Socialising an adult dog
Help! My adult dog needs socialising.
Now this is statement I hear a lot, usually the conversation starts off:
Owner: I’m interested in some dog training
Me: That’s great! Would you prefer a group course or a one to one?
Owner: Group classes, my dog needs to get used to other dogs
Me: Can you explain what he does around other dogs?
Owner: Well he barks jumps and lunges. I don’t think he would bite but he does snap.
Me: It sounds like he is getting a bit stressed out bless him. I would highly recommend a behaviour consultation to fully assess his behaviour and devise an appropriate treatment plan for him…
Owner: No thank you, he just needs to be with other dogs.
Unfortunately that dog is unlikely to learn in a class environment as he will be over-threshold by simply being in the room and when a dog is over aroused they are not in the right frame of mind for learning. Learning happens in a mind that is still engaged. It's important to start teaching the dog new behaviours while he is still under threshold—and that's not going to be in a room with five other new dogs. Furthermore, it can put other dogs at risk of a bad experience. Also, it’s important to remember that technically socialisation only occurs in puppies under 16 weeks, during their critical period and afterwards you would need to use desensitisation and counter-conditioning to change your dog’s perception for other dogs.
When a dog snaps at other dogs it is most likely to be fear related and caused by underlying emotions that need to be assessed to then address the issue rather than try to train manners to a dog that is scared.
If your dog is simply too excited then training courses can be useful to them to practice focus however a one to one session would still be advised to give you the necessary methods to help your dog focus before joining in a class.
Before lockdown, I had a client who did not want to waste time on a foundation lesson, who wanted to have the first lesson in the trigger situation. I explained that this was equivalent to taking a brand-new student driver onto a country road and then trying to explain gear shifts, turn signals, and left and right pedals—all at 60 mph. It's essential to have skills under stress; therefore, you have to learn them before you're under stress.
Therefore it is important to train the basic skills first whilst under threshold.
So we worked together for few weeks to practice the basic skills first and to improve his general manners and the owner’s confidence in handling their dog. She was amazed when he stayed calm, focused and walked pass (at a distance) other dogs. In a few more sessions this Labrador was able to settle outside in a park whilst children played in a play park and Scrumpy ran around him.
Not everyone recognises the necessity of a foundation and of incremental steps.
Instead, well-meaning owners, often thinking they're doing the right thing in "socialising," put their dogs (and other humans and dogs) in unfair situations—and sometimes even in danger in:
popular walking/running/biking trails
pet fairs and festivals
Most of these environments violate key points of the good-socialisation checklist: the dog has no escape route and he cannot chose to leave. Many people won't leave the trail mid-run or go home from the street fair after only twenty minutes if the dog is overwhelmed. So, the exposure continues and the dog gets more aroused. By the end he is really confirmed in his reactions.
That family that has gone for a walk in a park or a picnic etc, did not sign up to rehabilitate a troubled dog; they came to enjoy a social outing. Putting a stressed dog in their midst neither helps the dog nor enhances attendees' enjoyment. At best, it only confirms public opinion that dogs are often nuisances and should be banned from public areas. At worst, it creates more problems for the dog and puts others in danger.
If your dog is too aroused and cannot recover, your training isn't yet ready for the scenario.
If you are not willing to retreat if your dog needs it, do not take the dog with you. Period. If your dog is too aroused and cannot recover, your training isn't yet ready for the scenario. You need to quit before you create more problems. End of discussion.
However on a more positive note
There are better ways than to jump right in to group classes or seek crowds of people and other animals. Successful training techniques prevent or solve problems instead of creating them. Appropriate socialisation training proceeds with steps and generalising these behaviour into a range of environments.
As illustrated by my client and her over excited Labrador, private training classes offer a fantastic head-start to socialisation training. In a situation like that one, or any s
ituation where an owner is looking to improve socialisation skills responsibly, a good trainer will suggest a private session. At that initial or evaluation session, the dog starts learning new ways to interact with his environment and his human. Most importantly, he learns how to interrupt his own arousal. The next step is to teach him to choose relaxation in the presence of his triggers (other dogs, humans, etc.). These skills have to be learned before they can be used.
FINALLY, REMEMBER SOCIALISATION REFERS TO PUPPIES
All dogs have a socialisation period for the first 16 weeks of their lives and after this you would need to use desensitisation and counter-conditioning to change your dog’s perception for other dogs.