Socialization is a term used to describe the process of getting a puppy comfortable with the world around him. What if your dog is an adult and has big feelings about other dogs? Does he bark at them or lunge at them? Can you socialize an adult dog that is reactive to other dogs?
Technically, an older dog cannot be “socialized” by us. That ship was lost before he lost his baby tooth! We can help him be more comfortable around other dogs. This can take longer than expected and requires a solid plan.
This can be complex and time-consuming. For the initial consultation and key moments in the process, it would be wise to hire a local, force-free trainer.
First Goal: Keep Dog Under Threshold
This canine makeover begins with arranging your dog’s environment to ensure that he doesn’t feel the need (over)react.
It doesn’t matter if your dog reacts to over-excitement or frustration. We will stop him from being too close to other dogs so that he does not react to them. This is what we refer to as keeping your dog “under threshold” and is crucial for the success of this project. Here’s why:
Your dog’s behavior is a pattern that we want to eradicate. Your dog’s reactive behavior (dog barks at other dogs, dog lunges at dog) will wear into his brain, making it the most traveled path through the woods. This must change. We must not allow the unwelcome path to become overgrown. Instead, we should create a calmer alternative.
If you take your dog on a regular walk with other people walking their dogs and he “goes insane” every time he passes them, then he is practicing the behavior (and feeling those feelings) that we want him to stop. You can’t continue to ignore your dog’s reactions to other dogs if you want to get rid of his overreactivity. You must end these “practice sessions” with unwanted behavior!
We want to create a calm, new pathway in your dog’s brain so that he only sees other dogs from a distance that is safe for him to remain below threshold. He learns from you when he is calm and relaxed. These are some things you can do to help your dog get away from other dogs.
You can change the time you take your walks. Change the time you walk so that there are fewer dogs around. Change the place you take your walks. You can drive to a park if your neighborhood is full of dogs. Be aware if your park has narrow paths that could make it difficult for you to pass another dog, and don’t do so. Always be aware of what is happening around you. Be aware of other dogs when you go on walks. You should be able to cross streets, change directions, walk up driveways, or use bushes to make a barrier between your dog, and other dogs. You might encounter the off-lead dogs with no recall, so it’s worth looking for open spaces. These dogs, no matter how friendly they may appear to be, can destroy your training. The main point we are trying to make is that leash walks should not be interactive. You can do everything to prevent this from happening. Some people notice that their dog is not friendly with other dogs and decide to socialize their dog right away. Ack! This is exactly what your dog needs. Dog parks don’t have any control over the other dogs. This means that you cannot give your dog the space and predictability that will build his confidence and ensure his safety. Dog owners who have a reactive dog should not take them to the dog park. The owners of dogs with reactive behavior are making it worse by yelling at them and pulling on their ears. Already the dog was agitated by the sight of another dog. After that punishment, their trusty friend becomes frightening. This is a recipe for more reactiveness than less. Do not punish or admonish. Another common error is to apply your stress from past dog incidents to future situations. Your dog will be influenced by your actions if you let go of your leash when you see another dog. Relax and breathe!
For your dog to form better associations
You are now ready to build new “It’s cool, it’s no biggie” feelings about seeing another dog. Take your treat pouch (always!) Take your treat pouch with you. It’s a good idea to go to a large park. You should keep your dog under threshold. This means that they must not bark or lunge at any time.
Your goal is to teach your dog how the presence of other dogs signals positive experiences. For example, food from you. You should keep one eye on your surroundings and the other on your dog. You can make a tasty morsel of your dog’s fur and calmly tell him, “Oh, hey! I see a dog!” Do you see the dog?
Your dog might initially be too focused on your other dog to look at you for a treat. However, a more expensive treat might work better. So go ahead, and give him the treat right in his nose. Keep the calm but friendly patter (“Yup! That’s a dog alright!”), and treat delivery going on as long as the trigger dog is still visible. Stop feeding the dog if the trigger dog is not visible.
Trainers used to try to prevent dogs that were hyperactive from looking at other dogs. We don’t do that anymore. We are not requiring that the dog spend time looking at other dogs. We are simply not insisting that the dog look at other dogs. Because he sees another dog, he predicts that you will feed him.
Predictability is crucial. Dogs feel more at ease if they know what the next step is. Reactivity can stem from anxiety or over-arousal about what they might be asked to do (like greeting another dog close up). It’s why it is so effective to turn these experiences into something the dog can trust: We see a dog and they give us food.
You will notice your dog become less excited by distant dogs as you continue to do this. Your dog should be less inclined to look intently at distant dogs and more likely to turn to you when he sees a treat coming. You’re creating a new neural pathway.
