Remedial Socialisation for Dog-Reactive Dogs

Coming out of the other side of a pandemic, I’m getting a lot of clients whose dogs are reactive to other dogs. If they’re on lead, they’re barking and lunging; if they’re off lead, they’re racing up to other dogs for some pretty hair-raising greetings.

Guardians inevitably have an internal discussion with themselves about whether it’s reactivity, fear or aggression. They also have a discussion about whether the lead is causing the problem. Many guardians, knowing that the lead or fence seems to be making it worse, take their dog to classes for socialisation, on social walks or also to dog parks, often on the advice of random people on social media.

Let’s get the myths out of the way first. There’s first a myth that you can take a dog who has few social graces and turn them into a social dog. Second, there’s a myth that more social experiences will help do that.

What do we know for sure?

First, that the experiences a dog has from 3-13 weeks set the rules. After that window, they’re learning exceptions to the rule, which makes it slower and harder if the dog didn’t learn that other dogs are okay. What a puppy learns during this brief period sets their rules for their experiences and teaches them how to behave in different contexts.

Most people’s error is to think that a dog who has experience of litter mates or other dogs in the home is a dog who’ll be okay with unfamiliar dogs. Those are very different skills. Dogs who are ‘social’ with other dogs in the home don’t think of other dogs outside the home as being the same. They know how to behave with the family group but that doesn’t mean they know how to behave with other dogs.

Of course, trying to socialise a puppy also clashes with vet guidance about vaccinations, which makes it tougher, but behavioural euthanasia is a huge reason dogs don’t make it past their third birthday, so you need to check with your vet about current disease risks and balance this with finding some way to make sure that during this brief period (largely from 6-13 weeks) your dog actually sees or smells (if not interacting with) unfamiliar dogs in a non-threatening way. There are so many ways you can do this but I thoroughly recommend you read Eileen Anderson’s and Marge Rogers’ book Puppy Socialisation.

What happens after 13 weeks is really about confirming the rule or learning exceptions. If you learned that other dogs are scary during that short period, then you’re going to be learning exceptions to that. ‘All dogs are scary… except that one… okay, except that one… alright, not that one.’

If you don’t see other dogs during that time, they also pass into the ‘unknown, probably scary’ category too.

But if you learn ‘other dogs are fun!’ then that’s your general rule.

If you learn ‘I’ve got the automatic right to play with every dog I meet’, then that’s your rule. It’s going to be pretty frustrating when your dog realises at 16 weeks that you’re trying to impose an ‘okay, not that one’ rule. ‘And not that one either. No, not that one either’.

Of course, things are worsened by the fact that social and sexual maturity for dogs (and people) don’t happen at the same time. Like humans, sexual maturity may happen relatively early – way before social maturity. There aren’t exact figures because it depends on breed and size and lots of other things that affect sexual maturity, but usually that happens somewhere between 9 months and 3 years for dogs. And social maturity happens later – often between 18 months and 4 years. That means for a lot of our dogs, hormones are engaged when social inhibition isn’t at its best, or we start messing with hormones in sterilising dogs too. We’re also messing with breed and behaviour without really knowing what we’re up to, and that complicates things as well.

By and large, as a simple rule of thumb, I work off the principle that if you have a breed described as loyal or aloof, then you need to make sure you pay extra special attention to the breeder and the early experiences and how you’re socialising your puppy before 13 weeks or so.

Pretty much everything afterwards is remedial or learning exceptions.

Not only that, but many people only realise their dog has a problem when their dog is a teenager. Then you’re also trying to do this remedial socialisation at absolutely the worst time in the dog’s life.

You’re in a bind, because if you leave it, the situation will likely get worse, and if you try to tackle things, you could make it worse as well.

Many people take their undersocialised or inadequately socialised or even inappropriately socialised teenage dog and try to put them in with other dogs in the desperate hope that they’ll learn something.

