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Dog Socialization; What it is and what it is not

Is your dog struggling with reactivity? Let's help them be a calm, confident pup!

So you got a new puppy! And knowing how important dog socialization is and wanting to find some puppy playmates for your pup, perhaps you ran out to the local dog park, organized puppy playdates, or even enrolled your pup in daycare. Recently your pup has begun lunging, barking, and whining every time they see a dog on your evening walks and you can’t understand why this is happening. You DID all the things! Your pup loves dogs at the dog park and loves to play off leash.

So what’s happening here?

A common misconception around dog socialization is what the true purpose of socializing our dog is. When we refer to dog socialization, the goal is for our pups to be NEUTRAL in as many environments and situations as possible. Unfortunately, because of over socializing, which occurs most often due to too much socialization with other dogs while not building a relationship with their pawrent, dogs can easily become reactive, frustrated, anxious, overstimulated, and even aggressive at times.

Over socialized dogs can struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges that often manifest in reactivity. (Reactivity simply refers to becoming emotionally aroused by and reacting to a trigger. This often looks like barking, lunging, whining, pulling etc. but can also manifest into aggressiveness in some cases.)

So how do we fix it? Focus on building your bond and teaching your dog that you are always the most rewarding, exciting, engaging thing in their environment. This can be done through training games, solo walks where your pup is focused on and tuned into you and not allowed to interact with other humans or other dogs, (AKA no on leash greetings,) and limiting their exposure to other dogs.

Dogs are very impressionable and learn from each other quickly, so when we take a dog to a dog park type environment for example, not only are they almost always learning that other dogs are more exciting and rewarding than their human, but they also are likely picking up the other dogs play styles and behaviors. You can imagine why this could be problematic.

To learn neutrality in a variety of settings, focus on stationary work with your pup. This might include sitting on a bench in park, having your pup practice holding a down or sit at the bus stop, or sniffing around at the duck pond. The goal during stationary work is simply for your pup to get calm and confident in a variety of settings. When choosing your stationary work spot, start by picking a place where your dog is still able to focus on you and complete basic commands. (If they are not able to perform their most basic commands, the area is too stimulating and you’ll want to choose something a bit easier for them to start. You can expand from there!)

Allow your pup to sniff around as much as they like upon arriving to your stationary work spot, and then sit, rewarding your dog every time they offer you eye contact. For example, if I bring Penny to the duck pond, I allow her ample sniffing opportunity before choosing a bench to sit on. Every time she offers eye contact, I Mark with “Yes! Good Look!” and Reward with a small treat or piece of kibble.

Repeat x1904982.

By Marking and Rewarding eye contact/Look, we are teaching our dogs that we are the most rewarding, exciting, engaging thing in their environment and that it pays to check in with us. The more consistent we are with Marking and Rewarding eye contact/ Look/ voluntary check ins, the more often our pup will offer this behavior.

Frequent eye contact and check ins not only builds your bond and your pups' value in you, but it becomes the foundation for so many other behaviors like loose leash walking and recall/ Come when called.

Takeaway exercises to try:

Practice stationary work in a variety of settings, always setting your pup up for success by choosing less stimulating environments to begin and then increasing the challenge as they get good at this exercise.

Mark and Reward voluntary eye contact as often as you can with “Yes! Good Look!” and offering a small treat/ piece of kibble.

Practice often and decrease interactions with other dogs and other humans to build your dogs value in you. You want your pup to understand that ALL good things come from you; (meals, snacks, play, training, fun, etc. You need to be the best thing in your dog’s life at all times!) This will increase your dogs' ability to stay tuned in and engaged in more challenging and stimulating environments.

If/ when your dog does begin to react, maintain the role of calm confident leader and simply guide your dog. The easiest ‘Interrupt and Redirect’ exercise to do in this scenario is to calmly, quietly, get up, gently tug your dogs' leash, attached to a traditional flat collar, to the side, (toward you, to guide them in your direction,) while saying their name. The moment you get any eye contact or voluntary movement at all, Mark and Reward with “Yes! Good With Me!” and offer a treat/piece of kibble.

Remember learning happens 24-7, whether you are choosing to actively train your dog or not. Keep training light and fun and enjoy your time with your pup! We are 100% of their life experience and we owe it to them to be their calm, confident leader through this life experience.

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