Daniel H. Antolec,
Happy Buddha Dog Training LLC
Thoroughly socializing your dog is a worthy goal and if done correctly, produces a safe, stable and reliable dog. There are many ways to socialize a dog including dog-dog introductions, dog-human introductions, visiting dog parks, and taking your dog to dog day care. I have witnessed great results from each option, but there are risks with each option that, for the unaware, can produce counter-productive unintended consequences. Unfortunately I have witnessed those outcomes as well. To help you through the minefield on your way to achieving socialization, I will address each of the options in separate articles.
Applied Animal Behaviorists suggest safely introducing a puppy to at least 100 new dogs in the first 14-16 weeks of life, taking advantage of puppy brain developmental stages and a natural willingness to meet new dogs, people and explore new situations. In “Aggressive Behavior in Dogs” author James O’Heare writes the
socialization period is from 9-13 weeks, peaking at 6-8 weeks. It is unwise to remove a puppy from its mother earlier than 7-8 weeks of age so most socialization should be done by the breeder. That assumes the breeder is ethical and competent, which is not a safe assumption. Socialization is possible beyond the ideal puppy age but it is harder to accomplish. Regardless of age one should continue to socialize a dog through its entire life.
When friendly dogs meet one another it follows a standard sequence. Sniff the muzzle, sniff the crotch, sniff the butt. That is the canine equivalent of a friendly handshake, or pawshake as the case may be. Once they have identified one another they will either quickly exchange play signals and enjoy each other’s company, or they will agree to go their separate ways.
It is best to allow dogs to meet one another off-leash so they may use the full
spectrum of body language signals and communicate clearly. Miscommunication can lead to incorrect interpretations of intent, and a leash can impede body movement. Holding a tight leach also imparts tension from the human to the dog, and since the leash constrains movement it can also lead to frustration. Anxiety, frustration and unclear communication about each dog’s intentions can quickly turn into conflict and aggression.
A wise dog owner will learn about interpreting canine body language and watch for signs of stress, arousal and unclear or threatening signals. There are many books and DVDs published on the subject of canine communication. I find great value in these four:
- “The Language of Dogs: Understanding Canine Body Language and Other Communication Signals” (DVD), by Sarah Kalnajs, CDBC, CPDT, published by Blue Dog Training and Behavior LLC.
- "Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide”, by Brenda Aloff, published by
- “Aggressive Behavior in Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals”, by James O’Heare, published by Dogpsych Publishing.
- “On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals”, by Turid Rugaas, published by
Another way to learn “dog” is to take video of dogs as they interact, after studying the
materials described above. I found great value in recording dogs in action and then viewing the video in slow motion so I could see every individual canine communication signal. Some signals are so quick they appear only in a few frames.
I also made a point of trying to detect all signals of a specific type each time I viewed the video. For instance, I watched the video one time and only counted the paw lifts. The next time I viewed the video and looked only for yawns, and so on. In that way I trained my eye to spot a wide spectrum of communication signals.
It is important to interpret the meaning of individual signals in the context of the entire situation, reading the entire dog, and while looking for clusters of signals. If you only focus on a single signal such as a tail movement, you will not see the forest for the trees. Dogs also speak their native language far better than we do, so as you watch two dogs interacting with one another, scan the crowd for dogs that are bystanders and onlookers. Do they look alarmed at what is happening, or are they relaxed? If you do not have a pack of dogs of your own to observe, visit a dog park and film the interactions you see there.
Your observations will be of three groups of behaviors:
Affiliative behaviors are those of friendly dogs who seek out and enjoy the company of other dogs. They will appear interested, relaxed, and will communicate clearly.
Affiliative signals are meant to coax the other dog into permitting approach as if to say “I’m a friendly dog. Are you friendly too?” Friendly dogs will approach slowly in a circular, angular or parallel manner, avoiding direct sustained eye contact.
Agonistic behaviors are distance-increasing signals including dominance gestures, high arousal, abrupt acts, and even direct warnings. An unfriendly dog will approach in a frontal manner, with a direct sustained stair, showing muscle tension in the entire body and parts such as ears, facial skin, hair along the spine and tail. The dog may stand tall and forward, as if to make itself look larger. The tail may elevate over the rump like a flag, or wave very rapidly. Sometimes a dog will make such an approach and then go suddenly still. That often precedes an attack. Growling or a tooth display (with lips pulled back with tension) are clear warnings.
Submissive behavior is an avoidance or escape defense mechanism used by dogs lacking confidence in the outcome of the meeting, so they quickly surrender and hope for the best. Cowering in a low position and licking the corner of the other dog’s mouth like a puppy seeking food is a submissive behavior, as is urinating or rolling onto the back. The dog is fearful or insecure and is pleading with the other dog, “Please don’t hurt me.”
One way to introduce one dog to another is to do so on neutral ground, where neither dog has established any territorial claims. Each dog handler can walk parallel to the other person, keeping the dogs to the outside. Such a meeting would resemble a sandwich with the dogs on the outside and the humans in the middle. The dogs would be in non-confrontational positions and could relax a bit before being allowed to sniff one another. If there is excessive tension or arousal, or if either dog appears afraid, the handlers can simply move them away from one another. That would be a good time to use some trained cues such as “Look”, “Touch” or “Sit” and help the dog get out of reactive/emotional mode and back into thinking mode. In terms of biology you would be stimulating the dog’s frontal cortex and inhibiting the limbic system.
Dogs need to meet at least 100 new dogs in their initial socialization process based on how dogs learn. They require many repetitions, with many dogs of various sizes, personalities and energy levels, in many different locations…in order to generalize that all dogs are OK.
The exception to that rule is that intense anxiety and fear, such as being attacked by a new dog, will make an immediate and lasting impression. The frightened dog may instantly generalize the experience and learn by association that all dogs of a similar breed/size/color/energy level are unfriendly and best avoided in future. This is due to the role of the limbic system as the emotional system of the brain, and its close link to the survival mechanisms of the fight-or-flight response.
In summary, it is very important to socialize your dog with other dogs, and it is your responsibility to ensure that those dog-dog meetings are safe and well-managed. You are your dog’s best advocate. James O’Heare informs us that 90% of dog aggression is founded in fear, and effective socialization reduces fear, so by thoroughly socializing your dog you will help your dog remain safe and reliable in the presence of other dogs.