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Pet Behavior Solutions: Are we socializing our dogs incorrectly?

Raising a puppy to be a well-behaved, well-balanced adult is not something that just happens. You must participate, guide and prioritize your dog in this process. Doing your best to follow these guidelines will provide the best foundation for an adaptable, well-adjusted family pet.

We get a new puppy and all we hear about is the importance of socialization. The problem is that we don’t know the right way to go about doing this. We go with what sounds right and what everyone else seems to be doing – dog parks, day cares and play dates with other dogs. We want to get our pups or dogs out quickly to experience the world. We want to expose them as soon as possible to the world they live in. So, what is the problem with that? Well, the problem is that we focus so much on exposure that we stop parenting our pups.  

Since we think of our dogs as children, why shouldn’t we parent in a similar manner? Can you imagine taking your 2 ½-year-old child to the playground with children of all ages and personalities and allowing all those experiences (good or bad) to just simply happen to the child? After all - kids will be kids. Young toddlers are only capable of parallel play and are purely self-focused in their behavior. By about 3 years of age, children engage in associative play which is when children play together but have different ideas and goals. They are talking together and playing with the same toys but doing entirely different things. Learning cooperative play doesn’t occur until about 4 years of age. Cooperative play is when children start working together toward a common goal. This is when they begin to build social negotiation skills. We need to consider similar factors with our dogs. Puppies under 4 to 5 months of age should not have unguided access to unfamiliar adult dogs. Adolescent dogs between 6 months to a year should not have unguided access to unfamiliar puppies OR unfamiliar adult dogs. Each of these developmental ages has different social goals for their play and interaction.

Often, we put our dogs into situations where they have different experiences visited upon them by dogs of differing personalities and ages. By doing this, we are failing to parent them properly. We must guide our dogs in their socialization based on their developmental ages which will take them well into adulthood. We cannot simply treat them as small adults and allow nature to provide the necessary lessons.

Puppies, adolescent and adult dogs must have guidance to properly learn executive function skills. These are a set of processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as:

  • Focus and relevance or attentional control helps with concentration and are key to being closely connected to the current task or situation. Specifically, we are speaking of a dog’s ability to focus on the most relevant information in the environment. When building these skills, we are looking for the dog to find the handler/owner and/or the current task as the most relevant thing in his environment. This relevant thing should be you and the task should be whatever you are doing with your dog.
  • Cognitive inhibition is the mind's ability to tune out stimuli that are irrelevant to the task/process at hand or to the mind's current state. We don’t want our dogs to be stimulated and distracted by everything, thereby causing them to binge upon their environment, trying to take everything in at once.
  • Inhibitory control permits a dog to inhibit their impulses which are instinctual, habitual, or dominant behavioral responses to things, based on their personality, to select a more appropriate behavior that is consistent with the situational goal. This keeps dogs from acting upon everything that grabs their attention and allows them to choose the behaviors we want. This doesn’t inhibit their fun, this inhibits overstimulation.
  • Working memory is short term memory. It is important for reasoning and the guidance of decision-making and behavior in the moment. Repetitive decision making from short term memory transfers to long term memory and even can form habits.
  • Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch between different tasks and differing rules by responding with the best corresponding behavioral response. A dog can shift their internal attention based on the situation. This helps dogs to learn to interact differently with different dogs and to treat people differently based on their experience. Sometimes dogs are the center of the world and other times they need to blend in and be neutral. Cognitive flexibility helps with these skills.

In summary, executive function skills help dogs to manage their emotions, to stay on task, and to learn from their experiences. So why don’t we focus on this type of training and how would we go about doing it in the first place?

With children, it is the parents' and the family's constant support, shared experiences, and time spent together that help build children's self-regulatory skills. These are, undoubtedly, the most effective and lasting executive function foundations. With our dogs, it is the parents’ and family’s constant support and guidance along with proper advocation and guidance for the dogs’ experiences. Sounds pretty much the same, right?

