Communication is a skill. Like all skills it requires practice to perfect it. It we want excellent performance when it comes to communication, it requires that we have some kind of guidance and help. When I was learning photography, for instance, I went to classes, went out in the field, appraised my work and that of others. We can do that with communication too. We learn about positive ways to communicate and we practise. As rational, thinking beings, we still get it wrong. That’s why we have anger management classes, and why public speaking is our number one fear. How many times does communication go wrong between humans? And we are capable of reasoning, processing and learning through imitation!
Communication also is a transaction, an interaction. We need others to do it with. We can’t practise communication in isolation, neither can we practise it without going beyond our family.
These two aspects of communication are vital for our own progress as well as that of animals. What we learn about animals raised in isolation is that they present many behavioural issues and that if these isolated animals reproduce, their offspring are likely to also suffer from their impoverished situation.
I’m going to explore very specifically about one particular aspect of socialisation: dog relationships. In its broadest sense, socialisation means introducing the dog to the world. Here, I’m going to focus on the interations between dogs. Thankfully, most people recognise the importance of socialising their dogs as young puppies. Well, educated owners do. We understand that when you pick up a dog as a puppy, one of the most important things they need to learn is doggie body language. Socialising young dogs is one of the things we’re getting much better at understanding. Preventing your young Tarzan from being so rambunctious around other dogs, or your Garbo from being more withdrawn only comes from a series of high-quality, positive doggie encounters with a wide range of well-socialised dogs. I don’t think there are many who would quibble with the fact that early socialisation with a large number of skilled older dogs is absolutely crucial to turning your dog into a well-mannered dog. Here, quantity and quality count.
But there are many difficulties in socialising puppies. We now know that the peak window for socialisation is from 7 – 11 weeks. After that, it becomes very difficult indeed. The first problem with this is that it doesn’t fit with the vaccination schedule and many puppy owners are not happy to socialise their dog without at least their first vaccinations, if not their second. In France, those vaccinations happen at two months of age. The second vaccines happen four weeks after. The vaccine is considered ‘true’ two weeks after this. This means that for many puppies, they are not completely vaccinated until they are 14 weeks of age – and the socialisation window is all but closed.
Puppy schools are finding ways around this issue and you can now socialise your puppy with a number of other dogs who are up to date with their vaccines and who present a much lower risk than the general public. But you can understand why many people only socialise their puppies with a very small number of dogs, when the recommendations are that they are socialised with hundreds! Even if you live in a very doggie world as I do, it can be hard to find a number of well-socialised dogs to introduce your own dog to.
For this reason, many conscientious owners end up with dogs with poor social skills, simply because they didn’t introduce them to as many other well-socialised dogs as their puppy needed to meet.
Then there are the owners who are not quite so conscientious, or who are busy. After all, many dogs grow up in busy families, or with people who work. Puppy leave isn’t something your boss will pay you to take. There are owners like me, who work full time and whose dogs often meet shouting dogs running fence lines as we pass on walks. Is it any wonder my dog Heston ended up thinking that meeting another dog is a hostile and tense event when most of the dogs he met from seven weeks onwards, other than puppies, had serious barking issues or lack of tolerance towards other dogs?
Then finally, there are the owners who do not take this guidance seriously, who think that it doesn’t matter, who do not have the skill to raise a puppy and do not seek out expert help. Although the shelter is not by any means filled with dogs like these, many adult dogs available at our refuge have come from homes where owners didn’t understand the commitment needed to raise a dog, didn’t understand a dog’s needs, didn’t understand why they needed to socialise their dogs or didn’t understand why it is so important to have a secure space if you want your dogs to be outside unsupervised. I’m guessing this is a true picture for many shelters. These are dogs who sometimes arrive with behavioural issues concerning other dogs. No wonder we sometimes have a hard time with them at home. I often receive calls after adoption, including one dog who I’m going to see this weekend, and another dog who I saw a couple of weeks ago. This weekend, the dog is barking on approach to other dogs. Two weeks ago, it was a dog who wouldn’t accept a friend’s dog coming on to the property. Both dogs are adults who need to be socialised, and whose 7-11 week window is very, very far behind them.
