Here at Best Behaviour Dog Training, we’re incredibly passionate about providing new owners and their dogs the best advice and support available so they can make it from puppyhood to adulthood with as few bumps in the road as possible. No one’s perfect and anyone who’s raised a puppy will be able to tell you that ups and downs are a natural part of your dog maturing, but the right advice can make a huge difference in preventing and getting ahead of potential problems. Sadly, there’s a wealth of misinformation out there and myths around dog behaviour & training which are not only untrue but actively harmful. One such myth is the idea that puppies need to meet as many other dogs as possible or that dogs in general should say hello to most, if not all, of the dogs they see out and about.
Socialisation is often a top priority for new dog owners once their puppies arrive home, with a huge amount of pressure being put on people to get it right. The last thing any well-intentioned and responsible puppy owner needs is to be misled by outdated and harmful advice. Socialisation is about more than just meeting as many dogs as possible; it should also be about teaching our dogs to be calm around distractions and how to behave appropriately in different environments and situations. You can read more about what socialisation is and what constitutes good or bad socialisation by checking out our blogs, here: https://www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk/blog-post/the-things-you-need-to-know-about-puppy-socialisation/
What we’ve noticed while working with so many dogs and their owners in our area over the years, is that the pressure to introduce your puppy or dog to others is so huge that owners often continue to do this even when they know it’s probably not the best idea. As trainers and behaviourists, we’ve seen first hand the fallout that can happen due to this obsession with dogs meeting one another and are outspoken about the importance of advocating for your dog and not putting them in difficult situations. We know it can be difficult – trust us, we’ve put a few noses out of joint ourselves now and then by putting our foot down in this situation. So, at the risk of seeming somewhat negative, we wanted to talk about the pitfalls of this approach to socialising our dogs that owners need to be aware of, in order to highlight why it really is so, so important that you don’t let peer pressure get in the way of doing what’s right for your dog.
While the pressure for your dog to interact with others is unhelpful, there’s a very valid reason why socialisation is such a trending topic for new dog owners. It really does have a huge impact on your dog’s behaviour for the rest of their lives. This is why it’s SO important we socialise our dogs carefully and with consideration, rather than just flinging them into endless social situations and hoping for the best! Fear and/or frustration due to poor socialisation can cause behavioural issues such as reactivity and aggression – towards other dogs & people and even towards the dog’s handler – as well as high levels of anxiety and stress. This can not only make it impossible for dogs to enjoy their walks, but elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol can have a long-term health impact on our dogs. Particularly if you have a young puppy, you should be aware that high levels of cortisol during development can lead to an adult dog who struggles with anxiety for life.
Harm to Nervous/Reactive Dogs
Whether you yourself have a nervous dog or you have come across someone who does, insisting on interacting can do a huge amount of damage and set training and rehabilitation of nervous or reactive dogs back MONTHS in an instant. Many people feel like they should be pushing their nervous puppy to face their fears, but pushing them out of their comfort zone can easily have the opposite effect. If your puppy is already fearful, the last thing we want to do is reinforce that fear by giving them a reason to be worried when they see other dogs. For those with confident, bolder dogs – your puppy bouncing all over that nervous pup or running right up to that on-lead dog standing off the path can create a traumatic incident which could have knock-on effects for months or even years of that dog’s life. Not to mention, if that strange dog does react, you could have a traumatised pup on your hands yourself!
The Problem with On-Lead Greetings
Meeting an endless stream of strange dogs while off the lead can cause problems for all the reasons mentioned above (check out the socialisation blog linked further up for more details on the how and why), but on-lead greetings are also something we regularly see cause even more issues. When well-socialised dogs meet off the lead, you will witness a lot of curly, wiggling body language and the dogs will usually approach each other at an angle and circle each other. Meeting nose-to-nose and stiff, still body language is something that we only usually see happening off-lead when a dog is not so well socialised (possibly because they fell victim to the “must-meet-every-other-dog” epidemic!). It is not polite body language, but it’s the only option for two dogs at the end of their respective leads. This leaves our dogs in a pickle – one of them needs to figure out a way out of this social situation and that might be by offering a play bow or, if they have enough slack, starting to move around and getting in a tangle. However, it could also be by grumbling at the other dog to get them to move away.
Whatever the outcome, there is no denying that these kinds of on-lead greetings are a high-pressure interaction for our dogs and one that is bound to create tension, over-arousal and anxiety in our dogs if they are forced to rehearse it almost every time that they see another dog. We recommend avoiding most on-lead greetings where possible and sticking to the “three second rule” if your dog does meet another while on their lead – this means letting the dogs sniff for a maximum of three seconds and then calling them away from each other. This allows our dogs to have a sniff and get information about the other dog but then helps them out by removing them from the situation before the pressure builds.
So, how much should your dog meet other dogs?
Our top tip for how to socialise puppies is to think of dog social behaviour as being somewhat similar to humans. Humans, ideally, are able to be in the presence of strangers and feel relatively calm, relaxed and confident keeping mostly to themselves. They may interact a small amount with a brief exchange or nod, but it would be quite odd for humans to run over and hug or wrestle every single person they saw. Equally, it would be quite intimidating if we thought every stranger who we met was going to do that to us! This sort of behaviour would quickly lead to hyper-vigilant humans ready to spring into defensive mode as soon as another person looked at them, so we can see why it can quickly lead to reactivity and aggression in our dogs, too!
We recommend sticking to a “1 in 10” rule, where your dog meets no more than 1 in 10 of the dogs they see while out and about. They can meet even less than this, but not more. The other 9+ dogs in 10 are opportunities to work on your dogs training and engagement. Your dog will learn that most other dogs they see are a non-event, so they don’t need to hit the roof every time they spot another dog and they don’t need to feel worried.
We also highly recommend seeing if you can find local neighbourhood dogs or dogs belonging to friends or family who your dog can get to know. Just like us humans, dogs benefit much more from building solid friendships with dogs they can see somewhat regularly, vs meeting various strangers all the time. This also has the added benefit of you being able to get to know the other dogs, too, so you can make a judgment about whether the dog will get along with yours – it’s then much less of a gamble when you let your dog meet them!
Bringing your dog to group classes
is also a great way to get them socialised around other dogs, as this offers a safe and controlled environment where your dog can be in the presence of various different dogs while working on their ability to be engaged and responsive to you. Training helps teach our dogs the skills they need to know how to behave appropriately in different settings, as well as promoting a calm and thoughtful state of mind around big distractions like people and dogs!