The biggest mistake we make with socialisation and habituation

I’ve written recently about why you need to take breed (and personality) into consideration when you socialise your dog, as well as exploring why it’s so necessary. Nobody brings dogs to our shelter in France and says, “well, they’ve been over-socialised”… but for dogs who arrive, it’s those gaps in socialisation that make them hard to rehome. The more life experience they have around familiar and unfamiliar humans, familiar and unfamiliar dogs, other household pets and the world around them, the easier they are to rehome.

A dog who is friendly to others, friendly to strange humans, familiar humans and their smaller versions, happy with cats and fine in a range of environments is a dog who won’t stay long. They’re dogs we can place in fosters. They’re dogs who have the fewest problems when rehomed, too.

It goes without saying that socialisation is necessary.

But I do think that there is a big problem that we make when we socialise dogs. It’s not over-socialisation as such. But it is hands down one of the biggest causes of frustration, misunderstanding, miscommunication and off-lead problems.

It’s allowing our puppies to think they have an automatic right or need to greet every single person and dog they meet.

Let me explain.

Imagine if we walked down the street greeting every single person we came across. I don’t mean just saying ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ to people we see on a hiking trail, I mean going up to and engaging with them, even for a few seconds. Imagine if we shook hands with every single person in the street. Now, if we were Joanna Lumley or Oprah, that’d probably be okay and we might get away with it. But for your average run-of-the-mill random person, that’s never going to work, is it? People already think I’m weird enough.

Imagine if we hugged them?

What if we gave them a full-on-the-mouth snog?

With tongues?

Twerked them or humped them?

Pinched their arse?

What about if we went up and stared them right in the eye?

What if we yelled at them?

Can you imagine the fights and bloodshed?! We’d be arrested at some point, without a doubt, and probably end up on medication or in therapy.

But you know, some of those things are ones I do with those I’m familiar with. They wouldn’t be inappropriate. I know who to greet and how to greet.

I know there are people who I don’t need to greet at all (like all the people in the supermarket).

But some of our dogs feel the need to greet every other dog or human, even though it’s not appropriate for their species-specific greetings either.

They approach every single dog they see and it either elicits an inappropriate social moment, or aggression and posturing.

Some of those dogs are like my foster, Flika. She’s a social butterfly. Wants to greet everyone. She’ll pull on the lead to greet every single other dog. I don’t let her, but she does get frustrated if I don’t. She’s the kind of dog who is very sweet, gives kisses to every dog and then moves on, just as Tobby my old mali used to. Kiss-kiss and disengage. You could see why I’d keep them off lead and let them do it. After all, they’re lovely to every dog, right?

I know I’d have been the owner yelling ‘Don’t worry! They’re friendly!’ to some terrified person with their reactive dog on a lead and muzzle, desperately trying to hold on to their own anger.

Flika and Tobby’s recall skills off-lead around other dogs?


Some of those ‘must greet all!’ dogs are like my dog Heston, who’s had a long and fairly successful programme to ignore other dogs having spent his first three years of life feeling like he had to greet every other dog. Not only that, he was a complete Tarzan (as well as a teenager) and some of his inappropriate behaviour was more ‘hugs with tongues’ or ‘staring in the eye’ than it was a quick handshake.

So, yes, this causes fights.

What do we then do? And how does this cause problems?

If they’re inappropriately social, or even if they’re just a hit-and-run greeter like Flika my foster girl is, we might keep them off the lead. If the other dog has problems with it, that’s their bad and they’ve clearly got ‘aggression’ or ‘reactivity’… too many of us fall into the ‘it’s okay, my dog is friendly!’ camp because we know that, on lead, our dog is a barking, crazed menace, and we indulge that ‘I must greet everybody’ behaviour. They’re what we call ‘frustrated greeters’. In my experience, this is common for dogs who feel that they have an absolute right or need to engage with other dogs. We let them off the lead because it’s easier than having them on the lead. And if the other dog is an arse when approached, well, that’s clearly them with the problem.