Jean Donaldson’s excellent book Fight! introduces you to six different types of dogs who present aggressivity issues towards others. Five of the six types are dogs who have often impoverished socialisation as part of their history and are dogs who often end up at the shelter:
- Tarzan: a dog that “comes on too strong” and is “hyper-motivated” with “coarse social skills”. If they also have an impoverished play history, they are most likely a Tarzan. Tarzans like other dogs (although they may also have other issues) but they may bark, lunge towards them, hump them and engage in generally inappropriate doggie greetings, like standing at a right angle to the new dog and trying to get their head over the other dog’s back etc. Heston is a Tarzan. He loves other dogs really, but he’s just not got beginner stuff perfect yet. Other dogs excite him very much indeed, but he is very playful and actually very good at play (no impoverished play history for him!) My dad’s dog Robin is also a Tarzan. He too is hyper-social but a humper. He tried to hump Ralf. When you’re a 45kg lab/shepherd cross of 13 and elderly cocker spaniel tries to hump you at the gate, you’re going to take it badly. We have lots of Tarzans at the refuge. There are a good number of introductions that go badly because a dog moves in too quickly to smell, sniff, eyeball, hump or play with other dogs in a rambunctious manner. The prognosis is pretty good for Tarzans, though.
- Proximity-sensitive dogs (I call them Garbos after Greta Garbo) who don’t like other dogs in their space. They can be fearful or they can be snappy around other dogs. They’re hyper-vigilant around other dogs, with hard bodies and aggressive displays to get the other dog to back off. They may also ‘seem’ to be okay but when you look more closely, you’ll see pinned ears, slight grimaces, hard bodies. These dogs are dogs who are very still. Honestly, I think other dogs find them a bit hard to read. There was a fight at the refuge the other day – these are often the ones who end up in bites because there’s no displaying so you have no idea that the dog is about to react. With Jack, for instance, a setter x beauceron, you know damn well he hates dogs in his space. It’s all BARK BARK “I CANNOT ACCEPT THAT COURSE OF ACTION! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!” bark bark until the other dog is out of Jack’s safety zone. But the dogs who present no warning, or very little, allow other dogs – even well-socialised ones – to get too close before deciding that it is too close. We have a good few of these at the refuge. They’re always the ones I end up yelling at people over, since some people have no concept that the dog may not give all these warning signals before attacking. I think there are two types of proximity-sensitive dogs: Jack types who warn the other dogs off with successful aggressive displays, and Fiesta types who let other dogs cross the safety line and then attack with little warning.
- Dogs who harass or ‘haze’ others. Tobby my Malinois is one of these. He’ll single out a dog and chase it, follow it, lick it, try to hump it arthritically. It’s obviously very rewarding for him to do this. He has a type: passive young males. Not interested in girls if they’re sterilised (he has nuts – I thought he was only going to live two weeks when I got him a year ago, and at 14, putting him under the knife for his nuts off is a bit extreme) Tobby is also not interested in Tarzans or playful dogs, castrated males or sterilised females, puppies or older dogs. He’ll run away if harassed himself or if he can’t get any rest. But give him a passive, non-confrontational young intact male and he stalks the dog without rest.
- Dogs who start playing and end in a fight.
- Dogs who have a “strong genetic predisposition to compulsively fight”
I would say at the refuge, without any exact figures, that the majority of dogs who have impoverished socialisation and who are in need of better socialisation fall into the first two categories. Tarzans and Garbos. Luckily, both can be socialised effectively as adults. Unluckily, this takes a massive amount of time and energy, as well as dedication from the owner. It is not impossible for a well-prepared owner to do themselves, but having a behaviouralist to help out would make a big difference.
Going back to what I said about communication, it is clear that both these types of dog need better communication. That is only going to come through socialisation. I would argue here that socialisation is both quality and quantity, starting with quality interactions first. But unlike humans who can go on a course for anger management or for assertiveness, dogs can’t take away this kind of input in order to improve their behaviour. Think of it this way: you’re not going to get over your anger issues simply by getting in more and more situations that make you angry. In fact, it’ll probably just make it worse. For a dog, putting them around other dogs will probably just trigger a stress response. They might learn a new behaviour such as barking, teeth displays, posturing, hard bodies, staring eyes, but you will have no control at all over what they learn. Quantity is not your starting point when it comes to socialising an adult dog. And since you can’t show them a short informative video, teach them neurolinguistic programming or self-soothing, YOU have got to take responsibility for the environment, the interaction and changing the way your dog feels about the situation.
That means you are responsible for setting up the situation where your dog meets other dogs. You are responsible for the dogs they meet. You can also prime them and help them make new associations.
Here are ten tips rooted in Jean Donaldson’s work on socialising adult dogs with aggressivity issues that will help a dedicated dog owner rehabilitate their hypersocial Tarzan or their antisocial Garbo. You’ll also find tips from Karen Pryor, Donna Hill and Emily Larkham.
