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Saturday, 17 August 2013

Dog Socialisation

"Socialisation" - if I had a pound for every time I heard the word 'socialisation' when it came to dogs -especially puppies -  I think I'd be a millionaire. I'd say it was one of the most common words when it comes to dogs & dog training."Make sure you socialise your dog", "Puppy Socialisation Classes" are just a couple of the most used phrases. Just Google 'dog socialisation' & see how much information comes up. 

But what does this overused but often misunderstood word actually mean? Socialisation?

As I always say, this isn't the "only" or "right" way when it comes to looking at 'socialisation' - however hopefully this Blog will give people a bit more of an understanding when it comes to interpreting and acting upon this important word - socialisation.

I personally think the word 'socialisation' is actually the wrong word to use when it comes to dogs - especially for new or inexperienced dog owners.

A quick Google search of 'socialisation' brings up a very striking definition of socialisation. "To 'socialise' may also mean simply to associate or mingle with people socially"

It's easy to see where people can go wrong. There seems to be huge common misconception that dogs need to socialise with each other, like we do as humans. The definition above actually gives the clearest indication as to what socialisation is - "associate or mingle with PEOPLE socially". This is the definition based on human life - NOT dog life.

The word socialisation in the dog world means something completely different & I prefer to replace socialisation with habituation when I'm dealing with dog owners.
"Habituation processes are adaptive, allowing animals to adjust their innate behaviours to changes in their natural world."

It's much easier to use habituation as a word because it completely avoids any confusion or cross over between the human & dog meaning of 'socialisation'. There's no preconceived ideas when using habituation, because not many people have actually come across the word nor knows what it means.

We need dogs to adapt & adjust their innate behaviour to fit within the human world. I truly believe that It's the biggest single problem we have with dogs today. Not enough is done to habituate the dogs into a world full of humans. Socialisation is simply the wrong word, dogs don't need to 'socialise' with each other, they need to learn to adapt their behaviour to fit in with human life.

This Blog merely covers Dog to Dog Socialisation, there is also a massive subject on Dog to Human Socialisation - but that's for another time!

I did find this really good definition of 'dog socialisation' from a great article written by David Appleby on the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors website.
"Socialisation can be described as the process whereby an animal learns how to recognise and interact with the species with which it cohabits. In the wild this is likely to be limited to the animal’s own species, but for the domestic dog it includes other species such as man and cats."

Yes dogs are sociable animals but there are clear boundaries as to what is & what is not acceptable - and the confusion of the word 'socialisation' just compounds the problem.

As we've seen above, dogs need to learn how to interact and they need clear boundaries in place as to what is & is not acceptable 'socialisation'.


What's NOT Socialisation


I think it's easier to cover 'what's not' when it comes to socialisation. 

When I first had Izzy she did exactly what I hate to see in a dog. If we were out walking & she saw another dog she'd run over to it not matter how far away it was. She was very very 'dog interested'.

I've said previously in our 'Engaging An Effective Recall' Blog, that my absolute pet hate when we're out walking is other dogs running over to us. Worse still is other dogs running over to us whilst completely ignoring their owners calling them back!

Izzy did exactly this - and actually, so did Bandit when I first had him. I mentioned it in one of the 'Bandit Update' Blogs. 

I've noticed a massive difference in the 'dog interest' shown in both Izzy & Bandit - and can narrow it down to one thing. We had both of these pups when they were around 5 months old, so these 2 pups missed the crucial stage of this type of habituation work between 6 weeks -3 months old. None of our other pups have ever done this, so I can only put it down to this 'socialisation' that goes on during a dogs most vital time - puppy hood.


It's a very common occurrence amongst dog owners. I would guess most, if not all people reading this Blog will have had an unruly dog run upto them at some point whilst their owner's are trying (hopefully!!) to get them back.

Dog running from owner


There's this real common misconception that dogs "want to say hello". We bump into someone regularly who just has to make a beeline for us because their dogs want to come & "say hello". Yep you guessed it, the dogs just come bounding over to us whilst the owner is the other side of the field away - all so they can "say hello". It's simply crazy!

Dogs should not be running upto other dogs to "say hello" - it's just not on. With the way the Dangerous Dogs Act is now written, it could be argued that it's not actually lawful either.

