I hear it daily - "I'm socializing my dog!"... Those 4 words that mean well, but may be doing more harm than good. The idea seems sound - take your dog out into public so they get used to people, other dogs, and their surroundings. The problem is, that this isn't how socialization actually works and to make matters worse, this may actually be causing your dog to act fearful or aggressive.
The problem is that people confuse "socialization" with "acclimation". In dogs, the only time when socialization is possible is when a dog is younger than 16 weeks. That means the dog that was adopted at 6 months of age can no longer be socialized by just being exposed to things. It's just not possible. The flexibility of the brain is no longer there. Now when that dogs is being brought out into public, acclimation is taking place. The problem with acclimation is that without proper early socialization, this works rather poorly.
A dog can only acclimate based on previous experiences. Things that are alien or overwhelming will not become familiar through acclimation. Instead the dog may develop a fear of the thing or situation they are exposed to. This fear can eventually turn into aggression if not addressed properly. A dog who grew up on a farm, in a shelter, or in a house rarely seeing public surroundings will be completely overwhelmed and no amount of bringing them into public places will fix this. Only systematic behavior modification can create a positive association with something the dog did not experience as a puppy.
A contributing factor to the behavior problems created by acclimation is forcing the dog to stay in a situation that they wish to leave. It is a myth that a dog will "get over it" or "learn to deal". When a dog begins to feel overwhelmed, over-excited, or uncomfortable, forcing them to stay in the situation fills their body and brain with stress hormones, eventually causing the dog to experience something called "flooding". During flooding the dog will appear to calm down and look like they are putting up with the situation when in actuality they are becoming traumatized. The next time they are faced with the situation they will be even more uncomfortable and possibly lash out.
Leash aggression/reactivity is one possible behavior problem that can arise from incorrect acclimation and flooding. Because the dog is trapped on a leash and cannot escape, this can increase a dog's stress in unfamiliar places. A dog may develop a behavior of lunging at people or other animals to make them go away. Think about it from the dog's perspective. They are frightened and when they lunge at something, the thing goes away or they are removed. Now both you and the dog feel great stress over the situation. You want them to like dogs and people but your dog is not enjoying the situation. Perhaps it even seems like your dog is"reacting out of nowhere". However dogs communicate in canine body language that they are not comfortable but most owners are not versed in this communication. When the dog does not feel heard, they will do whatever it takes to feel safe again.
All is not lost if you have adopted or purchased a dog that is older than 16 weeks. Many dogs can learn to like public places, but it requires slow, purposeful interactions that leave the dog feeling safe, comfortable, and empowered.
- Learn basic canine body language. It is imperative you know if your dog is feeling uncomfortable and dogs give off a dozen small signals to let you know they're uncomfortable. Look for things like lip licking, yawning, turning away, tucked tail, whining, and paw lifting. All signs of discomfort and should be respected. Bigger signs like growling should not be scolded but the dog should be removed and given time to calm down.
- Be willing to leave. Don't have your heart set on a specific interaction or outcome. Be flexible and let your dog's comfort level dictate where you go and what you do. Be prepared to leave a location immediately if your dog is not comfortable. You can always try again later but don't force them to stay even if leaving is inconvenient.
- Your dog doesn't need to say hello to everyone. Don't expect your dog to fall in love with your family, friends, or spouse right away. Start slow and let them determine how quickly they interact with people. Have people greet your dog by feeding them and touching them under the chin. Avoid contact with top of the head until the dog is familiar and comfortable with the people they're interacting with.
- Food! Feed your dog special treats like real chicken, cheese, or steak, while they are interacting with new people or visiting new places. These treats give the dog a sense of happiness and contentment and will impress that feeling on whatever they are interacting with.
- Greet other dogs slowly and in short bursts. Keep the interactions down to 5 or 10 seconds at first so your dog can be given the chance to say no or stop before they feel forced to snap at the other dog to end the interaction.
- Take it slow! Start with your street. Help your dog get used to traffic, neighbors, and the pace of your neighborhood. As your dog gets more comfortable, add busier, newer locations. Don't take objects for granted. Garbage cans, strollers, skateboards and other everyday objects can be terrifying to dogs who have never seen them before.
Starting today, by removing socialization from your vocabulary (unless you have a tiny puppy). Adopt a plan to help teach your dog about the great world around them. Celebrate the small wins and watch your dog grow comfortable in social situations and florish!
If you find yourself struggling, contact a professional certified in canine behavior such as a CDBC, ACAAB, CAAB, or veterinary behaviorist. Some companies like Kindred Companions LLC, offer empowerment classes that focus on the systematic desensitization needed for dogs to be comfortable in new environments, as well as handling, and meeting strangers and strange dogs. Just remember, not all classes are alike and simply taking your dog to a regular dog training class will not solve these problems.