- Before you start, make sure your dog is in a positive, receptive kind of mood. By this, I mean they are at their calmest and they will listen to commands and respond. If your dog cannot do a basic sit and a range of other simple commands, start with those first and don’t go any further until you can get a rock-solid ‘sit’ in a range of environments. Practise this every day around a variety of distractions. On the day that you are ready to move up to distractions of the canine variety, make sure your dog is well-exercised before you start. No point setting them up to fail just because they’re not really in the right frame of mind. As this article by the Karen Pryor Academy explains, “learning happens in a mind that is engaged.”
- Watch this great video from Donna Hill explaining about counter-conditioning and systematic desensitisation.
Counter-conditioning takes your dog’s negative experiences about dogs and helps them associate the presence of other dogs with pleasurable experiences. This is great for proximity-sensitive dogs. Systematic desensitization can work with dogs who are Garbos, afraid of other dogs getting in their space, and dogs who are Tarzans, over-excited by the presence of other dogs, moving them towards a neutral point.
- Your aim is to ensure your dog finds other dogs a positive experience, and to break the cycle of negative feelings. Counter-conditioning is really useful here. That can be really simple. Find some dogs, find your dog’s safe space and reward for non-reactions. For example, one of my dogs is very reactive around houses and gardens where there are fence runners and barkers. I walk up to the houses with my dog, asking him to sit or do some simple commands as we go. I will get to a point when I am too close to the houses and Heston is hyper-vigilant. I’ll usually back off fifty metres or so. We sit and I’ll reward him every time I see him looking towards the houses, or if he hears the dogs and doesn’t bark, lunge or pull. If he reacts, we’re too close, so I get some space in there. Amazing how a dog who is reactive at 10 metres from a fence isn’t reactive 100 metres from one. Move in a little and continue marking any acknowledgement of the houses, dogs etc with a marker (like a clicker, or “yes!”, however you normally let your dog know that they’ve succeeded) and a treat. If they look towards the house but don’t react in any other way, mark and treat. If the other dog barks and you have no reaction, even better! Remember that food or toys are for rewarding, not bribing.
- Don’t take on too much. If it takes your dog three weeks to understand that if they look at some houses with dogs in without any reaction, they’ll get a treat, soon, those houses and those barking dogs will mean that something nice happens. Move in as gradually as you need to and don’t be afraid to back up if necessary. If your dog’s not in a learning frame of mind, don’t stress out – just leave it for another day. Set your dog up to succeed by choosing less stimulating environments first. For instance, I noticed that Heston was less stressed by some houses with dogs mid-way through our walk. We worked there and built our way up. We had empty carparks on Sundays, then carparks at closing time with fewer people about, then carparks at peak time when I was sure he was ready for it. The same is true for doggie meetings. Work up in very gradual increments when you are sure your dog will succeed at the next point.
- Make sure you have super-high value treats. I’ve found that most dogs – even very nervous, stressed-out ones, or hyper-reactive dogs – respond well to very smelly cheese. But use whatever your dog likes the most. This is not the time for cheap, low-budget treats. I’ve seen so many times people say that the dog isn’t treat-orientated, or they’re not able to focus for a treat, and it’s just not the right treat. The dog below is Jamaïque. She spent the first ten minutes lunging up the path, barking at every single dog and every single person in a very agitated state. Though her walker was sitting calmly with her, Jamaïque didn’t care. She barked constantly for five minutes, didn’t settle, wrapped herself around her walker’s legs, lunged at other dogs and humans. She was one of the most agitated dogs I’ve ever had to photograph. Not only did I get to photograph her, but she also did a sit and looks, for all intents and purposes, like the calmest dog on the block. In two years, I never had a dog so stressy – and never a female – sometimes the smells drive the uncastrated boys mad. So what worked? A huge block of aged Edam.
I’m not sure you’ll believe just how agitated she was, but she did stop barking and give me a sit for a piece of that cheese. Scaredy hounds, over-excited Tarzans, pups, blind dogs… they all give it up for the cheese. But use whatever works for your dog. A tug-toy or squeaker might work too. The thing is, it has to be high-value. A “good boy” isn’t enough here. What I want to do when I’m socialising my dog is reward my dog for noticing the other dogs and not reacting. A look or an ear prick is what I’m rewarding. The behaviour has to come first, then the marker to help your dog know exactly what it is they are doing right, and then the treat.
