A few times a week I’ll get a call from a person who’s looking for opportunities to socialize their dog. They want to join class so their dog can meet people and other dogs and become, well, social.
Most dog owners (and many trainers) think socialization should mainly involve interaction between the dog and the environment. You may be told to let your new puppy “meet 100 people in 100 days” or maybe you’ll be encouraged to let your pup pull towards and sniff everything that moves, or take them to a dog park* to “socialize” with other dogs. What I don’t like about this approach is that you skip a vital step in the formation of the relationship between you and your dog. If you focus solely on letting your dog meet and greet the world, you down play your own importance in your dog’s life.
I approach socialization differently. I don’t care so much about my dog interacting with the environment as do about him ignoring it. Think about it, do you want your 80lb lab pulling you over to every person you walk by so she can get pats and treats? If not, don’t let your 20lbs lab puppy learn to do it in the first place.
Instead of teaching my dog how to interact with the environment, I want to teach my dog how to behave regardless of what environment we’re in. When I go to a BBQ or pet store, I don’t want my dog pulling around and trying to see everyone, I want him focused on me. I want him walking on a loose leash; I want him staying when I tell him to stay. But before I can get that out of my dog, I need to teach my dog that I’m important and fun. I do this with food and toy games in the house and around my yard. Once I have a dog that’s learned to play with me, I go to new places and play the same games. This starts to teach the dog that I’m the most fun thing in the environment, no need to search for something better.
Of course this doesn’t mean I avoid ALL interactions with people and dogs. I’ll usually let me dog say hi to someone if the person asks, but I watch my dogs behavior closely as he greets the person. If he jumps, gets too excited, or starts to get mouthy, the greeting stops. I do not let my dog greet strange dogs, especially on leash. Too many times I’ve seen it happen where a person swears their dog is friendly, but isn’t. I’m lucky to be surround by dog people with stable dogs, so I seek them out and set up play dates.
If you’re focusing on socializing your dog, focus less on letting your dog interact with the environment and more on teaching your dog to interact with you. You want the environment to become background noise. When it comes to socializing your dog, there’s no rush. You need to go at a pace that’s good for you and your dog. I always tell people that “no experience is better than a bad experience”, which is only true to a point. If your dog has a bad experience in an environment and you know how to handle it, it can turn in to a great learning experience for the dog. But if you don’t know how to handle those bad experiences (dog attack, afraid of cars, afraid of people) then you need to take it slow as you learn what your dog needs from you in those situations.
*DON’T DO THIS! In general, I don’t recommend dog parks. More on dog interactions and etiquette in the next post.
About the Author: Jen Banks has been training dogs professionally since 2008. She started her own pet dog training company in 2014. Owner and trainer at Banks K9 Solutions in Fitchburg MA, she provides group classes and in home training for family dogs.