Puppy to Dog Socialization
Spring and summer are popular times of the year for many families to introduce a puppy into their homes. Hopefully by now most people are aware that socializing their puppy is one of the most important things to do in order to have their puppy grow into a friendly, confident and happy family pet.
Socializing puppies involves many components, and it’s a big job because a lot of it needs to get started within the first 3 months. After that critical imprinting time has passed, socializing needs to continue for a good 2 years until your puppy is close to being a mentally and emotionally mature adult.
At it’s very basic level, socializing involves creating positive associations for your puppy with people, dogs, places, sights, sounds and objects.
In his article, I’m going to focus on tips for socializing your puppy with other dogs. I’m also going to discuss the training skills that you can begin teaching from day 1 which will help support your goal.
Socializing your puppy with other dogs may not be the most important thing to do from a trainer’s perspective, but it sure ranks right up there with pet dog owners. If you’ve ever had a reactive dog, you know just how wonderful it is to be able to live with and walk a friendly dog instead!
What Does a Dog-Friendly Dog Look Like?
Interesting question! I bet you would get a lot of different answers if you polled your dog-owning friends and relatives. In fact, if you do, please let me know the results.
Contrary to popular opinion or at least what passes for popular opinion in any dog park I’ve ever visited, the truly friendly dog is not the one jumping on me or racing toward my dog at high speed and jumping on him. Despite the “he’s friendly” shriek coming from the owner far in the distance, this is most decidedly not friendly behaviour.
I would define this behaviour as, at best, obnoxious and rude. At worst, this could be a problem if the mislabeled friendly dog in question actually happens to be looking for trouble – leaving your dog in a position to have to defend himself.
Let’s look at some definitions of “friendly”:
- Oxford Dictionary: Kind and pleasant, not in conflict, not seriously or unpleasantly competitive or divisive.
- Cambridge English Dictionary: Behaving in a pleasant, kind way towards someone. A friendly game or argument is one that you play or have for pleasure and in order to practise your skills, rather than playing or arguing seriously with the aim of winning.
- And some Synonyms for “friendly”: affable, amiable, genial, congenial, companionable, sociable, comradely, hospitable, approachable, easy to get on with, communicative, easygoing, good-natured, kindly, benign, amenable, sympathetic, benevolent.
- None of those say: “run full speed toward me, jump on my head and pummel me into the ground”!
The Puppy License
You’ll often hear people say that puppies under 6 months old have a “puppy license”. This refers to the belief that adult dogs are genetically programmed not to kill an annoying puppy because of their annoying puppy behaviour.
While this may or may not be accurate, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to take the risk that every dog I introduce my puppy to got that particular memo. I think thisdefinitely becomes an excuse to just let puppy do what puppy wants to do, and now we have the beginning of rude behaviour. I’m going to prepare my puppy a little better than that.
Another popular piece of advice: “just let the dogs work it out”. No! Don’t do that! Dogs do not always, in fact not even very often, know the best way to handleanother dog’s behaviour without some training from us. Certainly many adult dogs can be reasonably patient with puppies, but I don’t want to risk meeting one who isn’t when my puppy is at such a vulnerable point in his maturity.
Yes, if your puppy were raised among its canine family members, who included adult females and adult males, he would learn some far better dog-dog behaviour by the time he was 6 months old. However, that just doesn’t happen when you get a puppy at a young age. This becomes our job.
There are certain puppy behaviours that are very annoying to a more mature dog. These are the behaviours we are going to work on preventing. We are also goingto work on training better behaviours as well as creating positive associations to dogs in general.
Annoying puppy behaviours:
- jumping on them upon first meeting or persistently jumping on them during an interaction
- licking faces insessantly
- staring at them from a distance
- barking persistently at them in an effort to get some play (or some interaction) going
Does your dog do any of these things?! These puppy behaviours can easily persist throughout adolescence if you do nothing about them. They do not grow out of them and it’s not fair to let other dogs “correct” yours when you haven’t put the time in yourself.
How Do You Begin the Socialization Process?
Let me begin by saying that under no circumstances should a dog park factor into any of your excursions or plans for socialization. More on dog parks later – but for now – just...no!
Good socialization is about creating positive associations. At the start, I would hold off taking my puppy very far or introducing him to any new dogs until he has been home with me for at least a week. This gives you an opportunity to ensure he’s well and healthy and also gives you an opportunity to start building that bond and making some observations about your puppy’s temperament. Obviously you have lots of other things going on too as you start house training, maybe crate training, teaching puppy to be alone, introducing him to friends and family, etc. It’s a big list!
After that initial period, I would begin by taking puppy out and about for the sole purpose of observing dogs but not actually interacting with any dogs that are unknown to you.
A Starting Exercise:
- Have your puppy on a 6-foot regular leash and body harness and strap on a treat pouch full of the best treats you can come up with. (No flexi leads!)
- Take a short 20-minute stroll either on your own street or drive to a local community park that you can stroll through with your puppy on leash.