Many people do this, but I’m going to court controversy and explain why I rarely do. Let me also add that I’m not talking about easy dogs who just need a bit more socialisation having had a bit of a rocky start, but who have already fifty or more greetings under their belt that went okay. I’m also not talking about dogs who are a low risk and have a relatively positive history. I’m not talking about dogs who occasionally bark or lunge. Putting them in with an experienced and well-managed dog group may be all they need.

I’m talking about dogs who always bark and lunge at others. Dogs who are so sensitive to the presence of others that they’re barking and lunging fifty metres away. Dogs who can’t be interrupted and are not interested in distraction.

There are many problems with putting dogs in need of socialisation in, unmanaged, with other dogs. One is that it depends on the social skills of the other dogs. If the other dogs are young as well, then you’re potentially risking a single learning event for them that will traumatise both dogs. Also, you’re putting the most delicate job of all in the hands of dogs whose own social development is not yet complete. That’s like my mum hoping I’d learn social skills from all the metalhead friends I had when I was 15. In fact, they taught me well, but it was more of a happy accident than purposeful socialising. I’d argue that I actually did pretty well because I had to go to school and learn how to interact with those people, and I had jobs, so I had to learn how to be with adults too. If you want your dog to end up like a Lord of the Flies maniac dog, then by all means, let them hang around with other dogs who are at the same development point.

If the dogs you’re putting your unsocialised dog in with are much older, you’re possibly putting an exuberant and difficult dog in with dogs who have health issues and are protective of themselves. That’d be like hoping my mum’s knitting circle would have been a great place to socialise the teenage me.

Not only that, but I don’t think dogs should have to carry the burden for mistakes in socialisation that human beings have caused. It’s not fair on those dogs. They didn’t sign up for being a guinea pig in your attempt to resocialise a dog who’s like a canine equivalent of Jack and his choristers in Lord of the Flies. So often, we can be really selfish about the needs of one dog without considering our absolute obligation to the others.

Another issue is that dogs who are truly frustrated on lead – and only frustrated, not fearful or aggressive – can you explain to me how letting them off lead helps them cope with social frustration of being on lead? You’re letting a gauche and naive dog self-reinforce or manage the situation in whatever way they see fit. Like it or not, you can’t let your dog off lead for the rest of their life just because you haven’t taught them how to cope with frustration yet. If you keep letting frustrated dogs off lead instead of teaching them how to deal better with the frustration of NOT being able to engage with other dogs, well, you’re never going to resolve their problem.

And yes, that’s YOUR job. You’re the dog’s family and the dog’s teacher. Most animals in the wild learn to cope with frustration of hunger or being thwarted in social greetings in ways that are often violent and inappropriate. Adult wolves, for instance, aren’t expected to socialise with other groups of adult wolves. Grown bears aren’t going around hanging about with other grown bears. Not unless it’s for reproductive purposes or to acquire territory or a mate. The animal world is not rife with frustrated social contact as it is for our dogs. Our expectations are insanely high. It is our responsibility then to help our dogs cope with the frustration and complicated feelings of meeting unfamiliar dogs. What are you going to do if you see a dog on the other side of a busy road? Let your dog off lead and dodge traffic just so they won’t feel frustrated?

Hoping they’ll just magically one day stop being frustrated and control their impulses by letting them throw themselves at other dogs, well, you need to follow a human about for a day and find out how they cope with frustration, and then ask yourself if we can truly expect a dog with a tiny cortex to do the same. I got beeped and sworn at the other day because I didn’t know where I was and I dropped to 25 from 30 to read the name on a street. I literally inconvenienced the person for less than 10 seconds and he had a red-faced shouty, sweary meltdown. So don’t expect dogs to do what humans struggle with.

Also, if you reinforce your dog’s behaviour by letting them access every single other dog they compulsively feel they have to ‘say hello’ to, then you’re building a behaviour you really don’t want and making it more likely they’ll be even more frustrated should you need to keep a lead on them. If you can’t let your dog off lead to run across a busy main road, you also don’t want your dog going nuts on lead only metres from the bumper of some big Discovery or Land Cruiser going 50. Your dog is going to be the bane of somebody else’s life, if not get into an accident.

