Written By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP
In Partnership With Dogs
I was reading a good book recently and came across a statement that really struck a chord with me: “…a dog’s world is really quite small.” (Dogs That Bite and Fight, David Ryan, PG Dip (CABC) CCAB). When I think about all the dogs I meet on a regular basis that have a wide variety of behavioural challenges – from minor ones like pulling on leash or lack of focus to major ones like reactivity and aggression – one thing they all have in common is that very small world.
Mr. Ryan goes on further to note that “…our personal worlds are big. We travel to exotic lands, watch the wonders of nature and fantasy lands on TV, read books, surf the internet, have virtual and real friends….and are generally encouraged to think outside the box. Dogs have only their direct experiences of things that act upon them.”
I think the fact that our worlds are really so very large makes it difficult to comprehend how truly small our dog’s worlds are. Even if you never travel or socialize rarely, the world available to you via books, internet, social media and television is vast. A dog’s world really only consists of the things they see and experience on a regular basis: people and animals they live with, their home, routine walks, the inside of the car and not much else. Some dogs don’t even see their own species very often or ever experience the freedom of a run through the forest or the park.
I’ve been on a tangent lately about socializing and I’ve been doing a lot of it – a direct result of raising 2 young dogs over the past 2 years. Jack, I’ve been raising right from baby puppyhood and Quincy I’ve been raising from about 6 months of age – 2 vastly different dogs with vastly different experiences.
We adopted Quincy first and her former world was very small indeed. It probably consisted of only one spot where she was likely confined full time, very few people – no walks, no strangers, no other dogs or likely other animals, certainly no health care or trips in the car. The result is a young dog with few experiences to draw on so she is lacking in confidence and very fearful of most new things. When your world is that small, things that may seem very simple to us – in fact things we hardly think about at all – can be very frightening challenges to dogs like this. Stairs, for example, were a huge challenge for Quincy and will probably always present a problem depending on the stairs – enclosed, dark, non-carpeted and ending abruptly (turn a corner) are still very scary.
One of the most common behavioural issues I hear about is reactivity. If you imagine a dog who rarely gets a chance to see or interact with his own species on a regular basis, then you can begin to imagine where reactivity comes from. This may be a dog who only hears other dogs barking in the distance from time to time or occasionally sees a dog passing by a window. Imagine the frustration of seeing but not being able to reach your own kind for any sort of social interaction. Maybe even worse might be the dog who used to regularly interact with his own kind and due to circumstances or lack of training has been relegated to staring out the window and occasionally passing by dogs at a great distance while barking or straining on their leashes – no longer allowed opportunities to interact.
The dogs I’m talking about here come from a variety of circumstances – some may belong to the “weekend warriors”. These are the people who work 9-5 jobs (or longer) all week and only have time to walk their dogs on the weekends. Because weekends are also for family and leisure time, errand running and various social activities, the dog only gets a very small portion of this weekend allotment.
Some dogs may have started out in a promising way – purchased or adopted as puppies, out and about with the family to show off the new puppy, occasional play sessions at local parks. At some point though (usually when house training and destructive tendencies are solved), the owners stopped socializing and stopped training. A formerly dependent puppy becomes a more independent, curious adolescent. Due to lack of continued training, this adolescent fails to come when they’re called one too many times – they’re now relegated to the leash. The family may promise to get some more training done but somehow this never materializes and that puppy’s world shrinks in size.
Another promising puppy can easily get sidelined because of life changes. Families have a baby, or someone gets sick – that promising puppy suddenly gets relegated to the back yard and his world becomes abruptly smaller. Maybe a family with a new baby still takes puppy out on daily walks but due to a lack of training when puppy becomes a larger, stronger adolescent and starts to pull and maybe even lunge at squirrels, he once again gets relegated to the back yard or weekend walks.
When worlds are not made bigger for these dogs or when worlds are abruptly made smaller behavioural problems will start. Dogs who have experienced the joy of interacting with their own species and running freely and have this suddenly halted become frustrated, depressed and in extreme cases, totally shut down. Frustration very easily leads to barking and lunging on leash, aggressive displays directed toward members of their own species as well as ours. In a sad case of “Catch 22”, these behaviours often cause their worlds to become even smaller still – no walks, no attempts at social interaction.