- Click or Mark with a verbal marker like “Yes!” every time your puppy spots a dog approaching and then put a treat right in front of his nose for him to eat.
- Take your puppy well out of the way of the approaching dog so that no interactions are likely.
- If you find puppy can’t easily remove his glance from the approaching dog to respond to your marker, simply move a bit further away from the main path and try again.
- If no dogs are on the horizon, then you can Click or Mark every step puppy takes with a loose leash and get in some valuable training time.
- If you encounter a helpful individual who offers to let your puppy say hi to their dog, just politely decline and move along.
- If the helpful individual seems willing, you could ask if they would mind just hanging out with their dog at a bit of a distance for a few moments while your puppy stays calmly beside you and gets treats.
The criterion that we are striving for in this simple exercise is that your puppy learns to be calm around dogs moving around him while on his leash. He’s also learning to respond to you and to move his focus away from another dog and on to you.
In addition, the act of glancing at a dog and then glancing away is actual a very valuable social skill for your puppy to learn and will help unfamiliar dogs be more relaxed and comfortable around him.
The alternative - staring at an approaching dog - is a common trait of the reactive dogs I work. It’s consideredrude and threatening behaviour by another dog and will often cause a reaction by a dog who doesn’t know what else to do about the rudeness. It’s also something that puppies just do until they learn a different behaviour.
The by-product of Clicking/Marking when your puppy sees another dog is that very quickly your puppy will learn to look away from the dog and toward you in anticipation of his treat. We are manufacturing good social behaviour – glance and glance away. The social feedback he gets fromthe approaching dog is much more likely to be friendly and therefore reinforcing. After lots of practice, your puppy will begin to glance at a dog and glance back at you before you even get a chance to get your marker in there. What a good puppy!
Our goal is calm behaviour – not lunging and pulling toward another dog, not barking in frustration, not staring – just glancing, glancing away and getting a treat while remaining on a loose leash close to you.
Your puppy can get a lot of valuable information about another dog without needing to physically interact. In fact, if you get in the habit of letting your puppy interact with every passing dog, you can very easily create leash reactivity and frustration on any occasion interactions aren’t possible.
This exercise has multiple benefits:
- it teaches your puppy a good social skill;
- he’s learning impulse control and calm behaviour;
- he is getting in some good loose leash training;
- he is learning to “talk dog”; and
- he is also getting socialized to the sight, sound and mannerisms of lots of different dogs who hopefully have lots of different appearances.
Make sure that you make an effort to visit many different locations in order to find a greater variety of dogs to watch at a distance.
Do this exercise as often as you can, but keep the time down to 20 minutes or less. That’s more than enough exercise for a young puppy. (Side note: check out the Puppy Culture Exercise Chart for appropriate exercise guidelines for the growing puppy at puppyculture.com – you might be surprised at what you find!)
This exercise is something I do with my dogs throughout their entire adolescence until they are mature adults. I don’t have to do it constantly or even all that often, butif we are in a new environment, or if they appear unsure or worried about something, I just begin this simple exercise until everyone seems calmer and more relaxed. Remember that young dogs are still maturing and changing until closer to 2 or maybe even 3 years of age.
Being able to walk our dog on a loose leash is the key to success in so many situations. Tight leashes add tension to any interaction. I could swear that when one dog notices another approaching on a tight leash, clearly dragging a hapless owner behind them, he immediately assume trouble is coming and begins to anticipate and prepare for it!
The training for a loose leash is really pretty simple and if you can start it from day 1 with your puppy, you will have it down in no time.
Here are some simple steps to try:
- Click/Mark and treat any time the leash is loose.
- Initially, Click and treat literally every step so you can get in a high level of reinforcement very early in the process.
- Gradually Click and treat less frequently but make sure your verbal positive feedback keeps coming – “what a good boy, good job!”
- Avoid adding pressure to your puppy’s leash if at all possible.
- If your puppy puts pressure on the leash, just stand still and encourage puppy to come back toward you and go back to Clicking/Marking and treating more frequently for a short time again.
I often assign my clients the challenge of using whatever skill, charm, body language or kissy noises they can come up with to encourage their dogs to come off pressure and move back toward them. The idea is to practice without resorting to putting pressure on their dog’s leash. No luring with treats, no subtle tugs, no stern warnings – just your own charm and voice. Can you do it?! It’s not easy but once you do and reinforce frequent results generously, it becomes pretty easy.
Available at JD Farms Specialty Turkey Store and Pet Specialty stores throughout BC and Alberta.
Moving Right Along.
Once your dog has had lots of practice and has some good social skill training under his belt, you can begin to expand his pool of dog interactions. I always start with dogs and people I know well as long as they seem appropriate to meet my puppy.
Any interaction between 2 dogs who don’t know each other shouldn’t last any longer than 3 seconds before being neutrally interrupted. That’s right – only 3 seconds! You can set up another interaction or many more interactions right after the first one, but each should be just that brief.
