26 Apr

Socialization and the Reactive Dog

Let’s talk about a common situation we run into at the training facility – a once reliable, friendly dog reaches maturity and is suddenly a lunging, barking alligator at the end of the leash at the sight of another dog in the distance. Okay, by common, I mean THOUSANDS of inquiries over the last few years. What happened? The owner did what they were told and ‘socialized’ the dog. They took him to the dog park or daycare at least once a week from puppyhood on, let him meet all of the neighbor dogs, and planned plenty of play dates. Dogs need friends, right? Isn’t that what the Google tells puppy owners to do?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; socialization does NOT need to always equal interaction. A serious disconnect is happening when raising our dogs, and dog owners are inadvertently setting their dogs up to become reactive (and potentially even aggressive) as they mature into adulthood. We want our dogs to be friendly, and to be able to take them to new places. Owners force their puppies into chaotic, unstructured “puppy social” groups; daycares are promising tired, social butterflies; dog parks are promising exercise and a fun way to tire out their dogs.

What’s actually happening is well-meaning dog owners are creating obsessive, over-aroused dogs that become increasingly frustrated at the sight of another dog on the leash — wanting so badly to approach the new dog like they do all of the other dogs at the park, or at daycare — and frustrated dogs do not cope well. Frustration leads to aggression, and the once friendly dog that “just wants to say hi” bites another dog.

He’s never done that before.

During an orientation with a young German Shepherd dog recently, an “AHA!” moment was had. This dog recently turned 3, and up until recently was doing great at the dog park and on leash in public. In the past few months, he has begun to develop leash reactivity, and has been fence fighting at the dog park. I talked to the owner in depth about the issues of over socialization and dog parks, and the owner commented how she was raised with a lot of siblings, and felt she was doing a disservice to her dog by NOT ensuring he had a lot of interaction with other dogs. I mentioned that even with our own siblings, as we mature we often begin to argue and fight. “Oh, we never fought. My parents didn’t allow it. They ran a tight ship.

AHA! Structure and leadership. Consistency. Rules and boundaries were set, and peace was kept. Is that what happens at the dog park? How can we do that in a setting of 30 off leash dogs, with different boundaries (or lack thereof), owners with different levels of dog experience, and dogs of varying sizes and temperaments? We can’t! That level of structure simply cannot exist in those environments, and yet we expect all of the dogs to get along, and not to develop bad habits. It is simply unrealistic for most dogs. Add this to the lack of general obedience and leadership dog trainers see on a daily basis, and we have a recipe for disaster.

As we ended our conversation, we talked about appropriate socialization. We talked about building neutrality, and how a dog that can ignore other new dogs is able to go anywhere with us. Those dogs are the most fulfilled, and the most stable, and the best traveled!

Something to ponder – what does allowing a dog to run off leash with a group of rowdy, random dogs do to increase the relationship between the dog and it’s owner? Why do we feel the need to put our dogs in unpredictable, and often dangerous, situations that we cannot control? And, does taking a dog to the dog park make you a better dog owner, or is it simply an easy (uhem, perhaps even lazy) way to exercise your dog?

Get creative. Think of ways to mentally AND physically exercise your dog, while better building your relationship. Your dog will thank you.

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