has had several successful play dates, they can then start to play in larger groups. When starting your dog out in a group play, it can be helpful if they have already met the dogs previously. Many dogs also learn from their housemate. If you have a well-socialized sibling, your new dog may take cues from them on how to interact with new playmates.
Some dogs immediately love all other dogs, and some never warm up. Your dog should always be able to walk near other dogs if you live in an area where this is a necessity for exercise. Just because your dog doesn’t want to frolic with canine buds doesn’t mean that it can’t learn to sit and wait when other dogs pass on the sidewalk. It is important to let go of the expectation that all dogs must automatically be best friends. It is nice to have a social dog and experience playtime, but it doesn’t happen with all dogs.
Did you know that putting a yellow ribbon on your dog’s leash signifies that they do not want to be approached by other dogs? If you have a dog that doesn’t enjoy meeting friends this is a good signal to use. Additionally, if you see a dog with a yellow ribbon on their leash, give them space! If you have a dog that you know is not friendly towards new people, make sure that you give warning of this. Some owners feel more comfortable walking their dog in a basket muzzle to reduce the chance of people being bitten. While this may seem like a strange concept, it is actually a good alternative that allows the dog to be walked while they work on their aggression issues.
It is also important to know your dog’s comfort zone. Working within this comfort zone doesn’t mean that it can’t be ever-expanding, though. If your dog is fearful with new people, taking them to a crowded space will not be helpful. It is important to work on socialization in small steps so that they never get overwhelmed, as this will set back your training.
It is always a good idea to get specific advice from a trainer or veterinarian, but the rule is to start small. If your dog is nervous with new people, have them meet one person at a time. If they are aggressive with new dogs, introduce them to friendly, non-reactive dogs in steps. Learn their individual triggers and avoid these. Some dogs tend to be aggressive when their owners are holding them, so part of socialization includes meeting new people without the owner present.
Often dogs do best in a neutral environment where they don’t have to be concerned about “protecting” their home. Give them plenty of reassurance in situations where they are nervous, but never praise them for being aggressive. Often we want to tell our dogs that they are good and everything is OK when they are upset, but if their behavior is unwanted this praise can confuse them.
Usually, if you gradually introduce your new dog to people and other dogs, the process will be successful. Remember that all dogs have their own personalities, so don’t expect that they will love playing in large rambunctious groups just because they are a canine. Some dogs thrive in this environment, while others take time to warm up to a herd. Additionally, not all sibling dogs will automatically like each other. Just as some human siblings get along and others never do, cohabitation doesn’t ensure friendliness. Take all introductions slowly, aim first for tolerance.
Finally, be honest about your dog’s limits. If they are friendly at a park, but aggressive on the porch, make sure they are restrained while on the porch. If they hate dinner parties, then give them a space in the back bedroom to relax when you have your friends over. Recognizing and respecting our dogs’ boundaries is the first and most important step when moving forward with socialization.