Three seconds is a nice length of time to say a quick hi and then a short break can give both dogs time to see how they feel about each other. Any longer and thingscan escalate quickly. Each subsequent interaction provides a little bit more information but because they are so short, no one dog is placed in the position of having to get the other one to back off if he feels they’re being too invasive or too intense.
Initially, interrupting an interaction between 2 dogs after 3 seconds can be challenging – especially factoring in my directive to keep leashes loose.
One cue I teach all my dogs is a Stop cue – “Stop what you’re doing and come back to me”. The skill is similar to a Recall but has so many uses. Basically it’s a way to control your dog’s movement (on leash or off ) and direct him back toward you. It is hands down the most popular skill taught in my classes!
Teaching the cue couldn’t be easier:
- With your dog on body harness and regular leash, say your cue – “Stop!
- Quickly place a tasty treat right in front of his nose and use it as a lure to turn him back toward you.
- Feed him his treat and move slowly back ward, feeding him treats with each step you take for at least 10 steps and include some lavish verbal praise at each step.
- After 10 treats or so, give a Release cue like “All Done” and end the exercise.
- Repeat the above steps at least 5 times one after the other.
- On the 7th repetition, wait for your dog’s attention to be directed somewhere other than you, then cue “Stop” and pause to see if he begins to swing his head toward you. If he does – Yay! – he’s starting to understand the cue. If he doesn’t, just do a couple more repetitions and try again.
- This is the place for extremely high value treats! I like to use freshly cooked meat like lean roast beef, chicken breast, pork loin or some cubed cheese.
The key to success is to practice a lot in easy locations like your living room. Use lots of really good treats for every repetition – at least 10 or even 20. Generosity goes a long way in dog training!
Once you have a great Stop cue, you can easily use this new skill every time you meet dogs so you can neutrally and positively interrupt any interaction at the appropriate time. Once your puppy has returned to you for his treat, you can decide whether another interaction is in order or not.
One word of caution: get your Stop skill working really well before using it for dog-dog interactions. You don’t want to be sticking a treat in front of your puppy’s nose while he’s right in front of a dog you don’t know so you need him to be responding well to the verbal cue.
If you encounter a situation where your puppy doesn’t respond to his Stop and it’s not appropriate to use a treat at his nose, just go back encouraging him in any way you can think of to come back to you. Once he realizes that performing Stop doesn’t necessarily end all his fun, he will easily respond.
You’re Well on Your Way!
Good job! You’re now well on our way to having a dog- friendly puppy. Keep up your training and your socializing as your puppy matures into and adolescent and then finally into a full grown adult. If you’re in my area, come and join us in one of our Manners Matter for Young Dogs classes and get some expert socialization training and tips. Before long, you’ll have a rock star, friendly dog that I will look forward to running into on the trails!
Now - A Word About Dog Parks
If I only used one word it would be “No!” or maybe “Don’t!”.
I realize that dog parks may be the only place where dogs can run free in many communities. However, I don’t think it’s the best place for a lot of different reasons.
I’ve been in lots of dog parks in lots of different cities and it’s rare for me to enjoy the experience. I have taken my current dog into a few parks but very few. When I do, it’s because no one else is around and I slip in there with my dog or maybe there’s one or 2 dogs in the park and the owners are clearly engaged with and being responsiblewith their dogs and the dogs seem friendly. I always spend at least 5 minutes watching the dogs that are in there so I can see for myself how friendly they appear to be and I see my dog’s response to their approach as we hang outside the gates of the park.
Generally speaking, dogs in enclosed dog parks are very excited and very amped up. They are racing around at high speed – certainly when they first get into the park and also any time another dog enters the park. Often the people who use dog parks do so because they can’t get their dogs to come when they’re called – so an enclosed area is the only option for some off leash freedom. Frankly, I don’t want to be around dogs who are highly aroused, excited and under no verbal control whatsoever. It’s the type of environment that fosters bullying and puts other dogs at risk to develop defensive and aggressive behaviour. (Note that even a dog park that’s not enclosed and may have a trail system is one I would avoid with a puppy if there’s just a lot of dogs and things seem very fast and out of control. Watch carefully.)
Young dogs do not take breaks in play all by themselvesuntil they are taught to do so. Any time you have uninterrupted play going on with dogs not well known to each other, it can very quickly escalate into something dangerous. Interrupting play frequently, keeping play between one or 2 dogs vs. multiple dogs, being able to verbally control any desire to chase or body slam is really important for your dog’s behavioural well being.
It’s frankly the worst possible place to take a puppy (or even a young dog). This is most assuredly NOT proper socializing with dogs. Many dogs I meet for behavioural consultations spent some time in dog parks at far too young an age. It can literally be terrifying, especially for a young puppy. It can very easily result in very reactive behaviour in the future.
Find a dog friendly, multi-use trail where everyone is moving and has a path to follow – coming and going. Teach your dog the necessary skill to be safe and reliable off leash – it’s not hard it just requires some time and commitment to training.
Keep it positive and enjoy your new puppy. Don’t forget to take lots of pictures – they grow up ridiculously fast!!