The Invisible Dog: Socialization
If you have ever talked to me in person about socialization, I will tell you two things:
“Teach existence, not interaction.”
“I want an “invisible dog” in public.”
I see many people panic about properly socializing their new puppies during a time of social distancing. This has become a major concern across the globe, and a rising concern with well-meaning puppy owners who just want to make sure their puppy has the best possible start in life. We all want to have our puppies be well rounded and happy, confident companions which the world has drilled into our heads that the foundation to that is socialization.
Ask yourself what socialization is when it comes to puppies.
I am betting your answer is something along the lines of “introduce puppy to as many different friendly people, friendly dogs, pet-friendly places, etc as possible.”
This is a universally conveyed message to all dog owners and has been a “rule of thumb” since before I began learning dog training and dog behavior.
What if I told you that this type of socialization can actually breed behavioral issues and that Social Distancing is actually ideal for puppy socialization and development?
Existence not Interaction
I like to break socializing into two categories: interaction and existence.
Interaction is, as described above, the most accepted form of socialization in the pet world. Introduce puppy to people and other dogs so that they will get love and treats and play, overall have a wonderful experience, and learn that people and other dogs are amazing!
Now, we have all heard of and seen the benefits of this type of socialization. I am not saying that this method doesn’t work, nor am I saying that it doesn’t have its benefits. Like with any method, there is a place and a time for everything and sometimes it comes down to the individual dog on whether this is a good method for them.
However, this type of socialization also can breed poor behaviors later on.
With interaction socialization, you are building up that excitement to meet people and other dogs-even if that is not your intention. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but this can quickly develop into excitement on lead when your puppy sees another dog or person. This excitement can build to frustration, especially when your cute little puppy gets bigger, and you have to tell him “no” in regards to greeting someone.
This frustration rapidly can escalate to lunging, barking, growl-whining and while your dog may only want to say “hi” it makes him look aggressive to the outside viewer. It also leads the way for increased behavioral issues to build from there, not to mention the potential for injury for both your puppy and you.
Yanking, pulling and lunging on leash can become dangerous to your dog- it can attract unwanted attention from neighbors, it can send the wrong message to other dogs causing them to get defensive (potentially starting a fight), can cause bodily harm to your dog regardless of what training tool you use-or lack thereof-and overall can get more and more difficult to correct the longer this behavior continues.
Then there is the danger to you, especially if your dog is on the larger side. You can get tangled up, unexpectedly, in the leash because your dog changes directions quickly in the excitement, put strain on your muscles, yank at your joints, could cause you to fall, and depending on your dogs size even be dragged, not to mention the emotional drain that may cause you to stop walking your dog or taking him out into public. This last reason can also cause the behavioral issue to continue to increase, not just on leash but in your house.
Existence is where your dog learns that dogs, people, environments, sounds, events are just another part of life. None of them are inherently good or inherently bad, they just are. You are teaching your dog to focus on you, or their command, or to just be calm and relaxed around other people and dogs.
This type of socialization allows the dog to experience situations, environments and other people and dogs without the need nor the excitement that interaction brings. You are still giving your dog a positive experience around people and dogs, but you are teaching them that not everyone is an exciting thing that they just must say “hi” to.
Now, I am not saying to never let your puppy interact with someone but as a general rule of thumb there is no reason for every single dog and every single person to greet and play with your puppy. I am also not saying to keep your puppy away from everyone- isolation is not healthy for a puppy.
What you are doing is keeping control of the situation. You are teaching your puppy to be calm and that these other beings are not something to be scared of. You are also teaching your puppy that you have control of the situation and that they need to look to you for what to do next, which takes a lot of pressure off them and you. On top of this you are stacking the odds in your favor that every socialization session will be positive without the risk of potentially negative impact of different situations such as: dogs who are not entirely friendly, dogs who do not appreciate puppy energy, dogs who are too rambunctious for your puppy, dogs who move too fast and startle your puppy, as well as people who don’t listen to your cues, people who encourage bad behaviors, children who don’t have dog skills or accidentally grab, pully, poke, move to fast or make sudden loud noises etc.
Not every human, and not every dog
Not every human, and not every dog, wants to meet your puppy and even less want to meet your adult dog. Our goal is to teach our puppy that they don’t need to meet anyone and that we will decide if it is okay for them to interact with someone outside of their family but that we will decide if it is okay for them to interact with someone outside of their family however there is no need for him to interact with anyone outside of the family.
This “existence socialization” also helps when bringing new dogs into your home, or introducing new dogs to each other. “You don’t have to get along and be best friends, but you can exist around each other without the pressure of interacting.” In doing this you are also teaching your new puppy/dog boundaries and how to respect each other’s space when in the same home. This type of training also makes a lot of otherwise chaotic/exciting situations where you may want to bring your dog, much less stressful for him (and you!)-like dog events or pet stores or even training classes.
The Invisible Dog
Overall, my goal with training and with socialization is to create an invisible dog. I want to be able to go to dog friendly cafes and put my dog in a down, or under the table, and even with other people walking around or other dogs in sight for my dog to go unnoticed. I want to walk along a busy area that has other dogs and people, and for people not to automatically see my dog because he is pulling on the leash or making a scene, if he is noticed I want it to be because he was not noticed right away.
What to do now:
Continue training and teach your dog to EXIST around other people and other dogs.
Your dog does not need to, and should not, greet every single person and every single dog they can -especially as puppies. Social Distancing is an ideal set up for training and socializing your dogs. Teaching your dog to focus on you, or the command at hand, with other people or dogs in proximity without interacting helps build a positive association without interaction. It also teaches your pup to focus on you and not everyone/everything else.
A quite common socializing mistake is that they need to meet/interact with as many friendly people and friendly dogs as possible. The issue with this is we focus so much on the interacting that we forget there are many instances interacting is not safe, or shouldn’t be done, or times in the future when you need your dog to focus on you and not greet someone. Unfortunately, greeting everyone as a routine and then being told “no” later when your dog is not accustomed to it can lead to leash reactivity, over arousal on leash and even can start fights making your dog appear aggressive when in realist he’s just so excited he doesn’t know how to control himself.
Working on commands with people and dogs in sight, but without interacting/greeting, is a great way to continue to build a positive association with new people and dogs, as well as teach your dog to control himself, focus on you and remain calm around people and dogs.
So, if you are worried about socialization, a great way to continue to build the positive associations is to continue positive training one-on-one with dogs/people in sight but not interacting with them.
This makes for a calmer, more rounded dog as your puppy matures.
Remember: I am not saying never allow your dog to interact with other dogs/people, just do so safely and sparingly -as a treat but not the norm- and that right now you can continue socializing while respecting social distancing.
Until Next Time!
All you need is “A New Leash on Life”