In today’s post, I want to speak a little more about socialization. I’ve written about how almost every dog trainer hates dog parks, but I want to get a little deeper and help people understand what we’re trying to do with socialization. I talk about what not to do, but that doesn’t give a lot of information on what to do. When you understand the purpose behind socialization, it’s easier to know what to do. It’s very hard to accomplish something when you’re just being told “do this” and “do that.” Knowing the core principle makes it easier to figure out what’s best for you and your dog.
“Socialization” is a misused term, and the process itself is often done improperly. When someone gets a puppy or rescues a dog, they think they need to go to the dog park or to a neighbor’s park to get socialized. Most people want their dogs to get around stuff and interact with it. They want their dogs to play and have a good time enjoying those things, whether it’s other dogs or neighbors or children.
That isn’t wrong on its face. But there’s a more complete definition of socialization. We want our dogs’ socialization to quite closely parallel our socialization. In understanding that, we see that the purpose of socialization should be teaching dogs to leave things alone! I know that goes against what every owner—and a lot of trainers—there says, but good socialization ensures that a dog’s primary response is to leave things alone.
Think about it: what goes on in your environment When you’re in line at the grocery store, you don’t need to play with the people around you. You shouldn’t just strike up a game of tic-tac-toe. If you’re driving you should ignore other cars, not signal out the window to get the other drivers’ attention so you can ask them to play later. We don’t touch other people’s houses, cars, or wallets. The list goes on and on. The majority of dogs that you encounter, you should leave alone. You don’t know if they’re scared, anxious, or aggressive. When you encounter people and animals, you should mostly just leave them alone. Most things we encounter in this world should be left alone. If we constantly tried to interact with everything we come across, that would be a problem. The overwhelming majority people don’t work that way. Humans don’t communicate with everyone they meet.
Yet this is exactly what many people expect of their dogs. They want their dog to see another dog and immediately go over to play with them, even though they don’t know if the other dog is aggressive or anxious or mean. Why would you want your dog to interact with that? You don’t know if the people that you come across have good dog sense, so why would you want them petting your dog?
Your dog’s socialization should mirror yours. The overwhelming majority should be structure- and control-based, teaching the dog to exist in the human world and leave stuff alone. Dogs do not need constant engagement with the environment to be happy—in fact, it often prevents them from being happy. If they’re constantly looking for a dog or squirrel or person to interact with, then they have serious problems and need to learn how to chill!
Your primary focus should be on teaching the dog to relax and leave stuff alone. Is there a place to play with other dogs? Of course! Humans go to parties, play pick-up basketball, get together with family at Thanksgiving, and go to the lake with friends on the weekend—all things that we do simply for fun and interaction with other people. There is a time for that, and it gives us balance. But if that all we’re doing is looking for the next big adrenaline high, then we’ll run into problems. So will our dogs.
Teach your dog how to have fun in an appropriate way, but recognize what the ratio should be: heavily weighted toward calmness, structure, and existence without messing with the environment.