When it comes to socializing our dogs we always tend to think about taking them to a dog park or letting them run up on-leash to sniff/greet another dog on a walk. Or maybe, we even go to a puppy socialization group… and while it's true that those are all scenarios of socialization for your dog, they aren’t necessarily the only or best options.
In fact, there are a lot of ways you can socialize your dog that doesn’t even require direct contact with another dog! We have worked with a lot of families of the past year who feel it has been impossible to socialize their new dogs or current dogs. Which for some has led to over-excited, anxious, or fearful responses from their dogs when out and about - seeing another dog or person.
Now, there are three major outcomes to socializing or a lack of socialization for a dog:
This is, for example, you have a dog or puppy who has only ever known a handful of experiences. Let’s say: the house, the backyard, the crate, the car, and the vet.
Any new situation for this dog would be extremely traumatizing or over-exciting in most cases. They see a leaf blow by on their first walk every and they are just filled with so much joy, you can’t control them! Or you decide you’ll try taking them to a dog-friendly store, and they’re terrified because they think they’re at the vet! You invite a friend over and your dog gets overly concerned about who in the world just appeared in their home!! This is a dog who lacks confidence and the ability to cope with new situations and surroundings.
This is a dog or puppy who was told yes to any and every experience. Puppy playgroups, dog parks, tearing on the leash to greet every and any person or dog who crosses their path. Then, life gets busy, and you stop socializing them every chance you get, and the next thing before you know it - they are barking and pulling towards every dog and person you see on a walk. You think to yourself, “what happened? Is he aggressive now? Why all of a sudden is he like this?”. Or, maybe they slam on the brakes and refuse to walk until the person or dog interacts with them - and walks become a struggle in that way!
And interestingly enough, both under/over socialization and equate to the same emotional response. Either our dog seems scared or overexcited. And can even seem like aggression though what they’re displaying is truly a lack of confidence and impulse control. It's the insecurity of, "wait, why can't I sniff that dog - I always get to sniff dogs, OH NO!!" and then a rush of, "NO, I have to say hi, come over and say hi to me!!" (*BARK BARK BARK*).
Now the third outcome for our dogs is:
A well-balanced socialized dog is one who has a strong and healthy on/off switch. They’re confident, come off as care-free, and typically are described as the “bullet-proof” dog.
This is the dog at the dog park who’s all about its owner. The owner calls them once, and the dog is there. They see dogs on walks, and no matter what that other dog is doing, they walk past and show no interest. This is the dog that can play well with others, but is happy to stop playing when it's time to!
And you’re probably thinking, “oh that could never be my dog” or “oh well my dog is already under or over socialized so there’s no way I can make them, bullet-proof or like a well-balanced dog!”. And this is just not the case! Of course, if your dog has a history of under/over socialization, it will take a lot of time and dedication to get them to the point where they are the majestic “bulletproof” dog...
But it also takes dedication and time to do the same thing with your puppy! And the bottom line is - you do not own a dog…you’re raising a dog. And as your dog’s advocate - it is up to you what they experience and the life they live. If you want them to be well-balanced like this, you’re already halfway there. Now it’s just about taking a little bit of time each day to make it a reality!
Key activities that those with bulletproof dogs practice with their dogs on a daily basis:
This may seem like a given, but if you are working with your dog every day - even if it’s for 5-10 minutes at a time - you are already taking a step in the right direction. It’s not about being perfect right away, it's about getting better and better until you get to the point where you’re like “wow my dog could not be more perfect”. So focus on being 1% better each day. We have 365 days in the year, so what does 1% better daily equate to, right?
We oftentimes are so worried about making our dog greet an x amount of dogs each day. But we never stop to think, “well can they NOT greet dogs and still be behaved?” - have you ever been on the way to the dog park or seen a dog coming into the dog park, and the second the dog sees where they are they start barking at the top of their lungs and they rip towards the gate? And you’re like “wow they really love the dog park, they’re so crazy when we get here!!”. Your dog is doing that because of an extremely engrained reinforcement history. They know what to expect, they know what it means when they get there.
But imagine if instead of allowing them to act all crazy before being even crazier in the dog park - you took them and worked solely on their ability to walk calmly around the dog park. Or to sit and look at the other dogs and then you? What if you make hanging out with you around the dog park way better than the dog park! It may be a little crazy the first few times you did it - but how rewarding will it be when your dog is one step closer to being bulletproofed! 100% total focus on you.
Or let’s say you take them to a pet store, or on a walk and focus on NOT greeting the people and other dogs that you see. Instead, you see if they can look at you, or sit as they pass - focus on that impulse control and show them that just because those people and dogs are there - that your dog doesn’t have to have access to them! This is how we build up that healthy on/off switch in your dog’s brain.
I would 100% always recommend puppy playdates over the dog park. One of our other dog trainers explains it so so well - she says, “a person would never go to a public place and socialize with a bunch of random people they don’t know. They would, though, go out with people they felt really comfortable around and were friends with!” - why would it be any different for our dogs? How stressful would it be to only ever spend time with other dogs that your dog doesn’t know or feel comfortable around? And there's no doubt as to why there are a lot of dog fights and iffy incidents that occur at the dog park! They’re all on edge.
So why not get together with other dog owners that you know, you feel that your dogs play well together, are comfortable with each other and you know that it will be a controlled and enjoyable experience. This is far more beneficial for your dog when it comes to direct socialization. Now, you’re not risking your dog meeting another dog that's a bully - possibly ruining their relationship with other dogs! You know that your dog will have a best friend or a few best friends, and they will always get along. And, they will learn that they only play with dogs when it’s in a puppy play date situation. Not just at any random or given time.
Adding it together
Again, your dog cannot be well-balanced in socialization if they have too much of one or the other. You need to be intentional about giving your dog indirect and direct socialization opportunities. And too, focus on their training through all of it. Your dog spends 99% of its life WITH YOU, why wouldn’t you want them to focus on you and love living life with you?
It is essential when working towards socializing your dog that you take it slow, have fun, and stay consistent! It's not about being perfect right away. It's about getting better and better until one day you’re right where you want to be with your dog! Bring your dog into all sorts of situations daily, but focus on one another. It's not about the park, or the farmers market, or the pet store - it's about being together and building up little behaviors at a time. Having fun and making sure that what you do is sustainable! Remember, 1% better each day at the end of the year shows huge improvements!