Invest in Connection
Your dog will benefit from your connection with you. Your progress will be much faster if your dog is already listening to you and looking to you for direction. Positive reinforcement-based training can help your dog build a relationship with you. Practicing food-filled, easy lessons in your kitchen on things like “touch” and “spin” may seem unrelated to this become-calm-around-dogs effort, but will make a huge difference.
Slowly closing the Gap
If you are unable to improve, you can keep the level at the current level. If your goal is to pass other dogs at close range easily, you can experiment with gradually closing the distance.
Let’s suppose you found out that your dog had to be at least 120 yards (a football field), from a Frisbee-chasing Border Collie, 20 yards from a calm Labrador and 15 feet from an old Beagle. Start to shrink those gaps, no matter how large they may be. Treat your dog when they are below threshold. Do your dogs happily perform simple tasks like sitting, touching, spinning, or any other training you do at home? If the answer is yes, then you should move five feet closer towards the trigger dog. Pay attention to your dog’s body language. Do you think he is still below the threshold? Continue to train. Take your time.
Return the next day. Are you able to keep your dog focused on you and not have to watch the other dogs? Move five feet closer.
It is easy to get too anxious or too confident. This will make it difficult for your dog to predict what you are going to do. It’s boring, I know! It’s understandable that you don’t have the time. It will pay off if you take it slow.
It may take three to three months for this process. A dog can become calm and able to walk on a street without being tethered. Is it possible for every dog to do this? It is not possible for every dog to make it happen, but they can all work hard.
Take a walk with a calm dog you know
It is important to be able to walk with dogs on the streets without any problems. This will help your dog to get to know a dog who is comfortable around him, which can make your dog feel calmer around other dogs.
A dog that is comfortable around other dogs and a person your dog likes is the ideal combination. These people should live near each other to make it a daily routine that builds confidence and can help you build your trust.
For the first time, have the other person leave the dog (either with someone else or in the car) and then come back to greet your dog. To let your dog know what to do, use the Mr. Rogers hack (see “How to talk to your dog”)
You can say hello to someone you are going to greet, or use “friend” as a way to refer to someone you have met previously. In this case, you might say “Oh, hi, Linda!” “Say hi to our friend!” This signals your dog that you are not following your established no-interaction rule when you meet strangers while on a walk. Your “Hey, look at me!” will be a sign that you trust your dog. While “See the dog?” doesn’t mean you will be interfacing with the strange dog, “Say hello to our friend” indicates some interaction with him. Your dog must know what to expect in order to feel confident and calm.
You should find a spot where your dog can see other dogs and their people from afar. Start changing how your dog views other dogs by introducing food to the distant sight. Photo by Kathy Callahan
Next, make sure the dogs can see each other at a distance. Do not let the dogs run out of the car in the first few moments. You can keep your dog at a distance of 100 feet or 10 feet depending on what you need. Then, start walking in the same direction as each other. Your dog will feel at ease if you keep them as far apart from each other as possible. It is better to walk parallel than with one dog in front. This allows each dog to be more relaxed and can subtly check out the other dog.
This is a good idea. You can build positive associations with your other dog by rewarding their engagement, giving treats and observing their body language so that you can adjust the distance between them. After 45 minutes, you might have two happy dogs going on the same adventure.
Do not rush a reactive dog
It is tempting to allow them to play and sniff each other, but that’s not what you want. You should not let them touch each other unless there is a great trainer who can help you evaluate body language. Everyone tries to rush it, which can lead to a disastrous outcome that can be difficult to overcome.
Instead, stop while you are ahead and plan to meet again within the next few days. You’ll find that you move faster if you do everything the same way. Once you’ve established a little friendship with your dog, it is time to start working with another team. The process will be much easier, you’ll likely find.
Your dog is now able to behave calmly and feel safe around other dogs. It will get easier to keep your dog below threshold as long as you continue to guide and protect him in his dog-to-dog interactions.
Can my reactive dog play with other dogs now?
That’s why I encourage you to be happy with it! Are you still looking for more? This is the holy grail of the journey. It is allowing free interaction up to the point where you allow for the exuberant wrestling, chasing, and mouthy nirvana that canine play offers.
It’s worth the effort. . . But this is where you stop me from being your tour director. Why? Why? He doesn’t know how to communicate with canines, such as “I love this!” and “I need a break.”
Is that to say you should quit? No! It is not necessary. There are many dogs that live happy lives and canine play is an enjoyable part of their lives. You might also want to spend holidays with your brother, who has a playful Labrador, or with your neighbor, who has a friendly dog, but is unable to pet-sit.
It is crucial to have a trained trainer oversee the training. A trained professional can help you set up the right environment, choose the right dogs, interpret the subtle body language of your dog, and redirect or intervene as needed. You may be able to watch your dog play with a friend after some help.
How to socialize a dog-reactive dog whole