Besides being a heavy burden on all the other dogs and not helping dogs cope with frustration, letting them off lead to ‘socialise’ them has other potential consequences as well. If we’ve made a mistake and they’re actually not just frustrated or needing to cope with greetings by bounding up to others, and they’re really truly struggling, what we’re doing is putting a potentially aggressive dog into a situation where they can really do some damage. At best, they feel ambivalent about other dogs. If all we’re doing is throwing them to the dogs, quite literally, then all they’re learning is basic survival skills for greetings. Often, that’s going to involve even more hair-raising events.

It reminds me of a story. Once, I was talking to a lady about the number of drunk drivers in her area. She admitted her husband drove drunk on occasion. She explained that everything was okay as other drivers avoided him. You see how this goes. One day, he got in an accident with another drunk driver who was relying on him to avoid him. One day, your ambivalent and unsocialised dog is going to run into another ambivalent and unsocialised dog. And then what?

Hoping for the best isn’t enough. I know sometimes that people find willing friends. I know dog trainers – like me – who use their own dogs from time to time. Hoping for the best with a friend’s dog or a client’s dog is not okay. Not where other people’s dogs are involved. If you wouldn’t do it with another client’s dog as the guinea pig, you really need to ask yourself why it’d be okay to use one of your own. I’ll explain shortly how I have involved my own dogs in the process.

Letting frustrated dogs off lead because they can’t cope with frustration also becomes the bane of other dog guardians’ lives. Twice in the last six months, an off lead dog whose guardian was busy yelling how ‘friendly’ their dog was has bounded up to my dogs. Luckily, Heston is still healthy enough to handle it and I’m usually able to restrain Lidy and let Heston pick up the slack to protect my girl from the one thing she fears most: aggressive, unsocialised Tarzan dogs bounding up to her just like those dogs do. That ‘friendly’ dog has then gone on to start being a complete arse around Heston, a much larger dog who could easily kill them. I have to keep Lidy muzzled because other people don’t understand their own dogs. She’s not muzzled for her own sake. She’s muzzled for theirs.

That brings me to muzzles. Now I am a fan of muzzles, and Lidy wears a muzzle a lot – to the extent it’s usually not an issue for her on walks and it’s just another piece of kit. What I see though are people forcing muzzles on dogs – or, at least, racing through the process of habituating the dog to a muzzle – and then throwing the dogs in the deep end. This is a bad idea because that dog is then unable to react should they need to. Once, we housed Lidy with a large German Shepherd when she was in kennels. It wasn’t my choice and we were full. She’s the one who lacks in social graces, yet he’s the one who picked a fight with her, flattened her and pinned her to the floor when another dog went past. If she’d been muzzled, we’ve effectively removed her ability to protect herself. A muzzle says you realise things could go pear-shaped. If you’re considering muzzles, I think you need to take a step back in your training.

Muzzles also put us into a state of false comfort about physical fallout and we don’t consider the emotional fallout. We are so sure that the dog will be unable to bite that we put them in with dogs where we’re worried what the outcome will be. We flood them. We dump them in, take away their teeth, hoping that they’ll get over their fears or frustrations or lack of social skills and just, miraculously, magically ‘get better’. We forget that a) this puts the dog in past their comfort levels b) it risks muzzle punches and one-sided fights where the dogs aren’t evenly matched c) encourages people to take a shortcut to muzzle training and d) doesn’t teach them how to manage their emotions other than some kind of weird trial by fire. Also, muzzles come off. Some muzzles can be bitten through. Fixed muzzles are easier to get off and soft muzzles or biothane muzzles are easy to bite through. Ultimately, muzzles allow us to flood the dog knowing that we’ve prevented physical injury. However, it also allows us to put aside the needs of the other dogs, as well as the emotional consequences of flooding, potentially doing a lot of damage.

