A Different Perspective on Socializing Your Dog or Puppy in Public
By Adrienne Mesko
When you are out and about with your leashed dog in public, it is very common for people to approach and ask if they can pet your dog, or for them to pet your dog without asking. In almost every case, I do not believe in letting people pet other people's dogs in this situation. I know it is a total bummer to have to tell people no, but it is very important. Your dog should be focused on you, not others. This type of “socialization” is counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst.
In this instance, let's imagine our dogs were our children, and think about how we would feel about it then. Comparing dogs to children can be very helpful, but it is important to always remember that dogs are in fact not children, and have their own unique set of species-specific needs. Though in the case of strangers greeting your dog, I believe the comparison is very helpful.
Imagine if your children were regularly greeted by complete strangers getting on the floor in front of them, touching them, staring at them at length, squealing and baby talking to them, and asking them to do things. You’d think that was pretty weird, right? If for the child’s entire youth they were greeted by overly exuberant strangers touching them...that would make for some pretty strange moments, right? Maybe over time, the child wouldn’t be so thrilled about being out and about. Perhaps the child would become anxious. Or overwhelmed. Or spoiled. Maybe they’d be ok, but would those social interactions be desirable?
It’s ok to greet a dog just by saying “hey fella!” and moving on. It’s not yours to touch, and it’s actually a bit strange to do so to a dog you do not know. It can be exhausting to have to advocate for your dog day in and day out, but it needs to be done. My dogs, your dogs, anyone’s dogs are not there for the enjoyment of strangers. I encourage working on manners and handler focus in public as proper socialization rather than a meet and greet of well intentioned but uninformed dog lovers.
The majority of dog owners struggle with their relationship with their dog in at least some small way. Good, thoughtfully trained obedience brings a common language and an enhanced relationship between dog and owner/handler. Dogs should have at least a few very basic obedience skills- be able to walk politely on a leash, come when called reliably, and have basic manners with people. Teaching a dog to walk nicely with a loose leash becomes a much more difficult task when your dog is used to, and comes to expect interactions with strangers. If the dog enjoys the interaction, over the course of time, seeing people while on leash will be extremely exciting. The dog may pull, bark, whine or jump. When a dog is in that state of mind, it is very difficult to teach them. The problem can get really bad pretty quickly. This over excitement can be a nuisance to the owner and the general public, or in worse cases can turn to dogs biting out of excitement which brings a great amount of conflict to leash walks, and in many cases a leash reactive dog is created.
If the dog does not enjoy the interaction, they may go along with the doting strangers for a little while, until the one day the dog is pushed too far and growls or snaps. This behavior display causes the stranger to move away from the dog. The owner of the dog is often surprised by the behavior, and rushes in the calm the dog and let him know that 'everything is ok.' The owner is effectively rewarding the dog's behavior display. The dog becomes aware of the power of his flash of aggression, how it got him what he wanted with no consequences and maybe even some reinforcement from the owner. The dog will likely try it again, even a bit more assertively the next time he's in the same situation.
So what is good socialization? Good socialization opportunities are everywhere. They key is that YOU are the focus while everything else in the background is pretty much irrelevant. Rewards- treats, affection and praise come from you and you alone. Your dog or puppy is aware of what is going on around you, but it's not particularly important to him, because none of those outside elements are providing rewards. Working on your obedience basics in new settings makes for stronger, more reliable behaviors.
If you already have a dog that is over excited in public, expecting to “meet” other people or dogs, start the process slowly. Rather than taking your dog into the store, work on focus at home first. Then bring your dog to a low distraction environment to start, where others are at a distance away. Build your dog's focus through this process, and gradually you can build up to bringing him in front of the store, and then eventually inside without him losing focus on you. The eventual goal is a dog who is totally neutral to other people, places, and dogs. They exist but they are unimportant. What is now important is his task, which is working with his handler in a calm and focused state of mind. When someone approaches to ask if they can pet your dog, or pets your dog without asking, politely tell them that he is working, smile and move on.