A lack of socialization and training or stopping too early can easily cause dogs to become fearful of novel situations or frustrated at a lack of access and freedom. Fearful dogs and frustrated dogs have behavioural problems – more often than not. Even if there are no issues noticeable to you, they are most certainly lacking in confidence and do not have the skills to handle novel things well or easily.
For the mental well-being of our dogs we need to make some changes in our priorities and spend some time making some changes in how we view our dogs and how we raise them.
Dogs can be socialized at any age. Certainly it’s easier and faster to begin socializing early in puppyhood than it is to start with an adult who has already had some very negative experiences or very few experiences – but it can and should be done.
Since adopting Jack as a 10-week old baby, I have been getting him out and about to new places as often as I can – we started on his first drive home by stopping at our vet’s office for a weigh in and a meet and greet! Jack is now 10 months old and is at an age where continued socializing is critical to his healthy development. I’m fluctuating between getting him out in the forest and local trails to work on his off-leash skills and social development and getting him out to different, novel places around town – or revisiting places we haven’t been to in a few months. It’s not easy to fit all this into an already busy day – but it’s important because I want a friendly adult dog who is comfortable going anywhere.
My Socializing Training Plan
Pick a destination:
- A parking lot of a business with lots of people coming and going.
- Across the street from a schoolyard during recess or as school is letting in.
- A local park with a soccer or baseball field and a game in progress.
- Outside the confines of a fenced-in dog park.
- Wandering dog-friendly hotel grounds and seeing the grounds keepers, cleaning carts and staff bustling about.
- Downtown busy streets walking amongst the close concrete structures and busy people moving quickly.
- Walking the streets of a new neighbourhood.
- Visiting a hardware store, pet store or other dog-friendly establishment and wandering through the aisles.
- Explore all the trails in your neighbourhood and then visit new municipalities and their trails and parks.
- Visiting friends with your dog.
Any place you take your dog in the car with you, take a few moments to get him out for a look around, a quick wander around and a sniff.
Make It Positive:
- Pause for a few moments and let your dog just sniff the air, look around and check out his environment until he’s comfortable enough to wander about a bit. Don’t just get him out of the car and start moving off.
- At times, let him pick the direction he wants to go.
- Pair lots of Clicking and treating or just treats with the experience – treat him for watching things or for checking in with you from time to time.
- Bring along a ball or tug toy and stop for moments of play when he’s feeling comfortable enough to participate.
- If it’s appropriate, ask people if they would mind pausing to greet your dog or have their dog meet yours if they’re friendly.
Socializing is only valuable when it’s a positive experience for the dog – a “safe” experience. A dog with a broad set of safe experiences becomes a more confident dog and can more easily cope in new situations. Where Quincy sees each set of stairs as a new challenge to overcome and can’t always bring herself to try them, Jack sees stairs as just stairs – they might lead somewhere fun – and doesn’t hesitate to go up or down any new set he encounters.
If you have a very fearful dog and/or one who is also very reactive there is just as much value in doing these socializing excursions. Your excursions may start smaller and move slower, but they should be a big part of your training plan. With Quincy, we simply started on our couch by the window, on the front porch and in our back yard – listening and watching the sights and sounds pass us by. We do this with Jack, too, as he can become frustrated not being able to just dash over and visit everyone walking by. He can also be reactive to things he can hear but not see (behind the fence).
Everything you can do to expand your dog’s world in a positive way will help build their confidence. Dogs who are confident are very easy to live with. They are settled and content when at home and are easy to take places as new things are investigated with curiosity and they are rarely reactive. Training is important, too. They should know how to walk on leash, be off leash and greet people and dogs politely. You don’t want a setback in your socializing because your dog jumps on the wrong dog and gets a scary correction in return.
Don’t stop your promising puppy from becoming the dog he can very easily be. Include him in all your life plans and continue training well beyond puppy hood. If you adopt an adolescent or adult dog, get out and start expanding his world, too. The best thing about expanding your dog’s world is that you become that much more important to your dog and your partnership develops and becomes stronger all at the same time. It’s an important thing to do for your dog!