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"HELP! My dog needs to be socialised."

This is something that pops up all the time with most owners. There has been a big push to 'socialise' dogs and this is a great idea. But it's only a great idea if we actually understand what this means.

Let's start by defining what 'socialisation' is and then what it most definitely isn't.

In terms of dog training, socialisation refers to;

the learning process that a puppy must undergo to learn key life skills which ensure that they are happy and confident in their environment, and can communicate effectively within their social group.

This is the definition offered by the UK Kennel club. Notice how it doesn't mention 'playing'. Yes, playing is a social activity but it's not a requirement for a dog to be social or socialising. When dogs are young, similar with children, they are at their most social (typically) and tend to incorporate play with a select group of friends. As dogs mature, their desire to play and socialise diminishes too. This is true of humans as well.

When we think about socialisation we should really try to think of socialisation as habituating our dogs to their every day life - this means to make them become accustomed or used to their surroundings.

We need to consider how we expect our dogs to behave as they grow older and make sure our way of socialising is in line with this. All too often we mistake 'social' behaviour with out of control, over-aroused and a lot of the time simply rude behaviour.

It would not be considered polite or socially appropriate for a child to run up to another child and insist they play with them on their terms and tolerate everything they wanted to do to/with them. We would intervene and stop that child from doing that again no matter how much that child protested and argued that they just wanted to have fun. It's simply inappropriate and 'anti-social' as opposed to 'social' behaviour. We don't want them to grow up thinking this is how they can interact with others.

The same should be true for dogs. We shouldn't allow our dogs to greet every dog they see from the get go. Why? Because as they grow older there will be countless times when it's not appropriate for them to be around other dogs and simply unsafe. If a dog sees another dog across the road and has learnt to say hello to all the dogs they see, this is dangerous for obvious reasons. It's also no a 'life skill' we want them to learn. We want them to be able to see a dog and NOT rush off. So instilling in them from the get go that they can't say hello to every dog is in fact 'socialising' them and allowing them to rush off whenever they want is to the contrary. A lot of the time this creates an over-stimulated dog around others. And again, this isn't social behaviour, it is anti-socail behaviour.

Here's a video breakdown of a potential play session that we didn't allow to go ahead as it was not a reciprocal interaction:

What about dogs that show aggression.

When we have a dog that shows aggression towards other dogs we need to take a lot of things into consideration. Firstly, is the environment suitable for the dog at this stage in their life? If you have a dog that has been in severe dog fights in the past, taking them to a busy dog beach isn't the best idea. It's a disaster waiting to happen. Dogs don't simply grow out of these behaviours or just get over them. They will usually just get better if they are allowed to practice them. So we need to change the environment first - we cannot keep repeating the same thing ie taking them to the same places and expect a different outcome.

Next we need to consider if the aggression is offensive or defensive. Is the dog scared and trying to create distance or is the dog a bit of a bully or even enjoying the combative nature of the interaction.

A dog that is scared of other dogs should not be thrown in the deep end to 'help' them get over things. This usually leads to a cessation in all behaviours and the dog seems to no longer react negatively. However, what is most often occurring is 'learned helplessness'. They are simply shutting down. This is not a good long term solution as they are not learning to cope any better, they are just learning that their warning signs are ignored and so they shut down. It's not good training and it's not fair on the dog either. They need to be slowly exposed at a distance. It may even be that the dog simply doesn't like meeting new dogs and moving forward meeting new dogs will not benefit the dog's life in any way. Then we need to ask ourselves why are we trying to make them okay/tolerate being around strange dogs in the first place.

Offensive aggression can a lot more tricky. What this typically means is that the dog finds it 'fun' to engage with others in a combative way. We see this with people too hence why a lot of us get into martial arts, which is one of the most popular sports in the world.

Similar to the dog that gets on the defensive, we can't keep putting these dogs in situations where they have previously engaged aggressively and expect anything but aggression. We need to change the environment first and take a few steps back. We also have to accept that aggression is a normal behaviour for dogs (and people!).

We often see aggression with young male dogs and certain breeds are more prone to aggressive displays than others thanks to generations of selective breeding. If you have a male dog and you get through their whole life without one scrap I salute you! This isn't what usually happens.

But aggression is VERY complex and a challenge to work through so instead of rambling on about it here, I would encourage you to get in touch so we can discuss your situation in more depth as there are so many variables and ways to work through dogs that show aggression too often.

I will just leave this here though. Here's one way we start working with dogs that show aggression and how handle their aggressive behaviour when it surfaces:

The dog sociability spectrum

One major thing will also need to accept is that most dogs aren't the social butterflies the world seems to think all dogs are or can be. This probably stems from the misleading idea that dogs are 'pack animals'. Firstly a pack animal is technically an animal that carries a pack, so arguably some could be considered pack animals but for the most part they aren't. Butch, our goat is the closest we have to any pack animals. What is most likely meant is a pack orientated hunter like the grey wolf, the domesticated dog's most common ancestor. Wolves cooperatively hunt animals larger than themselves in very harsh conditions in order to survive so the need to form a pack whereby working together results in food is vital for their survival. A pack also just refers to a family unit and the 'alphas' are simply the breeding pair - they wouldn't have fought to gain that status, they simply would have had to just have sex. Our dogs don't need to do this and are much more likely to beg at our feet as opposed to wandering off looking for some wild game to hunt. In saying this, it's quite obvious that nearly all dogs enjoy some form a social interaction, but sometimes they might just prefer it from a few select friends or a different species like us people.

This table by Lili Chin ( gives you a really good idea of what a dog sociability spectrum can look like:

Soi if you're worried about socialising your dog consider what the benefits are and whether it is actually an appropriate course to take with your individual dog. Most dogs aren't going to be social butterflies that love the dog beach. But that's more than okay - there are so many things you can do with your dog that do not involve other dogs and in my opinion working with your dog 1-2-1 is one of the most rewarding and beneficial things for both you and your dog.


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