Here are six key concepts to consider when socializing your puppy or even an adult dog who is new to you and your family:

First, follow your dog’s interests within their personality and developmental age. Enjoying interaction with the environment with you as well as sharing socialization experiences is critical. Not all dogs are destined to be social butterflies. Just like people, some dogs are more timid, some are more introverted, some are more bold, some are more gregarious. You cannot mold your dog into the personality you want any more than you can with a child. You must meet your dog where he is and motivate him to do things differently. Simply having life lessons visited on your dog is a very rough way to learn about the world. This can lead to fear, reactivity, and even aggression later in their development.

Second, learn to ask questions and don’t entrust your dog’s experiences to others, despite their experience or “expertise.” The proper technique for raising children is controversial. There are many “catch phrases” of different parenting styles and an equal distribution of fans of each particular method in each camp.

To be a proper advocate for your dog, you must be there to provide the guidance for your dog, even when it conflicts with the advice and opinions of other pet parents and/or “experts.” If your dog is around another dog who is bullying him, rely on your gut and remove your dog from the situation. “Dogs will be dogs” just isn’t an appropriate motto anymore.

Dogs who are fearful and lack the appropriate executive function skills to negotiate situations will learn from their experience. However, it isn’t usually the lesson we would like them to learn. Fearful or tentative dogs must adapt their behavior to survive the fearful experience which often causes defensiveness. This defensiveness becomes proactive behavior resulting in a preemptive response, which usually plays out in the form of aggression. It is mild at first, usually because the dog’s developmental period is too young to have the requisite confidence for the situation. This can even make it look as if your dog is improving in terms of his fearful behavior in these situations thereby making the group play experience seem beneficial. He may seem less fearful, but if you look closely, you will often find that his actions are sharp, increasing in boldness and becoming slightly empowered. You may see snapping, brief baring of teeth, and/or lunges or pounces toward another dog followed by a retreat, etc.

As the dog matures through adolescence and into adulthood, this preemptive behavior often evolves into full bully-like behavior. This can still look like your dog is having fun, but the “play” is now at the expense of the other dog. If you replaced children for dogs in the same type of behavior, you would run to intervene because it isn’t nice. Does the sequence sound familiar? It is the same behavior evolution that occurs when children are bullied.

Questions you should be asking if you are going to leave your dog with someone else:

  1. How many people/staff are there for how many dogs? A ratio of 1 person to 10 to 15 dogs is considered the maximum when all the dogs are of compatible developmental ages and sizes. You must ensure that each dog has been personality tested for compatibility with the group for his ability to “play nicely with others.”
  2. How much space is available? The proper square footage for a day care would be 75 to 100 square feet per dog. Too much space and it isn’t possible to stop inappropriate chasing sequences. Too little space and social politics become problematic. Resource guarding can become even more of a problem in small spaces. Resources can be anything including the presence of people, attention from people, other dogs, a particular location, water bowls and small space competition such as through a door or hallway. It is not just food and toys that are guarded.
  3. How are the groups separated? There should be several factors including size, developmental age and play style. I had a client with a Havanese who played so roughly with other dogs they had to put her in the “big dog” group, so she didn’t bully the dogs in her weight class and age group. This was not an appropriate solution as it simply made the Havanese a more relentless bully with all dogs and exposed her to potential injuries due to her boldness and small size.
  4. What sort of play is not allowed? Ask for examples of situations in which play is stopped or broken up. You want to be able to picture these situations. If they simply answer with “fighting” being what is broken up then ask additional questions. Do they allow wrestling, chasing, neck biting, leg pulling or collar grabbing (if collars are worn)? Do they allow toys in the group? Are treats given out to the dogs in the group? These create competitive situations that don’t foster impulse control unless the staff can explain how they successfully manage those situations.
  5. What is the protocol for breaking up fights? You want to hear that they have a specific protocol with first responders (i.e., those that break up the fight) and second responders (i.e., those that manage the other dogs in the group) to handle the maylay with each person having a specific duty when following the plan.
  6. Under what circumstances would a dog be ejected from the program? You want to hear something other than fighting and causing injury to another dog. Some dogs are bullies in their play but are not violent and therefore are not causing injuries. These dogs can be emotionally damaging to your dog’s experiences and can cause the evolution of more adaptive behavior to not be the victim next time. This is not something we want with our dogs.