So on the mild side of the scale, when Flika is on lead, she’s looking back, she’s looking, she’s wagging, she’s pulling towards new dogs or humans. She is such a nice greeter – lots of kisses and playful body language – but because she is such a sweet friendly girl, you can see why I’d let her off lead rather than try and wrestle with her.

On the other side, there’s Heston – or how he used to be. That’d be lunging, pulling, barking, posturing. Not aggressive, but so over the top that he was unmanageable. For people watching him, you’d have thought he was completely out of control, and you’d be right. Off lead, he’s not bad. As long as the other dog is friendly.

Neither Heston nor Flika have any real awareness that the other dog has no desire at all to engage with them.

Some dogs make it really obvious that they don’t want to engage. Like my cocker Tilly. She ignores other dogs unless they notice her or try to engage with her, and then we get a lot of nervous barking. This is true of humans who approach her as well. Her barking is alarmed and panicked. She’s okay with dogs on leads – there’s no problem at the refuge or at the vets, in town or on dog walks, but dogs off lead panic her. Amigo is the same. He’d rather not deal with social greetings with other dogs.

So on the one side, you’ve got what Jean Donaldson calls Tarzan dogs. Full-on, in-your-face greetings. The kind that would be the equivalent of a human walking down the road and greeting every single person in a full-on, inappropriate way. Humping, head-overs, kisses, growling, grabbing and even ‘play’ bows or incredibly oversocial behaviour. Tarzans can be hit-and-run greeters like Flika, with her wiggly body and her kisses, or it can be full-frontal mania, like Heston was.

And on the other, there are dogs like Tilly and Amigo who Jean Donaldson calls Proximity-Sensitive dogs. New dogs worry them and they don’t want to engage, thank you very much. Not until they know you better.

The dogs in the photo at the top are key examples. Social butterfly meets Angry loner. An accidental, too-close meeting meant that the little terrier ended up with his head in the other dog’s mouth. No damage was done, but when a small overly-confident dog feels the need or right to greet every single other dog – especially one who is giving a hard stare, whose body is still and hostile, whose mouth is closed – then they’re going to get themselves into an accident sooner or later.

That’s the biggest problem, then, when socialisation and habituation go wrong… dogs who feel the need or right to engage with every other dog and don’t understand that 95% of dogs they’ll see in life won’t come with the automatic right to engage. On the flip side, the problem is for these off-lead encounters is with the occasional dog who doesn’t really like other dogs and don’t know how to behave when they do get an inappropriate greeting, then rely on over-the-top ‘corrections’ or aggression. So Locky the terrier might have had 999 greetings where he got varying responses from pleasure to growling or snapping, and 1 greeting where he ends up with his head inside the powerful jaws of a hostile dog 7 times his size.

And that’s not okay either.

Imagine that, having met a super-greeter on the street, who pinches your cheek and humps you, you take a machete and try to chop off their head.

That’d be a completely over-the-top reaction to that inappropriate behaviour.

So when Heston got nipped on the ear by Lidy when they first met, that was certainly inappropriately Tarzanita on her behalf. He yelped. But he didn’t turn into a monster and attack her. He backed off and took it a bit more easy. If he doesn’t want a dog to approach, he’ll growl. And then he’ll bark. It’s his way of saying ‘Dude, if you keep coming, you’re going to make me get the weapons out’ – and it works very well. When Heston was approached by Locky, he didn’t bite him – he was surprised and he growled when Locky the terrier tried to mount him, but then he backed away and Locky’s handler went on his way. Those would be appropriate responses from a dog. Hopefully, Locky’s handler would learn that all those inappropriately over-friendly greetings are a) annoying to other dogs and b) going to end up badly at some point for Locky. Sadly, often neither the dog learns, nor the human.

We see appropriate responses to this Tarzan behaviour all the time.

