Socialization Exposed - Why Owners Try But Fail
We’re all told how important it is to socialize our dogs. Most of us make a solid effort to do so, but most of us think that means just exposing them to other dogs and people, and the dog will do the socializing himself. The idea behind this exposure model of socialization is that with enough social contact the arousal response will reduce over time. While that may work for a slice of the dog population, it doesn’t work for most - most just wind up reinforcing the bad manners they showed up with. Why? Well, disposition is a part of it; we also tend to not socialize often enough or early enough. It’s also hard for owners to find enough puppy-wise adult dogs that can fairly teach boundaries and manners. That leaves most of us with a dog that simply gets over-excited in social situations. This causes him to interact in a pushy, boisterous, amp-ed up manner which only leads to one thing: reinforcement of the over-excited state of mind and all the bad manners that come with it.
I’m all for high intensity/excited play when I know that the dog can be trusted, and the situation is appropriate. The issue is when the dog that can’t control himself. I'm talking about the dog that’s consistently stirring up trouble or is getting left at home due to a lack of self-control. If those dogs learn to control their behavior, they can go do all the fun dog stuff there is to do (safely).
I’m guessing you’re still reading this because you gave the pure exposure model an honest go, and now Fido doesn’t get to do all the fun things he used to (or he still does, but you’re constantly dealing with the repercussions), and you’re intrigued by the idea of another approach to socialization. Well, lucky for you, there’s a better path that leads to a happy, well-mannered pooch.
First things first, train the dog on the basics in a low distraction environment. If you’re dog doesn’t listen to you at home alone, on a leash, you can’t expect him to listen when he’s set loose around squirrels, dogs, and people. Once he’s reliable and calm without any distractions, you can start training around them.
Changing a dog’s social behavior requires that you are an active participant; you’ll need to interrupt your dog’s behavior (and the mental state behind it) with valuable feedback. Just as we reward behaviors we’d like to see more of, we provide corrective feedback for those we want to lessen or eliminate. You’ll provide valuable feedback the very moment you see the dog chose to engage in said behavior (i.e. jumping up, barking, stealing other dogs’ toys, humping, nipping, horseplay). Notice I said when they “choose to engage” not just when they begin to display the behavior. The idea here is to nip it in the bud. By addressing the choice, rather than the action itself, you keep the dog from reinforcing the behavior at all. To see the choice you'll have to be on the look out for the early indicators such as facial expression and body language. If your dog consistently engages in a rude/inappropriate/aggressive behavior after his ears point forward, his forehead wrinkles, he puffs out his chest, or etcetera then provide feedback for those early indicators which are the first steps down the wrong path. While the type of feedback needed to stop a behavior will vary by the individual dog, most dogs tend to blow past even the most firm and serious verbal discouragement (i.e. "NO!"). Since I don't enjoy yelling at dogs, I find that the various e-collar feedback types (tone, vibrate, or stimulation) work much better. There's much to be said on how to effectively and fairly use a training tool like an e-collar, but they are an invaluable tool for eliminating poor social behaviors and creating confident, well-mannered dogs.
Some behaviors might quickly disappear quickly once you’ve added corrective feedback to your training kit, other will take more time. There is no guaranteed quick fix when dealing with a living creature, however this is the best path to having a polite, happy, and included dog.