Ultimately, unless your dog is happy in a muzzle, you’re potentially wasting eight weeks of extensive training on muzzles that you could be putting into lead frustration and working around other dogs. It adds an obstacle rather than taking one away, unless you’re going to force your dog into a muzzle quicker than they can cope with. Then, they’ve got to greet dogs who they feel ambivalent about at best as well as wearing a muzzle they don’t like. How can we on the one hand say, ‘Oh the lead changes their behaviour and makes them more…’ and then think a muzzle is absolutely fine, never altering the dog’s behaviour? As a regular muzzle user, I’ll tell you how muzzles affect Lidy. She’s totally aware of wearing it in situations where she might want her teeth. Instead of lunging, snapping and biting, she cowers, tail between her legs. I can’t understand how we’re swapping one piece of equipment that changes behaviour for another piece of equipment that also changes behaviour – a piece of equipment most of the dogs aren’t used to in the first place. I’ll tell you something for nothing: nobody – literally nobody – muzzles their dog as much as they should. We humans have got issues about that. Most dogs arrive for their trial by fire with issues about their muzzle as well.

So is there any hope for a dog who is reactive to others or who can’t cope on a lead – whether through fear, lack of choice or frustration?

Yes. But the outcome depends.

First it depends on their age and how long they’ve been practising the behaviour. Second, it depends on their genetics and their social experiences so far in life. You need a thorough, robust risk assessment. If you’ve got – heaven forbid! – a very young dog-reactive scent hound who has good social skills with the dogs they live with but they’re trouble with unfamiliar dogs, then there’s a good prognosis. If you’ve got an old, grumpy terrier who’s lived on his own since he was eight weeks, who has terrible social skills and an absolute litany of fights under his belt, then not only is there a poor prognosis, but there’s perhaps also not the same need. A six-month-old dog has a need to learn how to behave around other dogs. A twelve-year-old dog … well, you’ve managed so far. If you are unsure if remedial socialisation is for your dog, go to a professional who can help you carry out a robust risk assessment taking into account your dog’s prior history.

The second, and I am absolutely firm on this, is that throwing your dog in with the dogs is completely and utterly off the table. I don’t care if you have the most amazing group of stooge dogs, demo dogs and nanny dogs in the world. It is not THEIR job to teach a frustrated, fearful or aggressive dog how to speak dog. Now I know I am risk averse and most people haven’t seen the number of fights I have, but if your dog is frustrated on the lead, then they need to learn how to cope with frustration and they need to learn how to behave around other dogs without interacting with them.

That is my bottom line. You don’t pass into remedial socialisation until you know how not to be a dick on the lead when you see other dogs.

With a good programme, we shouldn’t be talking more than three to six months. That may need medication on board as well as modification and management.

If your dog can’t cope with seeing other dogs when they’re restrained, then that’s a skill they need to learn. I know that may be controversial and I know some people might see that as adding another level of skill on, that dogs can sort it out themselves, that 99% of fights aren’t that bad. I’m glad that you’ve not seen the damage dogs can do to each other through a combination of bad genetics and poor socialisation. But if your dog can’t cope with seeing other dogs when they’re on lead, I’m afraid sooner or later you’re going to have to master that anyway. Life is not a dog park. How are you going to even get into the dog park if your dog can’t cope on a lead with dogs who are behind a barrier and in a dog park?

Once you’ve got your head on board with that, life isn’t too tough. There are at least twenty posts I’ve written in the past six months or more on how to modify antisocial or frustrated behaviour around other dogs. Between understanding threshold, using a stimulus gradient, desensitisation, counterconditioning, selecting the right training method, management, distraction and avoidance skills and operant counterconditioning, you’ve got all you need to retrain a dog.

That might take 12 – 24 weeks of work, depending on the dog’s health, lifestyle, history, genetics and their guardian’s level of skill.

Only then will you move up to putting them in with other dogs.

At this point, you may be considering whether to muzzle or not. I’d say if you’ve been through the training programme, if you’ve selected the right dogs and environment to do this next step in, you won’t need a muzzle. By this point, the dogs I’m working with are relaxed around other dogs on lead or under control off lead who don’t approach.

