Daniel H. Antolec, CPDT-KA, Happy Buddha Dog Training, LLC
Socialization is a Crucial Foundation
Thorough socialization provides a foundation for dogs so they learn that “others” are safe. The “other” is any novel animal, person, object, noise or event. It is unwise to remove a puppy from its mother earlier than 7-8 weeks as that early socialization must be done by the mother and the breeder.
When a family takes home a puppy at 7-8 weeks of age they assume responsibility for completing the socialization process. That means taking advantage of puppy brain developmental stages and their natural willingness to meet new dogs, new people and to explore new situations.
Animal behaviorists assert that a puppy must meet and interact with at least 100 new dogs and at least 100 new people during the primary socialization period. You cannot overdo the process so a couple of hundred would be better. The interactions must also be safe, meaning the puppy is not scared out of his wits or harmed by the encounters. The first 16 weeks of life constitute the primary socialization period.
By 16 weeks the window of opportunity closes as the brain stops developing, meaning puppies that were not thoroughly socialized develop fearful responses to novel things, by default. You may still work on socialization after 16 weeks; indeed, it is important to do so for the life of the dog. However, it becomes much harder.
Imagine during the primary socialization period you are floating downriver in a canoe. Progress is easy and you quickly reach your goals. Then at 16 weeks, the current reverses. You can still make (socialization) progress but it becomes more difficult and requires constant effort. The tendency of a poorly socialized dog is to drift toward a fearful response to novel things.
The most common concern I hear from dog owners is that their dog “goes bananas” or acts “aggressively” upon meeting other dogs, especially new dogs and when on leash. The default response is anxiety, fear and a reactive outburst.
Behaviors include tension in the body, staring directly at the other dog, pulling or lunging on leash, barking, growling, snapping at and biting the dog. Owners often learn from the first couple of experiences to pull back on the leash when they see another dog, or punish their dog for the behaviors I described. As a result, a leashed dog learns that novel dogs (or people, or other things) are to be avoided at all cost. The behavior worsens.
What causes this? Most likely it is the lack of puppy socialization. The foundation of positive association, between the appearance of a novel thing and the consequence of something good, was never developed. Those neural connections never formed as the puppy grew to 16 weeks of age.
The other possible cause is that your dog is overly enthusiastic about meeting other dogs and does not tolerate frustration well, so when he is frustrated he quickly reaches his threshold and bursts into an unhappy outburst. What causes the frustration? The leash, and often the person holding the leash. How he dog handler behaves directly affects the dog on the other end of the leash.
What if you have an Over-Reactive Dog?
First, do NOT punish the behavior. Punishment will not help, but it can sure make things worse. The way to help your dog learn a different behavioral response to the stimuli of novel things in the environment is to use classical and operant conditioning. Create a positive association with the novel stimuli, and teach calm behavior with reward based training. For that, you may need the help of a qualified certified professional dog trainer.
Classical conditioning is simply pairing a previously neutral stimuli with something else. An example is the perky music the ice cream truck plays when it roams the neighborhood in search of children. Kids hear the music (which previously meant nothing) and quickly learn it predicts the arrival of ice cream. They get excited and rush to the curb to await their reward. The sound of the music triggers a predictable (positive) behavior in children.
If the ice cream person sprayed the kids with a nasty water canon at the curb, they would quickly learn a different (negative) behavioral response to the music. That behavior would also be predictable.
Classical counter-conditioning means using the power of association to change the way a dog (or person) feels about a stimuli that already has some association. If a dog that is overly enthusiastic or fearfully associates the sudden appearance of a novel thing in the environment, such as another dog, then the learned behavior may be frustration. Frustration quickly leads to anger or an emotional outburst. Such behavior displays tell the “other” to go away and that in turn reduces anxiety and tension. The dog learns how to make himself feel better when novel things appear in the environment and a pattern or behavior chain develops.
Ideal Dog Greetings
When friendly dogs meet one another they follow a standard sequence: sniff the muzzle, sniff the crotch, sniff the butt. That is the canine equivalent of a friendly handshake. Once they have identified one another they will either quickly play, or they will agree to go their separate ways.
When things go wrong with a dog greeting it is because they get close to one another, become locked in each other’s gaze and never get past the muzzle sniffing phase. It is as if one or both dogs lack the social graces and find themselves in the awkward moment of realizing “Uh, I don’t know what to do. This is uncomfortable. Hey, you are too close. Go away!”
It is best to allow dogs to meet one another only if they display calm behavior. The greeting should be 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 leash 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.
One option is to drop the leashes, if they are in a safe area such as a fenced enclosure. If things go poorly, the handlers can always pick up the leashes and move the dogs apart.
What am I Seeing?
Homo sapiens (humans) and Canis Lupis (dogs) speak different languages, and have different cultures. How is a dog owner able to understand whether the dog-dog encounter is safe?
Dog owners can 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 Dogwise.
- “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 Dogwise.
Dogs also speak their native language far better than we do, so as you watch the dogs observe whether either appears to be worried about the other. Do they look alarmed at what is happening, or are they relaxed?
Your observations will be of three groups of behaviors:
These are distance-decreasing communication signals used by 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. They will sniff and play, or leave.
These distance-increasing signals include high arousal intended to make the other dog go away. 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. If neither dog turns away, a confrontation is likely.
This 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.”
Orchestrating Dog-Dog Introductions
One way to introduce one dog to another is to do so on neutral ground, where neither dog has established any territorial claims. If possible, prompt each dog to mark a spot with urine, walk that dog away and then lead the second dog to the urine spot. Dogs gain information about each other through scent and can do so while safely apart to reduce tension.
Another option is that each dog handler can walk parallel to the other person/dog, keeping the dogs to the outside and the people close together. Such a meeting would resemble a sandwich with the dogs on the outside and the humans in the middle. The distance between the dogs should first be far enough away that neither dog is reactive.
As they become more relaxed in the company of the other, the distance can gradually be decreased between the dogs. Using this method the dogs would be in non-confrontational positions and could relax enough to sniff one another.
If there is excessive tension or arousal, or if either dog appears afraid, the handlers can simply move their dog away from one another and make the “sandwich” wider again. That would be a good time to use some trained cues such as “Look”, “Touch” or “Sit” to redirect attention back to the handler, 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. The frontal cortex is responsible for problem solving and the limbic system is responsible for strong emotions, such as fear. A dog cannot be extremely focused and thoughtful at the same time it is extremely stressed and fearful. The two brain systems work in opposition.
Another exercise is to walk in a line, with one dog following the other at a safe distance. Once again, it is necessary to start at a far enough distance that neither dog is fearful or reactive. The relative position between dogs is non-confrontational and the dog in the back of the line can sniff where the other has walked. After a distance, both dog handlers turn around and proceed in the opposition direction. That allows the previous (lead) dog to follow and sniff he second dog.
The Bottom Line
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. When your dog feels safe, it will relax. When it is relaxed, it will not need to display warning signs. Then you can enjoy taking your dog for a walk!