Imagine the scenario & ask yourself the following question......
You're walking along with your toddler & your dog. From afar another dog sees you & decides to bound right over to "say hello". However the owner sees you have a toddler & proceeds to call their dog back - except the dog is not coming back. He's decided he's coming to "say hello". 

So we now have a scenario where a.) the dog is off the lead & b.) has completely ignored the owners command to come back. Would you say this dog was under control?

Now let's add in something else. At the point the dog is bounding over towards you, you've never met this dog & all you have seen is the owner shouting frantically to get the dog to come back, however the dog is still bounding over towards you. You now become a bit worried about this dog coming towards you. Why is the owner shouting it back & why is the dog not listening? You have your own dog & your toddler with you & you are now worried about this dog bounding towards you.

We've now just added in the component for the dog being described as being 'dangerously out of control' - this means there are now serious consequences for the dog & owner who has been poorly socialised.

Taken from the following link on the gov.uk website - Control of Dogs, The Law and You

Any dog is dangerously out of control if:
• it injures a person, or
• it behaves in a way that makes
a person worried that it might
injure them.


Even though this dog may in fact be 'sociable' and friendly - the dog & the owner could have committed an offence, simply because you were worried that the dog may injure you. The maximum penalty for allowing a dog you own or are in charge of to be dangerously out of control is two years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both.

Let's now think that the dog is perfectly friendly & 'sociable' ("oh don't worry he's sociable"  - how many times do you hear that?!), however in his enthusiasm for being friendly, the dog bangs into you, knocks you over & you smash your head on the floor causing bleeding. The dog has now injured you & under the above definition has committed an offence - despite the dog being 'sociable'.

The number of times I see big groups of people all with their dogs off the lead causing havoc in the park, whilst their owners walk around chatting to one another. The dogs are free to do whatever they please. Often the pack of frolicking dogs will go bounding over to another dog - all to just "say hello". The dogs are causing havoc yet the owners are plodding around chatting - I know which group are the 'well socialised' bunch . . .  .the humans!!


Dogs running whilst owners char


Consider the definition for dog socialisation above & think about whether these dogs are interacting with their species acceptably? Are these dogs really sociable dogs? I don't think they are."Socialisation can be described as the process whereby an animal learns how to recognise and interact with the species with which it cohabits"

So when it comes to socialisation the common misconception is to take your dog to meet as many new dogs as possible. Many people try to get their dogs to 'socialise' in a similar way that humans do.

How often do you see on people's CVs that they "like to socialise"? Socialising for humans means surrounding yourself with your friends & peers. Socialising for children means going to nursery or playing in wacky warehouse with other friends & children.

Socialising for dogs does NOT mean playing around with other dogs every time you go to the park nor does it mean when dogs see another dog across the park it's acceptable to start charging over to "say hello". 

Socialisation for dogs means that they learn how to recognise and interact with other dogs.  


What IS Socialisation


I'll start with how I'd expect my dogs to behave around other dogs, not because I think I have the best way or my dogs are the best - it's just how I like my dogs to behave. Some people will agree, others will disagree, that's the very nature of dogs & dog training. I always say there's no right or wrong way - this is just my opinion.

When we're out walking I expect my dogs to be engaged with me. I covered engagement in the Blog link above & I truly believe it's one of the most important things when it comes to dog training. I have a great bond with my dogs & when we're out I'm engaged with them. I'm not on my phone, talking to someone else - I'm out with my dog so I pay attention to them.

You wouldn't push your child around a zoo & never say anything to them. You'd engage with them, talk to them about the animals & stimulate them. It's exactly the same when you're out with your dog. You need to engage & stimulate their minds.

If we're out & we see another dog, I do not expect them to go charging off to the other dog to "say hello". Dogs honestly don't need to do that! I want the fact that other dogs are around to be a complete insignificance to my dogs.

I do lots & lots of work with the pups around other dogs. I have them property searching whilst other dogs run around in the park, I'll do heelwork with other dogs around. The dogs are engaged with me & therefore they do not need to 'socialise' with other dogs in the park.

However, as we mentioned above, dogs are social animals. Should we bump into another dog whilst we are out walking it's absolutely vital that our dogs know how to interact with the other dog.

Sear meeting a Staffie on a walk




Very often Izzy will be off the lead, so I need to ensure that should the other dog be on the lead I can call Izzy back to put her on the lead without her needing to bound over to "say hello". If the other dog is off the lead then I expect her to interact with the dog properly. If I haven't called her back to me, she will greet the other dog with a sniff & a wag of the tail & happily plod on with us.