Third, practice role playing through situational rehearsals at home. Playing with your puppy (or dog) is essential with some stipulations. Let’s look at the function of play with dogs, and somewhat with people as well. Play is about life rehearsals. Proper play helps a dog to know what to expect, how to respond in a similar situation, and how to regulate their emotions. Improper play teaches a dog to win through adaptation. When play is too competitive, dogs learn to up the ante to keep up and it finely tunes these adaptations.

Think about the evolutionary purpose of play. Play is about preparing an animal for life, so they know how to win to stay alive and protect their pack, how to hunt with minimal risk of injury and how to gang up with the pack to take down formidable opponents. But is this how we want to train our dogs for domesticated life with families? Families and friends include strangers, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, other dogs, fearful dogs, young dogs, dogs with disabilities, other smaller animal species, etc. Our play with our dogs should include play at the pace of the dog based on their personality and developmental stage, not teasing play because it is fun to wrestle. When we wrestle inappropriately with our dogs, we are teaching them to adapt their behavior to get better at winning.

Play never serves the purpose of teaching us to lose. We don’t play to lose; we play to win. It is a human social norm to not be a “sore loser.” A social norm is a specific socially constructed idea that defines morally acceptable behavior. These ideas are formed by our culture which is not something that dogs are concerned with. Despite the social norm of being a gracious loser, we all play to win.

Fourth, teach remediation, disengagement and de-escalation. Like children, dogs need a time out. This is not so they can write a 500-word essay on what they did wrong, it is merely to serve as a reset for their sympathetic nervous system which is best known for its role in responding to dangerous, stressful or overstimulating situations. This is where inhibitory control, impulse control or emotional regulation comes in. When your pup (or dog) begins to amp up either through increasing control or overtaking behaviors, playing at the expense of another, overstimulating or experiencing adrenaline during cooperative play, you must gain control over your dog and time him out away from the interaction. While this won’t stop that sequence from happening again, it can teach your dog to better regulate his behavior in the future with your guidance and intervention.

Some dogs just don’t play well with others. All their play is to win, control, overtake and/or simulate prey behaviors (i.e., stalking, pouncing, pinning, thrashing, etc.) These are behaviors that must be stopped. No extra trips to the dog park or extra days in day care will curtail these behaviors. Remember, practice makes perfect so if the dog engages in these behaviors, he should not be allowed to play and wrestle with others. The best lesson a dog can learn is to NOT play and to be neutral with other dogs while maintaining a calmer nervous system. Dogs should first learn to tolerate the presence of other animals in a calm manner before engaging in higher arousal, more competitive behavior. They simply must have some level of emotional regulation before they can handle arousal and competition. Everyone envies service dogs and those super calm dogs who are barely noticed in outdoor cafés. Very few dogs are like that naturally. Most dogs are trained extensively, not just in obedience, but in how to tolerate the stimulation of the world as a spectator, not as a participant. Please remember, the goal isn’t to curtail their “fun”. It is to ensure they have the skills needed for their life-long socialization. Not everything that is fun is good for us.

Fifth, teach focus and reliance on you first and foremost before allowing your dog to find out that the world is truly far more exciting than you ever could be. Even before your dog is introduced to the world outside your home, you should have a firm foundation of positive reinforcement training. This means your pup (or dog) should learn to do something to get something and that it works better for him that way. (e.g., if he sits, he gets the toy, if he waits, he gets to greet people, etc.). It is a way to teach your dog to check in with you for the things he wants, and it is a way to share in those experiences together.

Don’t simply let him explore the backyard and then reprimand him for eating grass, sticks, leaves, etc. Never put yourself in a position of being the one to stop him from doing all the things he wants to do. You want to control his access while encouraging his curiosity. When you want him away from something, take a treat and put it right in front of his mouth while you back up several steps away from the “thing” with your puppy following. Stop backing up; have your dog sit; give him the treat; invite him to explore something else.

