What is socialisation?
Socialisation, in the strict sense of the word, refers to a process that should occur during the “critical” or “sensitive” period. This is a time in a puppy’s early development (on average 4-14 weeks of age) when they are particularly receptive to new experiences. In this sensitive period, social attraction is stronger than the fear response or “hazard avoidance behaviour”, so puppies will far more easily accept new people and animals, rather than respond to them as though they were a threat. Rather than barking, running away or snapping at a new dog or person, they will be drawn to interact.
This sensitive period therefore allows a puppy to get used to people, dogs and experiences which will form part of their daily lives as adults. The more positive and neutral experiences they have with other people and dogs, the more easily they will be able to generalize this to accepting most people and dogs as they mature. On the other hand, if a puppy only meets one or two new dogs or people during this period, they may be accepting of those dogs and people, but will react as though facing a threat, to all new people and dogs after that.
What happens if a puppy does not get exposed to other dogs during the sensitive period?
If a puppy does not have a good amount of exposure to other dogs in the first 14 weeks of his or her life, they will not have the opportunity to learn that encountering other dogs is a normal part of life and as adults they will regard other dogs as a threat which needs to be avoided or chased off. They will also not have had the chance to develop their social skills (signalling to other dogs and learning to read signals from other dogs) past the age at which they left their mom and siblings. In some cases, where pups have been hand reared or taken away from their mothers very early, they will have learned virtually no canine communication skills at all.
But my dog is fine with my other dogs at home?
If a dog is brought into a home environment as a puppy where there are already one or two other dogs, they will accept those particular dogs. Sometimes, even an adult dog with dubious social skills may be adopted into a family with another dog and manage to get along with this dog reasonably well – often because when they are first brought home they are so overwhelmed or emotionally shut down that they do not respond in any way to the presence of the dog and gradually become desensitized to it, provided the other dog gives them some space. However, neither the puppy brought into a home with other dogs, but not exposed to dogs outside of the household, or the adult dog who is adopted and appears to accept the resident dog, despite having a poor socialisation history, can be said to be socialised and “okay” with other dogs.
But why can’t you just socialise an adult dog?
When a puppy grows up having plenty of positive experiences with other dogs and lots of opportunities to practice social skills, their brains “grow” in a particular way. When they do not have this opportunity or experience, their brains “grow” differently. This cannot simply be “undone” by exposing them to other dogs. Those who garden might understand this analogy – if a young plant was denied certain nutrients during a particular growth phase, the plant would probably survive, but it would grow differently than if it had received those nutrients at the right time – the plant may always be slightly stunted or susceptible to disease and may require special care. Providing those nutrients to the mature plant may not help much – as the plant is no longer able to absorb them and use them in the same way. So too, exposure to other dogs once a pup is mature, will not change how the pup developed and will not have the same effect.
So what can we do?
Not all dogs that appear to be socialised are exactly the same. There can be several factors at play which will influence how an apparently unsocialised dog may adjust to encounters or interactions with other dogs:
Some apparently unsocialised dogs (rescued dogs where the history is unknown), may possess social skills which have been obscured due to bad experiences or general environmental stress.
Some dogs may have had sufficient exposure as young pups to develop basic social skills, but these have become dulled through years of lack of use.
Some dogs may have particularly good genetics, which makes them more resilient to stressful experiences and more likely to be able to adjust to new things as adults.
Some dogs may have poor genetics and may be prone to nervousness and reactivity which makes adjusting to anything new extremely difficult.
Some dogs may have had such bad experiences that they have developed actual phobias or PTSD around other dogs.
Some dogs may have had the opportunity to rehearse aggressive behaviour to such an extent that they actually enjoy fighting with other dogs.
Some dogs may have been genetically selected so that they are predisposed to fight with other dogs.