For the cocker who got bit on the rear by a westie who charged up to it in the park, the cocker looked surprised but he headed right back to his owner. When Heston got humped by an elderly poodle, he didn’t go all Charles Bronson. It’s not appropriate to get humped by an old moth-eaten poodle, but that’s their bad, not yours. When Belle, our shelter guard dog, got inappropriately flirty with him, he growled and told her he didn’t feel like playing grab-a-granny thank you. She didn’t get the hump with him. It ended nicely.

But too many inadequately socialised dogs are unable to handle these inappropriate greetings, and too many dogs expect that they have the right to greet every single dog they ever meet, often with highly inappropriate behaviours.

When those two dogs end up in the park together, it can be catastrophic.

We keep our inadequately socialised dogs on the lead. We muzzle them. We take them out when other dogs or humans aren’t about. We do our best because we know our dog is unpredictable and perhaps unsafe. We dread the cheery approach of an off-lead dachshund who has no recall at all. We dread the owner who shouts, “Don’t worry! He’s friendly!”

It only takes a muzzle bop, a failed clasp on the lead, a broken buckle on a harness, a slip of the hand, a moment where we think we’re alone and we’ve let our dogs off-lead to be dogs, and we end up in the papers and on the end of a lawsuit.

Now I keep my dogs on-lead around other dogs. It’s not that my dogs are unpredictable. They are totally predictable. Heston will flirt with the girls and fluff his tail up for the boys. He’ll play chase with willing dogs or growl and back off with others. Tilly will bark if anyone looks at her, and hide behind me. Flika will kiss and move on (she’s so French!) and Amigo will wag and stand still, but worry all the same. That’s predictable.

But if they are constantly approached by hooligans, their feelings about other dogs might well change. Heston would be more guarded, more barky, more growly. Tilly will just be more and more anxious. Flika grumbled at a dog who tried to hump her because she’s old and arthritic. Amigo would growl and grumble. And if all they meet are Tarzans and Tarzanitas who have no idea that some greetings are inappropriate, who are really, really well-practised at those horrible inappropriate greetings, MY dogs will end up being dog-reactive or dog-aggressive. I can see the look now that says, “but that dog JUST WOULDN’T LISTEN!”

No wonder we have so many ‘dog-aggressive’ or ‘reactive’ dogs!

So what causes this? How do we avoid these situations?

The first is in ONLY socialising our puppies. By this, I mean the kind of puppyhood where puppy meets loads of other puppies and they play-play-play. They interact with every puppy they meet. Their rate of interaction is 100%. Every single dog is a nose-to-nose social encounter. Puppies who grow up thinking you need to or you can greet every single dog you see on the street. These are puppies who have interacted with every single dog they’ve ever met, until they’re five months old and then we put them on the lead. No wonder they are frustrated and don’t understand!

A second cause is that they are ONLY socialised with other puppies. For young dogs who don’t learn than you don’t hump or face-bite elderly, arthritic spaniels, that you don’t play rough with adults, that you can’t grab scruffs and skirts of all other dogs you feel like, they don’t learn appropriate contact with adult dogs. In not meeting a full range of adult dogs, and a full range of breeds of adult dogs, they never learn the nuances and shades of canine behaviour. A young dog should meet grumpy old grumblers and they should experience dogs who tell them politely to disengage. Some dogs are going to need a bit of help from their humans knowing that when a dog is giving you signals, you don’t keep going in. I’ve had puppies here – terriers mainly – who at 7 weeks old already need help understanding (even from their mum!) that a growl is a growl and means disengage. These are the ones I’ve had to forcibly remove from dancing round Tobby and Amigo, and also the ones who Tilly will have a full-on shout at, then they run away whimpering! Socialising puppies with adult dogs (and ones from different breeds) means that they are exposed to a full range of canine behaviour, not just ‘play-play-brawl’ from other puppies, turning them into play junkies.