- Watch this great video from Emily at Kikopup and make sure you understand how to use treats effectively. Getting Jamaïque to focus on cheese when I want her to stop shouting for a photo is one thing. Conditioning her to accept other dogs is different altogether. There, the behaviour needs to come first, not the treat. With Jamaïque, the treat was definitely the focus.
Emily explains really well how to mark and feed, as well as some of the common pitfalls of counterconditioning.
- Get your dog used to seeing dogs and not reacting from a distance. You want them to think, “here’s a dog. I get a reward.” so that they think of other dogs as a positive thing. You will want to do this with a good number of dogs. Sitting opposite a park, outside your dog’s proximity boundary, and watching dogs going in and out is a good way to get your adult dog used to seeing other dogs and not reacting like a hellhound.
- If you have a Tarzan, set up a series of dog meet-and-greets. For this, you will need three or four bombproof dogs who are not going to be fussed by your dog’s unrefined sniffing or posturing. You want all the dogs off the lead and in a secure area, not too big that you can’t intervene if a fight should break out. Normal dog socialisation classes for puppies end with the puppies wanting more, rather than having reached the end of their interest. But with your adult dog, you want them to get bored of the other dog and return to you. It might take an hour! If they end up playing, so much the better, but don’t give up the supervision. This is why I bring home bombproof dogs to foster – because it’s a good experience for Heston to meet dogs who are not shouty arseholes behind a fence. One-on-one meetings can be super-intense. When I had Hista and Galaxy here at the same time, he ran out and didn’t know who to go to first. Three or four dogs take the sting out of the meeting. For these meet-and-greets, take account of age and sex. Introducing a male Tarzan to a group of similarly aged females is less likely to cause an issue than trying to do it with an all-boy group or a mixed group. Remember too that older dogs can lose their tolerance for Tarzans and find it all a bit much. But a well-socialised dog will take the sting out of those meet-and-greets. The proof is in the pudding. Shouty Tarzan of the Hestons last met Florette, a statuesque shepherd x griffon of ten. He raced up, slammed on the brakes before he got to her, and took it easy for the first time ever. Within ten minutes, ALL of the dogs had met each other and were relaxed, lying down in the living room. That includes two Garbos, one old bully and one young Tarzan. Good job, Florette!
- Keep mixing up the groups of dogs that your Tarzan meets, but keep them meeting them. Gradually, you can introduce same-sex dogs or dogs who are less than bombproof. You want to hit triple figures with your dog, knowing that they have successfully met a range of dogs and will have seen a whole load of different things about body language.
- Above all, don’t put your dog in danger or move too quickly. You simply cannot move carefully enough where socialisation is concerned. One poor experience can turn a dog from a bouncy over-excited dog to one who is afraid of others. It can also put your dog in danger. This is why you are best to engage the help of a behaviouralist to help you socialise your dogs with others, counter-condition them in ways that reward the right behaviour and set your dogs up to succeed, and desensitise them to the presence of other dogs.
With these ten strategies, you have much of what you need to help your adult dog practise, refine and develop their socialisation skills. When they make progress, you’ll be absolutely delighted by that. There is nothing like seeing an adult dog who reacts aggressively or inappropriately aroud other dogs becoming a dog who is great at dog communication, knowing when to play, when to back off, when to move in and how to handle all manner of doggie situations. The more dogs they meet, the better.
With this in mind, just be sure you are meeting dogs who also know how to speak dog. Watching a puppy dancing around a rather antisocial Gaza this afternoon could have ended very badly for the puppy and been the experience that defined his understanding of other dogs. Luckily, no harm was done. And speaking of the rather antisocial Gaza, who a vet recommended only be rehomed as a guard dog, a shy and timid female called Jolie snuck into his enclosure a couple of weeks ago. She went through the gutters to get there. We don’t know if she intended to stop where she did, whether she just found an opening she could get out of, if she was just trying to escape, and I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when her head popped up in Gaza’s enclosure, but watching her play with him, a dog entirely written off as one who could never be rehomed with another dog, and you’ll understand why I was quite so delighted.
We never know what dogs are thinking about other dogs. I’ve always been of the mindset that dogs operate with each other in ways we haven’t yet understood, and there is so much we have yet to know about why some dogs get on and others don’t. Quite why Heston played so long and so hard with Galaxy and not with the equally game and friendly Hista is anyone’s guess. One day we will understand better why we choose some friends over others, and why dogs do the same. Until then, we must understand that dogs are highly social creatures, but in limiting their exposure to one another, we are limiting their ability to speak dog. Overcoming that lack of exposure is hard but it’s not impossible. There is hope, after all, for our Tarzans and our Garbos.