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Socialising Dogs

A walk in the park should be just that, a walk in the park!  But sadly for some owners it can be a very stressful activity if their otherwise beautiful dog starts to bark excessively, growl and lunge at other dogs out of fear or insecurity.  These dogs need to be taught how to socialise so that both they and their owner can again enjoy the experience of being out in the big, wide world.

Regular exercise is an important part of a dog’s day, especially those that have pent up energy from being stuck in the backyard.  But, it needs to be in a manner that is safe for everyone.  Training harnesses and head halters are the first step to ensuring that the dog is fully controlled when out in public and more information about these is available in the “Who’s Walking Who?” fact sheet available at any Better Pets and Gardens store as well as on our website.

The second step to enjoying being out in public is to ensure that the dog is well socialised which will involve patience, regular training and a bag full of treats.  Socialisation training is a lot of fun for both the dog and the trainer and the end result will be well worth the effort.

Extensive research has shown that when our dogs are puppies they have a critical period of development between five and twelve weeks of age when it is imperative that they are exposed to a variety of things, one of which is other dogs. Not exposing a puppy to other dogs during this critical period is a bit like sending a child to primary school at the age of five without ever letting it interact with another child.

Puppy classes are safe and controlled environments that allow young dogs to meet other dogs as well as humans, to learn how to interact with them, and overcome any feelings of anxiety or aggression towards them.  For the owners, it may just look as though they are just playing, and that is really the point.  Through meeting other pups in an unknown but safe environment they begin to trust others and also learn the behaviour that is expected of them.  The puppies that attend are all required to have up-to-date vaccinations and classes are held throughout WA as well as at some Better Pets and Gardens stores.

Regular socialisation shouldn’t end with puppy school since a lack of ongoing social experiences can contribute to a well-socialised dog gradually becoming aggressive or anxious as it ages.  Although a dog might go on a regular walk each day, it probably sees the same familiar faces each time and may begin to fear people and other animals that it doesn’t know.  Even adult dogs need to be given the opportunity to meet new people and new dogs and this is easy to do by walking a different route each day, holding play dates, or joining the local dog training club.  Even bringing the dog into a Better Pets and Gardens store will help to give it a chance to make new friends.

Unfortunately once the critical period of socialisation as a puppy has passed, there is no getting it back although there are some techniques that can be used to substantially improve how a dog feels about other dogs.  Of course, don’t expect a dog to be best friends with every dog it meets as humans certainly aren’t but it should always display behaviour that is not threatening or based on fear.

Even well-socialised dogs can develop behavioural problems where none existed before after a bad experience with another dog.  Most commonly this will follow an incident where a dog is attacked.  The dog may then always react badly when it sees another dog which can display as trying to get away or even aggression.   If a dog reacts aggressively it is likely that it is just bluffing by trying to find a way to scare the other dog off and stop the possibility of another attack.

Negative forms of training such as scolding can actually reinforce the unwanted behaviour.  For example, when an owner walking a dog sees another dog approaching, their instinct to pull on the lead causes the dog to immediately become tense.  The dog might then lunge on the lead so the owner yells at the dog who, because of the tension in the air will probably growl.  More yelling and pulling will almost definitely follow.  All of this noise and tension confirms in the dog’s mind that approaching dogs are trouble and probably something to be scared of.  It might even make the dog feel that it doesn’t want to be around other dogs as when it is, it is always scolded so instead it barks at the other dog hoping that it will go away.

Reward-based training is an effective technique for problems that aren’t too severe and can change the way a dog feels about other dogs by altering the association it has formed from bad to good.  Choose high-value food rewards such as the dog’s favourite treats that it only gets on very rare occasions such as when in training and always make sure that the session ends on a good note and before the dog gets bored or irritated.

When out and about, a dog will begin to show signs of agitation or aggression when it is getting close to a house that it knows has a barking dog or near the park where dogs are playing.  Its hackles may go up and it might start pulling on the lead.  To counteract this response, before these signals begin to appear start to give the dog ‘rapid fire’ food rewards.   By doing this consistently over a few days, the dog will start anticipating the rewards that are coming and look for them, ignoring the other dog that is barking or playing at the park.

This principle can also be used if a dog reacts when going past another dog on a lead.  When another dog approaches in the distance start the ‘rapid fire’ food rewards, preferably before your own dog has noticed it coming.  Continue this rapid feeding as the other dog passes.  If your dog still wants to lunge try increasing the distance from the other walkers by calmly crossing the road before they get too close”

A similar technique can be practiced by co-opting a friend who has a well-socialised dog to set up a scenario where they walk past you and your dog and on their way past throw food on the ground towards you.  You may even just sit on a park bench with the dog, giving him treats and praise when other dogs come near so that eventually it will look forward to this knowing that it means getting another reward as well as loving praise.

Any dog can become fearful of either one person or a type of person such as all men or children and often it’s difficult to know the reason but for the dog, the fear is quite real.  It’s important to deal with this for the sake of the dog as well as the safety of other people.

Reward-based techniques are still the best and safest option when dealing with a dog that doesn’t like people.  By using treats, there is no need for someone to get too close to the dog to still leave it with a positive impression.  Someone entering the home can easily throw the dog a few treats so that it learns that visitors are a good thing, and not something to be scared of.

If it is obvious as to the type of person that the dog is scared of such as a man or someone wearing a long jacket, find a willing participant and ask them to sit quietly in an armchair.  Scatter food around the chair and bring the dog into the room on a long lead and let it just wander around vacuuming up its favourite treats.  Don’t force the dog towards the treats; let it approach in its own time.  Over a period of several days, it should be possible to graduate to having the person throw the treats on the ground whilst the dog is there and perhaps even letting it take one out of the hand.  Whilst they may never be best buddies, the dog should learn not to fear new people in the home.

An owner that is too scared to invite people to the home or to take their dog out for walks for fear of how it will react must engage the services of a qualified dog behaviourist who uses positive reinforcement techniques.  A dog behaviourist can assess the situation and develop a training program to help the owner and the dog work through the issues.  This will give the best chance of rehabilitating the dog to make visiting the park or having visitors to the home a pleasant one again.

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