I do not expect either dog to instigate a chase me game. This is where there are big problems. If both dogs are correctly 'socialised' then they should both happily sniff, wag their tail & walk on. When one dog instigates play, then it's a different story because you're now fighting a massive instinct behaviour. 

Once dogs start chasing around each other, this is where an issue can arise. The adrenaline increases & the instinct urge to chase & kill starts to come out. I always see this type of game & say "it'll end in tears".

Dogs chasing


I'm not for one minute saying that dogs should be kept apart, because that too is a major problem in itself. Dogs should learn to interact with one another & show no fear nor aggression towards another dog. Another dog should be a complete insignificance to them.


So what is good 'socialisation'?


I instruct the Puppy Class at Solihull Dog Club & the club has a great ethos for correct 'socialisation'.

Solihull Dog Club run the Kennel Club Good Citizen scheme, from Puppy Foundation all the way through to Gold & the theme throughout is the same. During these classes there are many dogs, sometimes up to a dozen in each class. The dogs must learn to pay no attention to the other dogs & to remain focused on their owners. The dog's owners need to learn to pay no attention to the other owners & remain engaged with their dogs.

The puppies are not allowed to interact with each other, however they are allowed to learn how to interact with their species - remember . . . "Socialisation can be described as the process whereby an animal learns how to recognise and interact with the species with which it cohabits"

We bring a well mannered adult dog into the class to allow the puppies to learn to interact with another dog. No playing, biting or jumping around is allowed, the dogs must remain calm, show a friendly greeting & move on with their owners. The puppy should also learn to listen to his owner's commands in the presence of another dog. It's a vital stage of the dog's development.


Bushka - great dog for socialisation at Solihull Dog Club

Another of my biggest bug bears is when I see 'Puppy Socialisation' classes! This usually means people get a whole bunch of puppies together & let them run around like lunatics. What exactly are the puppies learning?

Would you take a whole bunch of 4 year old children, who've never had any teaching in manners or social skills, & throw them into Wacky Warehouse letting them tear arse around for a couple of hours? It would be absolute bedlam !! What would the children learn? "Oh wow, this Wacky Warehouse stuff is brilliant fun!! We caused masses of chaos, get loads of stimulation & it's much more fun than being with our parents."

Guess what? that's exactly what your puppy is learning. "Hey dad, these other dogs are much more fun than you!" So every time they now see other dogs/puppies the first thing they see is masses of stimulation & fun.

Puppies should not be allowed to act in a way that would cause problems when they are a fully grown adult dog. If a puppy is biting, growling & chasing another dog all the time - once the dog gets older this behaviour is definitely not wanted. A bite from a puppy is a LOT different to a fully grown dog.

Although it is lovely to watch puppies playing with other puppies, you need to think carefully about what will be safe and acceptable when the puppy has become an adult dog. Puppies should learn manners and to control themselves. You will never be welcome anywhere with an over excitable, boisterous adult dog that strains to "say hello" to every dog it sees.

We need to teach puppies to be gentle, calm and obedient even in the most exciting of circumstances.

Jemma (left) with Rogue (right) - another dog from Solihull Dog Club


Dogs need to learn how to interact with other dogs. They need to be taught that it is not acceptable to run over to other dogs, it's not acceptable to show aggression nor fear towards other dogs - most importantly they need to learn that other dogs are a complete insignificance in their lives.

Working dogs are a prime example of this - obedience competitions, Guide Dogs, Police Dogs & gundogs to name but a few. How often do you see a Guide Dog go running over to "say hello" to another dog?

How about Police Dogs? When at a public order scenario there could be 10 or more dogs in a line to hold back a crowd. The dogs can't be wanting to "say hello" to each other whilst trying to maintain a line. The dogs need to be focused on the job in hand & not what another dog is doing.

Police Dogs working


Socialisation is more than just making your dog friendly with other dogs, your dog has to learn that not every dog wants to be his best friend and therefore dogs must learn how to interact with other dogs without becoming a pain in the backside. They must demonstrate control & therefore not run upto any other dogs.

Here's some great other reading when it comes to my favourite word - yep you guessed it 'Socialisation' (how many times have we said it?!)
Puppy Socialisation and Habituation (Part 1) Why is it Necessary? - Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors 
Socialisation & Habituation – the secret of a friendly fido - Dogs Trust

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