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Socialising Dogs to be Good Friends – Karen Phillips

Recently Better Pets and Gardens ran a competition to win a dog training session with me.  Many of the entries that were submitted came from people who are experiencing problems when taking their dog’s out on lead for walks.  A typical behaviour described was excessive barking and lunging at unfamiliar dogs. 

Extensive research has shown that when our dogs are puppies they have a critical period (between five and twelve weeks of age) of development in which 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 them interact with another child.

Unfortunately once this critical period has been missed there is no getting it back.  However there are some things that can be done to substantially improve how a dog feels about other dogs.  It is also important to note that regular socialisation should not end with puppy class.  Interaction with other dogs should be continued whether by giving the dog the opportunity to play with other dogs down the park or joining the local dog training club.

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.

For any of you who have become too scared to take your dogs out for walks anymore I can highly recommend engaging the services of a qualified dog behaviourist who uses positive reinforcement techniques.  A dog behaviourist will be able to assess the situation and come up with a training program to help you and your dog work through the issue.  This will by far give you the best chance to rehabilitate your dog and allow you to go back to having a much more pleasant experience.

If the problem isn’t too severe you can try some things to change the way your dog feels about other dogs by altering the association it has formed from bad to good.  This can be done using high value food rewards.  For example, when I take Riot for a walk there are certain houses that we go past that have dogs.  Riot always knows when we are getting close as his hackles will go up and he will start getting agitated in anticipation of a dog barking at him from the house.  To counteract this response before his behaviour starts to change I begin to give him “rapid fire” food rewards.  If I do this consistently after a few days Riot will start anticipating the rewards that are coming and look for them, ignoring the dog that is barking at him in the front garden.

This principle can also be used if your dog reacts when going past another dog on lead.  When you see another dog coming in the distance start the “rapid fire” food rewards.  It is preferable to do this before your dog has noticed them coming.  Continue this rapid feeding as you go past the other dog.  If your find that your dog still wants to lunge at the other dog you can try increasing the distance between you by calmly crossing the road before you get too close to the other dog.  Another approach you can try is co-opting a friend who has a friendly dog.  Set up a scenario where they walk past you and your dog and on their way past throw food on the ground towards your dog.  This method works on your dog beginning to associate approaching strange dogs as positive rather than a negative experience.

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