By Sean O’Shea,
Socialization! In the dog world we hear this over and over…socialize, socialize, socialize. And don’t get me wrong, having early positive experiences with other dogs, people and environments is a big part of creating a stable dog.
But the problem I see is this: So many owners/trainers lately seem to be focused on some magical process that will supposedly transpire when dogs (most of whom are older and have behavior issues) are forced to spend time/engage with other dogs or people in a haphazard, unstructured, and leadership free fashion. Which is simply an uninformed, and clumsy attempt to create positive associations and “teach” them to “like” each other just by being around each other – and that hopefully they’ll figure out on their own.
I see it all the time…’I’m bringing my dog who has some issues to Petco, the dog park, or walking him up to my neighbor’s barking, lunging dog to get him “socialiized”‘. Yowza! Attempting to “socialize” an unstable dog is the perfect recipe for disaster. Somehow this myth, that just being around dogs or people will make everything great, has been propagated and sold to the dog public. I’d like to make a bold suggestion here: Stop worrying about socialization! At least for the time being.
Socialization (for a dog who is exhibiting issues) should always and only be done after a proper relationship with you, the owner has been established…and NEVER before. Bringing an unstable dog, who has no leadership, and no sense of boundaries or what is expected/allowed, into a situation where he is triggered, is setting the table for a serious incident.
Here’s the secret to starting the process of sorting out behavior problems towards people or dogs (or anything else for that matter): Create a fantastic, balanced relationship with your dog, through structured exercise, rules, consequences for inappropriate behavior, and affection at appropriate times (when the dog is relaxed, mellow, behaving in a stable fashion). Then, when your dog is respectful, relaxed, and will defer to you in sticky situations, you can start slowly bringing your dog around things they have problems with. And I do mean slowly…do not walk up to the nearest dog or unleash him at the dog park…slowly walk him closer to the triggers, and earn his trust and respect…he will show you exactly how far the two of you have come by how reacts as you close the distance in these situations.
Once you have convinced your dog that you are actually his pack leader (and I mean 100% convinced!), you are then able to change your dog’s perception/feelings regarding issues/triggers/whatever…he will, rather than act out on his own, defer to your requests…but this takes time, lots of practice, commitment, and work.
So, remember, lead first, then socialize.
Next post, we’ll go deeper into the mental programming of our dogs, and how this concept of pack structure/leadership is at the heart of their DNA…and therefor at the heart of your relationship, and your ability to train or rehabilitate your dog.
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