If I had a dollar for every time a client brought their dog to me to discuss their dogs’ behaviour towards other dogs and said “I’ve been told they just need to learn how to be social” or “they just need to socialise with other dogs”, I would be rich.
But is that really what they need?
Many of these dogs are adults and outside their socialisation period, so rather than them needing socialisation, they instead need behavioural modification.
So what’s the difference?
Socialisation is a term commonly used during the puppy stage of development. During this period we socialise or expose the puppy to as many different stimuli as possible, in a positive manner, while their brains are plastic; we teach the puppy how to cope with everything that the human world has to offer. The window for socialisation closes at 12 – 16 weeks, dependant on breed.
If a puppy is well socialised with other dogs it means that during its socialisation period it has been exposed to a wide variety of breeds and ages, as each individual breed ‘speaks’ a different language; a Pug for example has very different facial expressions than that of a Great Dane, a Labradors playstyle is very different to a Shihtzu’s………through socialisation the puppy learns to be multilingual!
Of course we can ‘socialise’ a more mature dog, however like a mature human learning how to speak a second language or moving to a foreign country, it takes a lot more time and effort.
It is also important to remember that just like some humans, some dogs don’t want to be overly social!
There are some cases however where the dog shows behaviours that need behavioural modification and definitely NOT socialisation at the local dog park or beach!
If the dog shows signs of over-excitement, frustration, fear or anxiety when it sees another dog, such as the following;
- strains on the lead to access the other dog or swerves back and forth
- is unable to listen or show attention to its owner and follow even a basic cue such as “sit”
- will not take food which it would usually eat,
- will not play with a favourite toy,
- lunges and vocalises; barks, whines, squeals, whimpers, etc.
- cowers or tries to move away or hide.
- growls, shows its teeth, snaps, etc when another dog comes close
then trying to ‘socialise’ by exposing it to other dogs can not only make the behaviour worse, but can actually be quite dangerous, as overexcitement can lead to the dog making an unintentional mistake; liken it to giving two four year old boys light sabres, you can pretty well guarantee that one will get overexcited, bonk the other over the head, and it will all end in tears.
This is when we need to back up the truck and use what is commonly referred to as behavioural modification.
Behavioural modification is when an existing undesirable behaviour is replaced with a much more desirable one whilst also changing the way the dog feels about the other dog.
Successful behavioural modification teaches your dog that the other dog equals something pleasurable. Using punishment only makes the behaviour far, far worse!