Socialization and How to do it Safely

*Disclaimer: Féírín and Brogan would like to remind you that I am not, in any way, a certified dog trainer. Anything trainingwise I post is based off of my experience with training my own dogs and helping friends with their dogs. As with all training tips and tricks, this is my opinion. If you disagree, that is entirely your decision, this is just my take on this subject.

Also, every dog is different and reacts differently to different training styles and exercises. Never assume one method works for all dogs.*

Over the years of working with dogs, any good dog owner will hear and say the phrase “socialization is key.” Now, for those who aren’t as experienced, this post is to put that phrase into perspective because it’s not always as easy as it sounds.

For instance, when you get a brand new puppy, as adorable as they are, they also have super sensitive immune systems because they haven’t gotten all of their vaccinations and boosters yet.

At 8 weeks, the youngest age a breeder can sell a puppy legally, the pups will have had their first set of vaccines and have been dewormed, but even that’s not 100% for them. They’re still vulnerable to illness and it’s super important to watch their every move so they don’t get sick. But 8 weeks and the following months are crucial in training, so how do we socialize while keeping the new puppy safe? Here’s some tips and tidbits on how to safely socialize your new puppy:

  1. Find friends who have healthy dogs that you know are up to date on all vaccines and make a day to get together and let the dogs meet.
  2. Never and I mean never bring your brand new puppy to a dog park. After your pup has had all of his boosters and other vaccines, it’s up to you, I’m still not a can of dog parks as they’re an accident waiting to happen, but for puppies, dog parks are like a petri dish of disease and parasites waiting to leech into your pup’s vulnerable little body.  Never trust that everyone keeps their dog up to date on shots, and never trust that people won’t bring their dog to the park if their dog is sick.
  3. Start bringing your pup to smaller pet stores. PetCo and PetSmart can be a little too overpopulated with dogs for comfort for an 8-week-old puppy. Start with your smaller owned pet stores where it is more likely for your pup to meet one or two dogs instead of a whole bunch of random dogs.
  4. Stay away from pet store training groups. Great concept, not so great execution. You know how I said dog parks are petri dishes? Yeah, these can be too. Go for an actual trainer and research which trainer does the right style for you and your dog. You’ll find other people who agree with your methods and beliefs and be able to make a network of friends for both yourself and your pup.
  5. Do not baby your puppy’s fear. Now, this doesn’t mean force him to do something he doesn’t want to do, but say he’s not comfortable around another dog or a person, this happens often during fear periods and can lead to things like dog aggression and fear aggression, you don’t want to force the dog to interact, but find ways to make the interaction happen without force, throw a ball of your dog’s into that, take the dogs for a walk, make it productive so he barely notices the fear or the wariness anymore. Once you start to baby or comfort him when he’s uncomfortable, you start to validate his/her fear. Take every moment with a puppy or even a full-grown dog as a training experience. If you turn his mind from fear into productivity and keep your emotions in a neutral to positive place, he will learn to work through the fear, if you coddle his fear and comfort and fuss over it, you can hurt more than help and it can cause long term issues for a dog.

See? It’s not impossible. All of these tips can work for adult dogs too, it’s just imperative to watch with pups for their health for the first few months.

Back to dog parks. Another idea that is great in concept but terrible in execution. I have heard more horror stories about accidents resulting from dog fights in dog parks than I’d like to admit, including some fights with the dogs of a few close friends of mine. The key idea to keep in mind is that you can never trust that someone else is going to know and be able to control their dog. There are many people now that own dogs without having the slightest clue what to look for in dog behavior.

I had a gentleman ask me why his dog “grew a mohawk” when he brought him certain places, to which I explained that the dog was raising his hackles because he was uncomfortable and it’s the dogs way of making itself look bigger and scarier just like many other animal species. It can stem from fear, aggression, dominance, you name it. (This wasn’t a rhodesian ridgeback or ridgeback cross, I asked)

It just further solidifies my point, very few people know their dog or even know what to look for in other dogs, so more dog fights happen from people not knowing what to look for and missing the signs than anything. Even if you know your dog, someone else may not and it can be your dog who suffers for it.

Now, if you really want to bring your dog into a dog park, here’s some good tips and tricks to help keep your dog safe:

  1. Always walk your dog outside the dog park first and watch from outside for at least 15-20 minutes before entering. Watch the dynamics of the dogs already in the park. If there are no hackles raised, no lips raised, no over-dominant play styles, etc. after you’ve watched for that time, if there are no signs of aggression, try walking your dog in.
  2. Bring your own water and dish. The communal dishes are breeding grounds for bacteria and parasites
  3. Make a point to stay close to your dog at all times. You don’t need to be on top of him, but be close enough to step in if you notice someone’s dog is getting a little too rough.
  4. Always watch for new dogs entering. If a dog comes in with a bad attitude, leave. Its never worth the punctures in your dog.
  5. Never assume someone is going to follow the park’s rules. The fact that there are dogs banned from different parks is proof that people haven’t followed the rules.
  6. Never ever EVER bring an intact (un-neutered) male dog into a dog park. And if you see one in the park, leave. (obviously if your dog is too young to neuter This doesn’t apply) Even a quiet dog can get ugly when dominance comes into play.
  7. Learn how to read other dogs as their behavior. Watch for the signs of dominance And aggression. Its one thing for a dominant dog to put a little brat in its place, but once we start getting aggressive it creates our issues. Learn the differences between dominance And aggression And learn the signs of each.
  8. And finally, know how to read your dog and his/her behavior. If you know your dog is particularly dominant, it’s best to stick to the dogs he knows and making introductions on your terms on leash so you are in control, if your dog is super submissive, you can sometimes be okay, but if a dog is going to attack your dog, if he’s too submissive he might just lay there and let the other dog rip into him. Not that to want them to fight back, but you want the flight instinct to kick in. Always watch. Never turn your back for a second. 

If your dog has ever been attacked at a dog park, you’ve learned the hard way, and for that, I am personally sorry, and know that you are not a terrible doggy parent! It’s a wonderful concept and ideally if done right, would be a great way to socialize your dog, but not enough people actually know dogs anymore, and it causes a lot of issues. You tried to do something good for your dog! You’re not a bad puppy parent, I promise!
Always remember: lack of knowledge is just as dangerous as training a dog to be aggressive, always research and consult a dog trainer to further widen your knowledge on training and dog behavior. It’s better than letting someone’s dog get hurt because someone doesn’t know what they’re doing.

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