Socialisation is not about being BFFs

This article has been kindly written for Brown’s by Debbie Peters, Head of Behaviour and Training at Schooling4Dogs. Debbies team will be presenting in store at our Puppy Party this coming Saturday 27th April at 1pm & 2pm.

Socialisation is the one word on every new puppy owners’ minds, but is it fully understood? I have worked with many first time owners over the years and their main assumption seems to be that socialisation means the dog has to become friends with everyone and everything they meet, with lots of dog play involved. Of course we all want a dog who grows up to be confident and sociable, but what are the risks involved with a dog who wants to play with everyone and everything in sight? How should socialisation be done properly?

My idea of socialisation involves teaching a puppy not to fear things they encounter in everyday life and how to behave appropriately around stimuli. Basically, how to live their lives happily without getting into trouble!

A common problem I see in dogs is over-socialisation when young, leading to frustration during the teenage phase. Here, owners have succeeded at teaching their dog how to play and interact with other dogs, but not taught them realistic expectations about the level of interaction they will receive. What happens when their dog is on a lead and cannot reach a dog on the other side of the road? Or the owner notices another dog is not sociable and tries to keep away? Quite often, they will end up with a dog like a coiled spring on the end of the lead, whining and pulling to get to the other dog and not understanding why they are suddenly not allowed to socialise.

I like the ‘3-dog rule’ and use it with Spud, my puppy. For his work as a search dog, he needs to learn to ignore other dogs, yet also be sociable and confident when he is at the park or with my six other dogs at home. The 3-dog-rule means Spud will interact and potentially play with one suitable dog off-lead (usually a friend or family member’s dog), then he will learn to walk past and ignore the second dog and then he will have an on-lead interaction or quick bottom sniff with the third dog. This will keep Spud’s expectations realistic, as he will learn he will not meet or play with every dog he sees.

Another important part of socialisation that I see go wrong involves interactions with other species. This may be cats, small pets in the home, livestock on walks or horses being ridden or in paddocks. People regularly assume that if their dog can interact and play with other species then they are socialised and safe to be near all other animals. We all want dogs to get on with our family pets, but both parties need to be willing participants and not, for instance a poor cat who just tolerates it.

If Spud is to be a successful search dog he has to pass a livestock test. This means he must be able to ignore other species such as sheep, horse and riders, squirrels, rabbits and deer and keep his mind on the job in hand. Many people advise me to let Spud meet their tame sheep, who are dog-savvy and will let him interact and play with them, but I do not want a dog who will run up to sheep or other animals expecting to interact or play!

If a dog grows up having close interaction with sheep, horses or other species, there is a strong chance this dog will also try to approach these animals when out on a walk. This can lead to an accident for a rider if a dog runs up to a horse uncomfortable around dogs. Equally, meeting tame sheep is very different to the reality of a field of sheep who panic and run at the slightest sound or movement from a dog in their direction.

Instead, I will be introducing Spud to a variety of animals at a safe distance so that he is not scared and we will not spook the animals into running and triggering Spud’s prey drive. Next I will be carry out controlled training sessions with Spud on a long line, teaching him that looking at me and moving away from the animals is far more rewarding than trying to interact. As he progresses, we will gradually get closer to the animals and ultimately, Spud will be happy to work in close proximity to other animals whilst knowing he should not interact. Additionally I will work on impulse control training around animals moving at a distance so that they do not trigger him to chase.

Every dog is different and, although the majority of dogs are family pets without working roles, it is still important to get socialisation right in order to enjoy many years of fun walks with your four-legged friend.

In a nutshell – socialisation is about having a calm well-behaved dog who is not scared of life but also knows how to stay out of trouble.