The best step I’ve found next is to get them into a well-managed class with some older, larger, opposite sex, calmer dogs who are busy doing stuff. If your dog would find that too tough, you’re not ready yet. The other dogs can be off lead and doing active stuff with their guardians by all means. A couple of weeks of training around dogs who are occupied and don’t attempt to engage can also be put on a stimulus gradient too. You can be working nearer and nearer, the dogs almost side by side at points, and you should still have a calm and relaxed dog. Then you stretch out the ‘unoccupied time’. It depends on how things are going, but it’s an easy step from there to being off lead while the other dogs are on lead, or being on lead while the other dogs are off (but with rocket recall or long lines). Then you mix up the class with younger on-lead dogs and livelier dogs, same sex dogs, smaller dogs, larger dogs… you start to generalise. All being well, you won’t need to vary the class too much. This way is much more humane than ramming them all in together and blindly, naively, hoping for the best. It takes longer, I know, but it actually re-teaches the dog, rather than hoping for the best and putting your faith in random dogs to teach your dogs. Matching dogs up is an art. We learn that at the shelter where our dogs are kept in pairs, and also in pairing up our dogs with the dogs of our future adopting families. Our shelter director – like me – is firmly of the opinion that muzzles and leads alter things. She’d be happier with letting the dogs manage things themselves – of course she would. I’m not but I respect her stance. She has an ethology background and she knows dogs. She knows how anxieties pass down leads and how frustration complicates things. Yet, at the same time, off-lead greetings don’t happen. No matter what your best instincts are about dogs, safety is the first priority. Respecting the other dogs is right alongside it. It is totally and utterly unethical to put inexperienced dogs in with just any old dog in any old circumstance. I’m sad to say I know of dog training classes where trainers let their clients’ dogs take on the burden of socialising naive adult dogs. To take a risk with our clients’ dogs is another thing altogether.

Now I have used my dogs in the past in training scenarios. I will do again when I have the right dogs; currently Heston is unwell and Lidy is the last dog in the world who should be a guinea pig. Flika was a wonderful demo dog. So was Amigo. But I will say this… I worked long and hard with my clients on training their dogs, desensitising them, counterconditioning them, helping them feel okay around other dogs… and then, and only then, did I work well below everybody’s thresholds – humans and dogs alike.

Dog-dog aggression has the least positive outcome in ‘solving’ aggression – unless you add in predatory behaviour which is much tougher. Of course that varies from dog to dog. It’s dependent on numerous factors. Whether you think the dog is frustrated or fearful or lacking in social skills, there are too many moving parts and uncontrollable variables to leave remedial socialisation to the whims of two dogs – one of whom needs work. Absolutely, your clients will want to work quickly and will want to see outcomes. If we aren’t explaining the risks to our clients in ways that help them understand why it’s going to take six months or a year until their dog will be off-lead with a handful of carefully selected other dogs, then we run the risk of lawsuits and injuries on our consciences – if not worse. There are so many nuances to putting remedial groups together that you really need to find a more experienced trainer (or refer to one if you are that trainer yourself) if you’re thinking you should rip the plaster off, stick a muzzle on the dog and hope for the best with a few of your mates’ dogs.

At the very least, make sure all humans have also done a defensive handling course and know how to break up dog fights. Often, it’s not the dogs who are injured but the humans who try to separate them. Remedial socialisation is absolutely possible and is certainly the aim of many of my training programmes. Lockdown has meant I’ve got a few young teenagers on my books right now who’ll be aiming to be okay around other dogs and even mingle with them – hell, perhaps even play with them one day. But at the same time, I know and accept that remedial socialisation is not for all. Some of our dogs will need small worlds, and that is fine.

A trial by fire is not the way forward.

A muzzled trial by fire isn’t much better. It might end up less bloody if we’re lucky, but trauma doesn’t have to be physical to have consequences.

