When socialisation is not the answer!

Everyone knows that when they get a puppy they have to “socialise” that puppy. Often there is a fair bit of confusion as to what that term actually involves or means, but to find out more about this, have a look at a blog I did last year about socialisation with puppies. This blog is about the times when socialisation is not the answer!

So first of all lets look quickly at what socialisation means in terms of puppies. In a nutshell, when we talk about “socialising” a puppy, what we mean is gently ensuring that puppy builds up a positive association with all the things he or she is going to be expected to be comfortable with during their adult life. This includes people (of all shapes and sizes and with various ‘extras’ such as walking sticks, beard, glasses, hat, rucksacks etc), dogs (learning to interact appropriately off lead, on lead and also learn that they do not have to greet every single dog they come across), as well as different sights, sounds (including fireworks and thunder sounds, but this is another topic!), smells, environments and walking on different textures. The most important time for socialisation is when a puppy is under the age of between 16 and 20 weeks (depending on the breed). If you have a dog who is older than about 16 or 20 weeks, and are showing over exuberance towards other dogs, or showing reactivity/fear towards other dogs or people (eg barking, lunging, hackles up) then the answer is NOT that they need “more socialisation”.

I occasionally get owners contacting me with an adult dog who is reactive towards other dogs or people, or fearful of other dogs or people, wanting to bring them to class to “socialise” them, and are surprised when I explain why classes are not suitable for their dog at this stage and suggest a 121 to work on the behaviour. The reason for this is that if a dog is already fearful of other dogs or people, then socialisation is not the answer. Bringing an already fearful or reactive dog to a class full of other dogs, would not teach them that other dogs are good….in fact it would most likely teach them the opposite. Imagine it this way – you are terrified of spiders, and someone shuts you in a room full of spiders crawling around on the floor, on the walls, on the table. Would this period of enforced time in close proximity to something you find genuinely scary show you that your fear of spiders is unwarranted? Of course not. In fact you are more likely to end up being SO terrified that your fear will actually worsen. This process when used with dogs (forcing them to be close to triggers that they find scary in the hope they “get over it”) is called FLOODING, and is hugely detrimental. It either means the reactive behaviour gets worse as that dog tries its hardest to get the source of its fear to move away, or the dog enters into what is known as a state of learned helplessness (ie the dog shuts down because they learn nothing they do can get them out of this situation they are in). Sometimes this then appears, to the untrained eye, as if the dog is “cured” because he is, for example, in a room full of dogs and is not reacting. But that dog still feels the same emotions of fear…those havent changed….so in essence this dog is a ticking time bomb and there will be one situation where he just cannot cope with, and he will then react, and usually this comes as a shock to the owner.

The same can be said with dogs who are over exuberant about meeting other dogs…..if they are allowed to constantly greet every single dog they meet in this over exuberant way, this will simply serve to teach them that this works….the way to get to say hello to another dog fastest is to bounce about at the end of the lead. “Socialisation” with other dogs will not teach that dog to not behave in that way at the sight of another dog at all.

So how do we work with reactive or over exuberant, frustrated greeters? The first thing to remember that if any dog is “over threshold” (ie they are too stressed, anxious, fearful or excited to focus on anything else) they will not be able to learn anything or process information. The most important aspect when starting to work on these issues is distance, and in order for any learning to take place, a dog must be “under threshold” (ie at a distance away from the scary trigger or the exciting dog where they dont feel under threat or are not completely out of control excited). At this distance we would then need to work to change that dog’s emotional response…..so with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, we would start to create a positive emotional response to dogs who appear at that “safe distance” so that dogs start to predict good stuff happening…..with frustrated greeters/over exuberant dogs we would start to do the same, but in order to start to elicit more of a calm, neutral response. If you need help with this kind of behaviour modification please contact us as it is essential it is done correctly.

So I hope this has helped you understand why “socialisation” is not always the answer with adult dogs. Yes, with adult dogs who are sociable and love the company of other dogs and people, setting up play dates with other doggy friends is great, but if your dog is fearful or over excited, it is important to approach it differently, and with the help of a professional.

Polite Paws 2017

By Angela Doyle

I am a highly experienced and qualified reward based dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Surrey, UK. I am a fully qualified CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer) and specialise in helping dogs overcome Separation Anxiety.

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