Unfortunately, we often don’t know where a dog stands on this scale before we start working with them, so we must go slowly and carefully in order to gain more insight and to ensure that we do not do more harm than good. Generally, we would use desensitisation (gradual exposure to other dogs at a non-threatening level) and counter-conditioning (creating positive associations with other dogs) to try to change the unsocialised dog’s underlying negative emotional response (fear) to other dogs into a positive one (no fear and an expectation of something good happening). In cases where a dog has a “hidden” socialisation history or good genetic bounce-back, we would usually see progress quite quickly and signs of healthy social skills (appropriate body language and pro-social behaviours) emerging as the dog was able to start having closer encounters with the “stooge” dog. In cases where socialisation history is severely lacking or the dog is predisposed to nervousness, progress would be slow and even if the dog was eventually able to accept the other dog in quite close proximity, attempts at engaging would not occur or they would be confused and inappropriate. Any attempt to engage by the stooge dog in such cases would often be met with immediate aggression. In such cases, where progress is slow and no discernible social skills emerge, it is unlikely that the dog will ever be “okay” with other dogs. Pushing the issue becomes unethical, as it gives owners false hope and puts the dog through unnecessary stress.
Another important factor that must be considered when deciding whether to go ahead with a programme of desensitisation and counter-conditioning, is safety. Dogs that have done serious damage to other dogs (multiple bites & shaking, mauling or killing) are not safe to work with and can never be said to be safe around other dogs. Under normal circumstances, dogs do not set out to kill each other – they settle disputes and repel threats with ritualised aggression, which may sound awful, but is all noise and no damage. Inflicting grievous bodily harm, is an indication of a complete absence of normal social behaviour. Dogs that do this kind of harm should not ever be allowed to interact with other dogs.
Limitations of remedial work:
While desensitisation and counter-conditioning with stooge dogs can achieve a lot, there are constraints and limitations with this kind of work that many owners are not aware of:
Finding stooge dogs – while we make every effort to always keep dogs we are working with “under threshold” i.e. comfortable and not reacting, stooge dogs must be completely neutral and non-reactive if the “problem” dog does get upset and reacts to them. Believe it or not, there is not an endless supply of dogs that are completely able to ignore any provocation by another dog. Even staring back at the reactive dog may escalate the dog’s behaviour, so stooges need to be able to look way from a dog that is barking and engage with the handler instead.
Trainers are discouraged from using their own dogs as stooges – because we are supposed to be completely focused on the dog we are trying to rehabilitate, introducing our own dogs into the equation can be a distraction and can also make us too emotionally involved. If we are worried about our own dog’s comfort level, it is hard to focus solely on the needs of our client’s dog.
Most owners are not skilled enough to handle stooge dogs – when we do find a suitable stooge dog, in many cases, the owner is not skilled enough to keep their dog distracted and comfortable throughout the session. For this reason, I always have a colleague handle the stooge dog, while I work with the client’s dog. I can trust my colleague to know exactly how to keep the stooge dog happy and to let me know when the stooge dog needs a break. While this is a good system, it requires two trainers/behaviourists and so is rather labour intensive – something that owners then must pay for.
Many owners are not willing to use their dogs as stooges – quite rightly, they are concerned about their own dogs’ welfare and emotional health and are wary of putting them in situations that could be stressful, despite us making every effort to ensure that they are not.
Remedial work cannot be done on the beach – we cannot control the public and their dogs, so this kind of work cannot be done in a public place. It is pointless carefully keeping the stooge dog at a safe distance when 6 other dogs are running around loose and could approach at any moment! Safe, enclosed grounds must be used for these sessions.
There is no guarantee of generalisation to all dogs – while the dog we are working with may eventually be comfortable with or even friendly towards the stooge dogs that we use (usually we would not be able to work with more than 3 different stooge dogs), this would not necessarily translate to the dog being comfortable with all other dogs or being comfortable in a different setting.
Owners may not have the confidence or skills to continue work beyond remedial sessions – reading dogs and handling them to avoid reactivity takes skill and practise. While some owners may develop these skills quite quickly, others struggle and simply don’t have the confidence to ever handle their dogs around other dogs without professional back-up. As we are not able to accompany all our clients on walks for the rest of their lives, this can be a major stumbling block to progress.
Are there any other options?
In some cases, where dogs lack social skills, but are generally calm and comfortable provided another dog does not come into their space, we do allow owners to join group training classes. In this case, others in the class are instructed to give the new dog space and we may start working with them at a distance, on the edge of the group. This can be quite successful in getting a dog used to focusing on the owner in the presence of other dogs and teaching them to see other dogs in the environment as inconsequential and not worth worrying about. We would not be aiming for any kind of interactions with other dogs though.