That’s as true if the dog is just frustrated or if the dog is fearful. It’s as true for dogs who are just barking and lunging as it is for dogs who are snapping, fighting and biting. Emotions running rampant lead to bad decisions. That’s as true for humans as it is for dogs.

Remedial socialisation is a fine art. It can easily go very wrong. It is hands down the most difficult, nuanced and complex training procedure that a dog trainer will ever undertake. To be blasé about that can have very serious consequences. It’s much easier to teach dogs to cope with frustration, to learn a little bit of control, to feel safe in spaces where there are other dogs and to cope when they see one. If the only reason you are considering remedial socialisation is to help your dog cope with undersocialised dogs who rampage up to them when out in public, ask yourself if that 1 hour a day is worth this very intensive programme. If you’re running into objectionable off-lead dogs every day, it’s well worth contacting a trainer or behaviour consultant who specialises in aggression as they’ll be able to teach you coping skills as well as help you find places and times where you can exercise your dogs safely. Most of us only need our dogs to be okay from time to time. I can count on one hand the places I’ve faced off-lead dogs who were out of control in the last five years, and I walk Lidy every day.

Ultimately, there will always be idiots. I was walking my two (on-lead, of course) at a French service station in the lorry car park. We were 10m from lorries going 110km and cars going 130km. Some nutcase had an aggressive off-lead labrador with no recall who charged up to us. That guy had a jet ski and an unsupervised toddler wandering around in a service station, so I don’t think he was blessed with risk aversion. Putting Lidy through a years-long socialisation programme that may never truly work so she can cope with the very occasional dogs of blokes who think off-lead dogs with no recall are safe on motorway service stations is not the way forward. All the training we’d done and it was little more than a simulation for my dogs who recovered admirably within minutes. I’m still angry about it, but that’s another story. Right now, we live 10m from a French bulldog, 50m from an Australian shepherd and some little scruffy ball of fluff. Two shih tzus live 100m away. We are in the most dog-heavy environment that Lidy has been in since the shelter. There haven’t been incidents. No barking. No lunging. No hackles raised. No off-lead dogs charging up to us. What I needed – and what many of my clients need – is a way to cope with other dogs that doesn’t cause them embarrassment and doesn’t cause their dog frustration. They don’t want years of delicate stooge groups and intensive remedial education for their singleton dog. Often, throwing dogs in with the dogs, trials by fire, are not actually what clients need or want. We want dogs who can cope in the vets. We want dogs who can cope with the odd off-lead dog. We want dogs who aren’t trying to tear down doors like Jack Nicholson in The Shining just because they heard the neighbour’s dog. We may want to be able to let our dogs off lead around others and be able to call them back (I don’t!) but these are not skills that happen through hapless trials by fire.

Remedial socialisation should always be something we consider for dogs who react to unfamiliar dogs. It should always be the end-goal if the dog is young, in my opinion. But it is so dependent on the dog that if you have a blanket policy, it will end up being torn up eventually. Not only that, it’s hands down the hardest situation dog trainers and behaviour consultants will ever manage, so it’s worth passing on to someone who has bags and bags of successful outcomes with both remedial socialisation and also with helping dogs cope on lead. Often, trainers who bang a muzzle on (and, worse, shock collars, or rely on punishers) and then leave it to the dogs to teach each other are rushing the dog, pushing the dog too fast and actually not that skilled at dealing with on-lead frustration. It’s worth asking how many successful outcomes the trainer has had with on-lead frustration too. In many ways, I would expect them to be incredibly successful at helping dogs manage their emotions. I do a hell of a lot of this, and not so much of the remedial socialisation.

Remedial socialisation is one time it pays to be cautious and, if you think you are going too slow, slow down. It really makes me itchy when I see dogs left to their own devices and literally thrown in with the dogs. It doesn’t have to be this way and it relies on luck rather than skill.

I realise that guardians may push dog trainers into moving faster or initiating remedial socialisation groups. If you’re a dog trainer and you’re struggling to help your client set realistic and achievable goals and build sensible habits, feel free to check out my book!