In a pup’s early development, treat training and toy training is a very important part of their learning. Treats and toys help the pups to maintain their focus and not simply trade up for the next novel, smelly thing they want to check out. Using treats and toys helps to make this an interactive experience that you share with your dog while he experiments with all the new things. You want your dog to WANT you to be a part of their discovery and not to shuck you off because you are a buzzkill.

Once you have a solid foundation of these sequences in your home, it is then time to take them out into the world. You need to ensure the discovery process is the same as it was in your house and in your yard, so your dog sees you as the reason all this fun is happening. I was on vacation in another state and watched an owner walking his juvenile Golden Retriever through a crosswalk. The dog was probably about 5 months old. The Golden was pulling like a freight train, straining at the end of the leash and almost walking sideways to get everywhere faster. He was overstimulated and frustrated with the restraint. He lunged and jumped on every person that passed by and he lunged out to jump on every dog he saw. The owner had no relevance with his dog and no real control. Passersby were excusing the behavior because he is “just a pup.” Sadly, I feared for the behavioral evolution of this dog.

Sixth, know your dog’s limits. Some dogs are simply more sociable than others. A dog who is more timid or shy should not be expected to interact in the same way as a dog who is naturally outgoing. Some dogs are comfortable in large settings with a lot of social dynamics, while others find it easier to relate one on one or in much smaller groups. It takes some dogs more time to warm up to interaction. It is also critical to understand your dog’s developmental limits. Puppies or dogs with special behavioral needs may only feel comfortable socializing for a very short time. While others are not comfortable socializing at all and should be shielded from unwanted interaction by their owner. Their owner can still give that dog tasty treats throughout the short session to facilitate a positive association in the hopes that as the dog progresses, he will become curious enough to engage in sociable interaction in some way with time.

Remember, just because one CAN pet a dog doesn’t mean one SHOULD. The dog should be the determining factor of whether there is a sociable interaction. If the dog freezes, looks away, moves away, hides, cowers or even tucks his tail, it is best not to allow any touching or petting. If, on the other hand, the pup leans in toward the interaction, even cautiously wags the tip of his tail, moves toward the person even while getting smaller in response to the interaction, then a gentle, low chin or chest scratch may be appropriate. Please keep it brief and ensure the dog is asking for more. Don’t get caught up in the social awkwardness when people want to pet your dog and it isn’t the right thing for your dog. Be your dog’s advocate and redirect the person to simply toss a treat slightly away from your dog and that is it. This way your dog must move away (even if slightly) from the person to get the treat which creates a little bit of a safety reset and a buffer. The dog then settles back where he is comfortable without trying to get away from the person. This is much better than placing the treat between the dog and the person which causes conflict for the dog because he wants the treat but isn’t comfortable moving forward to take it. This also includes if the dog does a long stretch to slowly get the treat. There was still too much conflict and the dog felt better retreating away from the person.

It is important that we guide our puppy, adolescent and adult dog’s interactions because socialization is a life-long process. Our dogs are shaped by their experiences so we must help by advocating for them and creating the most positive outcome possible with any of their interactions. Should there be something frightening or startling, simply move away with your dog and jolly him as you would a child in that situation. Downplaying is key here. Don’t teach your dog to have a further emotional response because you do. It is your job to anticipate and manage future situations based on your dog’s response. While this isn’t possible all the time, you should ensure that you are the person they safely retreat to reset themselves when they are in conflict.

Raising a puppy to be a well-behaved, well-balanced adult is not something that just happens. You must participate, guide and prioritize your dog in this process. Doing your best to follow these guidelines will provide the best foundation for an adaptable, well-adjusted family pet.

Sam Freeman, CPDT-KSA, is the president and owner of Scottsdale-based Pet Behavior Solutions and Edu-Care for Dogs. She is the creator of the Core Behavior Assessment, which is the behavior evaluation program used by many animal shelters and animal control agencies in Arizona. Freeman is certified through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and has completed specialized education and training in psychology, learning theory, ethology, family counseling, behavior modification techniques, aggression, canine and feline behavior issues, and grief counseling.