The third cause is thinking that socialisation needn’t go past the home or familiar dogs. For dogs who don’t have experience of unfamiliar adult dogs, they aren’t aware of all the ways a dog they meet might behave. Too often, many people in multi-dog homes think that their dogs are socialised. Nope. They’re social with familiar animals. They need to meet unfamiliar animals too.

The fourth is that some dogs don’t get socialised at all once they leave their family group. They may get used to seeing other dogs on the lead at a distance, but they don’t have experience of actual interaction. They live as isolated animals, on their own, without much interaction with dogs at all. Other dogs are treated as Heston treats cows: other stuff on four legs that move, but that I don’t need to interact with. So when a dog does try to interact with them, appropriately or not, they then turn all Charles Bronson. They haven’t learned that a growl is a useful communication device. Heston is very good at the growl. His growl means he doesn’t have to get to a bite. In all of his more complex interactions, he has never got to using teeth, even with some very challenging behaviour.

These approaches cause all manner of problems, from puppies who grow up into adult dogs who expect every other dog to play with them to puppies who grow up into adult dogs who have no real experience of other dogs.

So what do puppies need to learn?

  1. They need to learn to get used to and habituate to the presence of all sorts of other dogs without interacting with them. That includes dogs going bonkers to meet them on leads, aggressive dogs behind fences, dogs walking by on the lead, dogs in classes, dogs in cars, dogs off-lead who run up and bugger off… Our puppies need to grow up learning that they don’t need to or have the right to engage with every other dog they meet. We need our dogs growing up understanding that they don’t have to greet other dogs – that the presence of other dogs doing whatever dogs might do is nothing special. We do this all the time with other animals and moving things that we do not want our dogs to engage with – pigeons, squirrels, cows, sheep, horses, cars, bikes, humans and children – and admittedly not always very well. But I do expect an off-lead dog to be able to walk past a moving herd of cows without feeling the need to get in there and interact. We should teach our young pups to get used to other dogs and not greet them at all.
  2. They need to meet adult dogs doing all kinds of other dog stuff. Big dogs, hairy dogs, short-nosed dogs, dogs with flop ears, dogs with pricked ears, dogs with tails, dogs without, young dogs, ancient dogs. Dogs walking, dogs sleeping, dogs running, dogs playing, dogs on lead.
  3. We especially need to socialise our dogs if their breed description includes words like ‘suspicious of strangers’ or ‘aloof’. Cane Corsos don’t need to end up being arseholes to inappropriate Jack Russells. We also need to help our dogs disengage if they’re breeds that come with labels like ‘persistent’, ‘stubborn’, ‘determined’…. even my dictionary describes terriers as ‘tenacious’. Dogs like this need to know how to approach gently  and politely, and to listen to the grumbles of an old bitey malinois. Teaching them to disengage in play when called is crucial.

I firmly believe that we miss out one of those three steps sometimes – and it can be entirely accidental – and it causes no end of problems.

It’s a lot to ask, I know. Puppies have such a short window of socialisation that it can be impossible to fit it all in.

I know what I did wrong with Heston: he didn’t ever learn until much later in life that he doesn’t have to interact with every other dog he sees. And it’s an uphill battle once you have a frustrated dog on a lead. I wish I had spent a few sessions gradually decreasing the distance between him and a lot of on-lead dogs that he had no need and no right to engage with, as well as giving him exposure at a distance to dogs being dog-arseholes – fence-running, barking on lead – so that he learned he didn’t need to reciprocate.

