By Kim Gilliam
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people call saying they want to bring their dog into the gym to “socialize them.” Maybe they’ve had a bad experience at the dog park or their dog is nervous greeting people, so they are trying to find any possible way to have them become more social.
Here’s the thing: Socializing your new dog is not about quantity, it’s about quality. If you socialize your pup with 100 other dogs but 10 of those interactions go poorly, they can understandably become untrusting and anxious about future interactions. It’s better to have had really solid, positive interactions with 20 dogs and owners that you know and trust.
Don’t forget that you always have the option to say, “No.” One of my clients had her young, male high-energy pup out for a walk the other day and a passerby asked if his adult male golden retriever could say hello. My client said, “Yes,” wanting her pup to experience social interaction, even though she had some reservations about the intense body language of the adult dog.
Sure enough, the golden retriever came straight at her pup with an assertive bark and snarl, and she just barely pulled him back in time to avoid contact. The interaction gave both of them quite a scare, and she acknowledged she should have gone with her gut instinct and said, “No.”
If you do choose to try the dog park, be sure to watch the behavior of your dog and the other dogs closely the entire time. Invest some time in advance to understand dog body language.
For example, if your dog is wrestling with another, that’s fine, but they should be taking turns with who is in the more dominant position. Don’t let any other dogs push yours around.
Have 100 percent confidence in standing up for your pup in the face of any bullies, and go so far as to leave the park if needed to avoid negative interactions. Start out by keeping your visits short and positive, building up your pup’s confidence while not overwhelming them, then saying your goodbyes. Don’t worry so much about what other people think; you need to protect your dog first and foremost.
Remember that socialization doesn’t just refer to meeting other dogs. It’s about building their confidence by introducing them to a variety of people, places and experiences over time and encouraging them along the way. Don’t try to cram all your puppy’s socialization into a short period of time, that would only serve to overstimulate or even overwhelm them and be counterproductive. Allow each new experience time to be absorbed and processed before moving onto the next one. When you’re trying to socialize your puppy, one new person, place or thing per day is usually plenty. And leave a couple of days free each week to allow them to relax in familiar surroundings and recharge their batteries.
It’s important to remember that dogs are creatures of habit. Even if you get to a point where they are social and confident at six months, if you leave them at home for another six months, they’ll have lost most of that confidence.
Between four and 12 months of age, breed-specific differences in behavior start to appear, such as guarding. It’s especially important to continue to socialize your puppy in this case so that appropriate social behavior is reinforced and rewarded.
Socialization is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked aspects of puppy training, but it is extremely important and should represent part of an ongoing commitment to your pup’s wellbeing.
The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.