Ask anyone who knows much about dogs why they think a dog might act aggressively or be reactive toward other dogs and “lack of socialization” is probably going to come up as a culprit. But this is tricky because it’s not a perfect answer. Plenty of dogs that seem to have had great socialization opportunities act this way, and I have had plenty of young puppies in my puppy classes that were terribly reactive from the get-go. What’s the deal? The trouble is that socialization is tough to define, and there’s not much hard science regarding what works and what’s best–especially when we’re talking about dog-dog socialization. Here’s what I think is important:
Your puppy’s first experiences with his own kind happen when he is with his mother and siblings. You might think you have no control over this, and unless you are your puppy’s breeder you are right, but you can control where you get your puppy from, and reputable breeders understand how important puppies’ social development is. Your puppy should stay with his mother until he is about 8 weeks old (there is a lot of argument over this, so understand that this is my opinion based on my experience). Notice I said with his mother, not with his breeder. He needs to be with his mother and siblings for at least the first two months of his life. If the breeder you found takes the puppies away from their mother earlier than this (which many breeders do because if puppies continue to nurse is messes with vaccines–solution? minimal vaccination, allowing mother’s milk to actually do its job) I recommend finding a different breeder. Breeders, please don’t throw tomatoes at me, I said this was my opinion, and I am not afraid of produce. Mother dog and siblings teach your puppy all about important life lessons like playing nice, not biting too hard, frustration tolerance, and so much more. So don’t get a puppy before it is 7 weeks of age, and preferably get the puppy when it is 8 or 9 weeks of age.
Early exposure to other dogs can and should happen within the following scenarios; reputable puppy kindergarten classes and with your friends’ puppy-savvy dogs. Disease risk is not a factor if you choose a good puppy class, and it is important for puppies to go to class before they are finished with their vaccines. Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. But these people are, and they agree with me on this. Puppy-savvy dogs you know are ok to have your puppy around, too, as they do need exposure to adult dogs as well. Be sure that the puppy class you enroll in involves puppy play periods and reward-based training techniques. Ask your prospetive instructor what she would do with a puppy that is too scared to play or is snapping at other dogs to get a good feel for her credentials. Bad answers include: any kind of punishment (that includes time-outs; a scared puppy should not be punished, but protected and educated). Good answers include: anything that allows the puppy to choose when to play, it’s never ok to just toss a puppy into the group, and it’s also not ok to isolate him.
Continued exposure is more important than most people realize. Dogs do not magically stay social. Many people feel their job is done if they go to puppy class and their dog gets to play with the neighbor’s dog once or twice a week. In reality, dogs need continued exposure to novel dogs to stay social. Unfortunately it is extremely common for young dogs to get into a “scuffle” with another dog at the dog park or at a play date which causes their owners to yank them from social opportunites altogether. While this might make everyone feel safer, this is the worst move to make. Any dog that plays with other dogs on a regular basis is going to get into minor fights that should not involve injury, and that is normal and okay. The important thing is to keep letting your dog play with other dogs. There are many opportunites to do so:
- Dog parks are like night clubs or bars; they are hugely popular in this country and can be a great socialization opportunity. They can also be dangerous and no fun at all for dogs and humans alike. So pick your park carefully and also consider whether or not your dog seems to enjoy this kind of socializing. Many dogs can’t tolerate novel dogs of that number, and even more dogs only enjoy this kind of thing when they are young. Sound familiar?
- Dog daycare, much like daytime childcare, can be a great thing. It can also be a horrible thing. So if you choose dog daycare for your dog be sure you pick a good one. Your dog should go through an extensive screening process to be admitted and not every dog should get through. Your daycare staff should also be candid in their feedback. “He had a great day!” is just too vague–ask questions and get answers.
- Dog playdates are a great way for your dog to continue to use his social skills, but if your dog always plays with the same crowd in the same place he will not necessarily be social with novel dogs in new places.
- Off leash hiking or walking areas are different from dog parks in that there typically aren’t large concentrations of dogs in one small space. There is typically plenty of space for everyone, and you might even go your whole walk and only see one or two other dogs. These kinds of areas are often local well-kept secrets, so ask around. I am convinced that this kind of “organic” socializing is what makes the most well-rounded dogs. Dogs meet novel dogs, but not in overwhelming quantities, and not on leash or in small spaces where they could feel threatened.
So get out there and get socializing, and if you are getting a puppy do your homework so that you’re ready to build a social, well-rounded animal before your little one comes home.