Tilly was never mine as a pup, but she needed much more exposure to other dogs who she was supposed to actually socialise with. She has little idea about canine play, for example, and it makes her worry when she sees playing dogs. She alarm barks and quite obviously feels uncomfortable: that is the experience of a dog who has never seen other dogs play. Amigo is exactly the same. My former foster Effel was the same too. Dollars to donuts, all of them grew up without sufficient interaction with unfamiliar dogs. How do you grow up not knowing what play is and what a fight is? I see this all the time with dogs who have no idea what canine play is, who are alarmed by it, who are distressed by it, who don’t play-bow or have a play face, and don’t have the skills to play. All three of these dogs have real issues with off-lead dogs who approach them. They don’t want to interact. They don’t want to say hi. They are the kind of dogs who happily pootle along (or in Effel’s case, run like an out-of-control steamroller) and see another dog in the distance without changing that distance at all. They aren’t scared of other dogs: they don’t retreat. But they don’t charge up either. I’d see this as a taught skill except for the fact that all three are unable to read other dogs’ body language and all three have quite clearly much less experience with what other dogs might do. It’s why they are okay with friendly fosters I bring home, but I could never bring one home for remedial socialisation. Dogs who are lacking in social experiences themselves are not the ones to teach others. This is vital if you have a herding breed too. The last thing you want is play that looks far too much like predation. Effel’s only play style was ‘chase’ – and once or twice ‘chase/grab’ – he had no role reversal. You can see that here:

See how he bounces up to Bandit, who’s play crouching, jumps at him, does a lovely ‘wait’, but then finds Effel doesn’t shift roles. Bandit’s hanging around waiting to see what happens next – maybe Effel will play ‘chase me!’ but Effel never plays ‘chase me!’ only ‘chase you!’ He even walks nicely round the back of Bandit, waiting for him to move, then looks back to me. When they get spooked by Heston peeing on the bush, Bandit clearly shows that he doesn’t want to play chase, and Effel comes back to me – why I say ‘Good boy!’

Can you see why, when you have a predatory herding breed that weighs 50kg, you want them to be okay around small dogs? If you don’t want to spend your life standing in the garden supervising, then that’s going to be vital.

Flika, my current foster, and my old mali Tobby who died a couple of years ago, both needed to learn to habituate to the presence of other dogs without interaction. Other dogs being around does not mean an automatic right to engage, no matter how kissy your greetings. These ‘over-socialised’ dogs who greet 100% nicely in face of some quite overt hostility are great for those dogs who need remedial socialisation: as Flika proved today, when you accidentally fall in a ditch and a young German shepherd bounces you, you need to be able to grumble without getting in a fight. A younger, pain-free Flika would have been perfect to smooth the edges off older dogs who were missing out on interactions. She’s not so biddable that she’ll accept Tarzaning, but at the same time, she’ll play and flirt her way out of situations with dogs who are wary. It would have been nice if both of them didn’t feel the right to engage, but I’d rather an over-social dog with mild lead frustration any day, than a dog who has simply habituated to the presence of dogs at a distance and has no idea how to behave appropriately if they get bounced by a Tigger of a dog.

That balance is vital.

The biggest problem with socialisation and habituation is that we don’t get the balance right, or that we miss out one or the other. We see everything about interaction – which is not how the real world works. For many of our dogs in the shelter, they are neither habituated to other dogs, nor socialised with other dogs. When you grow up in isolation or in a small family group, that will happen. If you only ever see on-lead dogs at a distance in the park, what will you do when you are dive-bombed by a love-giddy setter? If you only ever knew puppy play, why would you expect an adult dog to behave with aggression when you nip their cheek? If you expect to socialise with every dog you meet, why wouldn’t you be frustrated on lead when you see a dog in the distance and you can’t charge up to say hi?

If we got that balance right, if we habituated our dogs to the presence of other dogs as well as socialising them, if we do both, then we’re less likely to end up with the dogs who don’t handle greetings well through frustration, or dogs who respond inappropriately when they see a dog in the distance. For most of our dogs in the shelter, a little bit of socialisation – anything at all – would have gone a long way.

Getting that balance means our dogs will have a much better understanding of the world around them and much less stress about seeing other dogs. They’ll know how to behave without getting in fights, how to greet appropriately and also how to watch other dogs doing their thing without the need to go over and greet them.

Easy in theory, at least!