Similarly, “growly dog classes” consisting only of 3 or 4 reactive dogs all working under threshold can help owners to improve handling skills and to manage their dogs to avoid conflict. Again, this is about management though and not creating a super-social dog that will be frolicking with other dogs on the beach.
Why we don’t throw dogs together and let them get on with it – won’t they sort each other out?
There are many unqualified experts who will happily place an unsocialised dog with a group of supposedly socially confident dogs, off lead, and allow the social dogs to “sort out” the problem dog. Often in such cases, you will see the problem dog sitting still and doing nothing or failing to react in any negative way to the other dogs. It is then declared that the dog is cured and now fine with other dogs.
In reality, the dog is simply shut down emotionally and incapable of reacting in any way. This kind of exposure is called flooding and its emotional consequences are devastating. Imagine being thrown into a pit of loose spiders or snakes or whatever your fear might be – if you lay down on the ground and curled into a ball, would you be cured of your fear?
Why don’t we use muzzles and let them just get on with it?
There are also many so-called experts who will happily muzzle dogs and then let them loose with other dogs. In some cases, the problem dog will still engage in all the problem behaviour, but without inflicting bite wounds. They will still chase, intimidate, snap, snarl and try to bite. They don’t feel any different and they are still practising the behaviour you don’t want.
In other cases, the muzzled dog may become very passive and non-confrontational – until the owners are lulled into a false sense of security and the muzzle is removed. Then the old behaviour immediately emerges and damage is done. Why? Because some dogs accept their inability to bite when muzzled and become passive as a result. They are still unhappy, but simply unable to carry out the usual strategy – nothing has changed and when the muzzle is removed you still gave the same dog who now has the option of doing what he did before. Muzzles have their place in behaviour therapy and as a management tool, but not like this!
Why I won’t test your dogs on my dogs!
I have had quite a few requests for people to “test” their dogs with my dogs. They are not sure how their dogs are and ask whether they could arrange a time to allow their dogs to meet my dogs and see what happens. This is absolutely out of the question. I love my dogs and their welfare is more important than my job. I will never risk their safety or emotional stability in order to help a client figure out just how serious their dog’s problem is!
As difficult as all of this sounds, we have had great success with some dogs. We have had dogs that at first appearance had zero social skills go on to eventually enjoy the company of other dogs, even playing with them happily. We sometimes do not know what is possible, until we try. However, the reality is that there are some dogs that will NEVER become socially well-adjusted and who should be left in peace to enjoy life without social encounters. I am often asked, “Don’t dogs need to see other dogs? Is it not depriving them to keep them away from other dogs?” While I have little doubt that socially well-adjusted dogs enjoy positive encounters with other dogs and that this adds a richness and fullness to their lives, I also have no doubt that dogs that are uncomfortable around other dogs and lack social skills, would be far better off being provided with other forms of enrichment (human companionship, quiet walks away from other dogs, training that builds the dog-owner relationship, play with toys and people etc.) and being kept away from stressful social encounters. This is another area where we can help – we can give you ideas for enriching your dog’s life, for building relationship and reducing stress. In short, we can help you create a plan to give your dog the best life possible, within his or her limitations. In many cases, it is accepting those limitations and working within them that is the key to happiness and a full life for both you are your dog.
Please can you help me socialise my adult dog?
I get many emails that start like this: “I adopted a 6-year-old dog from (fill in rescue organisation) and he needs socialisation classes” or “I just moved down from Gauteng and I need you to help me socialise my dog, so he can walk on the beach with me – we had nowhere to walk him where we lived before, so he’s not used to other dogs”.
I always find it very tricky responding to these emails, as I know that the people asking for help are not going to like what I am going to say and that the help I can offer them is, most of the time, not what they are looking for. In this article, I would like to try and tackle this complicated issue in some depth, to try and create a better understanding of what “socialisation”, in the proper sense of the word, actually is and what is and is not possible when working with unsocialised adult dogs.