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Socializing your puppy or adult dog properly is one of the most, if not THE most, important things we can do with our dog.
In order to do it effectively, we need to have a clear understanding of what socialization actually is and why it’s important.
This article is not meant to be a “deep-dive” on puppy developmental stages, this article should give you a clear understanding of what socialization is and how you can achieve it with your dog.
There are a ton of myths out there in the world and internet about socialization, we will go through a few of these myths and explain why they are ineffective and sometimes can be the CAUSE of our dog’s insecurity, reactivity, anxiety, or aggression type behaviors.
First, let’s start with a definition, socialization is “to provide a dog with positive experiences in close proximity to people, places, things”.
The key part to pay attention to here is that we need to provide our dog with positive experiences IN CLOSE PROXIMITY to people, places, things.
We don’t necessarily have to force interactions with our dogs with people, places, things (at first), we need to provide POSITIVE EXPERIENCES. Also, positive experiences from your dog’s perspective NOT your perspective which means you must develop the ability to look at and evaluate the situation from your dog’s perspective, which also means that you need to have the ability to understand what your dog is communicating through his or her body language.
Not what you want to believe they are communicating, but what they are actually communicating.
Just because your dog is wagging their tail does not mean they are “happy”…
Okay so let’s discuss the process of how we provide positive experiences with our dogs.
Communication and Reward Markers
We are going to start this by developing engagement with us and developing our dog’s hunger / food drive.
We want them to enjoy taking food from us as a reward and we also want them to enjoy being with us.
Engagement is “building sustained focus and motivation on the owner / handler from the dog”.
So at first, we take our dog out in our yard, you could also do this in your house, but somewhere around your home and once your dog looks at you or give you some eye contact, you say “Yes” back up, as you’re backing up you take a piece of food out, lower your hand with the food in it to your dog’s shoulder level and allow them to come to your hand for the piece of food.
So as soon as you say “Yes” you start backing up and you keep backing up until your dog has accessed the food from your hand. If you follow this process the word “Yes” will become conditioned to your dog that they have done the right thing and are allowed to release themselves and come to you for a food reward.
Once you’ve done this for about a hundred repetitions around your home then you are going to work on another word that communicates to your dog they have done the right thing and will be rewarded.
This time, you take your dog out to the area around your house you will initially be training in and wait for eye contact. As soon as they look at you and focus on you say “Good”. Step toward them as you take out a piece of food and give the food to them where they are.
So this time, with the word “Good” you are not backing up and having your dog follow you, you simply step forward toward your dog and give them the piece of food from your hand at their mouth, essentially moving your hand right below their nose so they can take the food from your hand.
If you follow this process the word “Good” will become conditioned so that when they hear the word they know they have done something correctly and know to remain-in-place and you will deliver a piece of food to them.
Once you have these two words conditioned by practicing around your home or yard for at least a hundred repetitions each, you are ready to begin proper socialization by providing positive experiences in close proximity to new people, places, and things.
Also, by following the above conditioning process for the words “Yes” and “Good” you will also have developed some good eye contact / focus habits on you from your dog which will pay off in the future as well.
So now that we’ve conditioned some communication and reward markers, now we need to assess what we need to socialize our dog to and how we will do that.
Socializing Your Dog
To socialize our dog what we need to do is get ourselves in the vicinity of whatever it is we are going to socialize too and perform the same actions as we did when conditioning the words “Yes” and “Good”.
Let’s take people walking by, for example, a common myth is that I should let my dog run-up to and greet anybody and everybody.
We don’t want to do this for a few reasons:
If my dog gets used to greeting anybody and everybody they see, they could get “spoiled” and in the future demand to see everyone and if I am trying to walk down the street or don’t want my dog to go see someone then my dog starts pulling towards them, maybe barking to get attention or out of frustration, so on and so forth.
This type of behavior can also build anxiety in your dog or a hyperactive mindset, both of which are unhealthy for our dog. So we want to prevent our dog from being “spoiled”.
If my dog is a little nervous about meeting new people and I force a bunch of interactions with new people on my dog that will only serve to make the nervousness develop into a higher level of insecurity, which can be the root cause of aggressive behaviors in the future.
The people that my dog is interacting with maybe inadvertently reinforcing bad behaviors. If my dog goes to greet them and jumps up on them and the people start talking sweetly and petting him or her they are reinforcing jumping behaviors which will make that behavior stronger and more likely to occur in the future.
The key to proper socialization to people is to first build up your dog’s comfort level in the vicinity of people. Follow the same process as conditioning the words “Yes” and “Good” above rewarding your dog for good focus and engagement around people. Once your dog is comfortable with this and showing you good focus with other people around, then you can start to have your dog interact with people. Be sure to pay close attention to your dog’s body language. If they seem nervous, stop the interaction and have your dog engage with you. If they are trying to perform bad behaviors like jumping, teach your dog to Sit while greeting new people in a polite way.
How To Socialize Your Dog With Other Dogs
Now let’s take an example of interactions with other dogs and how to socialize our dog with other dogs. Another common myth is that I need to ensure my dog is able to interact with as many dogs as possible and take them to dog parks all of the time….WRONG. Just like with humans, over-exposing our dog to other dogs too soon or in an improper way can actually go against what we are trying to do. Not to mention that interacting with the wrong dogs can actually create undesirable behaviors in our dog, such as nervousness, insecurities, aggression, reactivity, etc.
Let’s look at a few points as to why this might happen:
Just like with people, if my dog builds an expectation of being able to interact with each and every dog we see (or even just the majority of them) they may become “spoiled” and if / when we decide to not allow our dog to interact with other dogs they may demonstrate reactive behaviors and strong leash pulling building lots of tension and frustration. This, in turn, will lead to more reactivity issues and could result in aggression.
If I allow my puppy or young dog to interact with dogs that are not well suited for them or don’t know how to interact well with other dogs themselves, then we can create unnecessary nervousness, insecurities, and anxieties in our dogs.
Rather than take this false approach and potentially create behavioral problems, let’s take a step-by-step approach to building up the socialization similar to what we did with people.
- First, all we need to do is get in the vicinity of other dogs, have our dog focus on us, and engage with them. You can find other dogs to be around at parks, in your neighborhood, or you could go hang outside of a local dog park and work on your dog’s focus and engagement with you. You don’t have to be extremely close, just be sure that the other dogs are within eyesight / hearing and you will be working your socialization piece.
- As time goes on, slowly decrease the distance between you and your dog and the other dogs in the area and ensure that your dog can properly focus on you and is willing to engage with you.
- Finally, find some dogs that are suitable for your dog to play and interact with. These might be your family or friend’s dogs. Be sure that the dogs you allow your dog to interact with are overall well mannered and not overbearing.
This socialization process applies to anything that you want to socialize your dog with and have them be comfortable with, whether it’s a vacuum, vet office, nail grinder, toothbrush, hard / slick floors, etc.
5 Steps To Socialize Your Puppy / Dog
- First work on your engagement with your dog in a place they are comfortable.
- Second, begin to get in the vicinity of the item / thing you want to socialize your dog to and reward your dog for focusing / engaging with you.
- Third, slowly decrease your distance to the item / thing. If your dog gets too uncomfortable, slow down, increase your distance, and slowly decrease distance again to ensure your dog remains as comfortable as possible.
- Finally, begin interactions and reward your dog for displaying and performing good, desirable behaviors.
The socialization process is critical to building your dog’s confidence levels. Take your time, don’t be in a rush, and make sure that you are giving your dog the best possible positive experiences you are able to.
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