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Normalizing Selective Socialization For Dogs
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Normalizing Selective Socialization For Dogs

Socialization is important for your dog, but here's a thought—let's redefine it. While it's so crucial to socialize your puppy from an early age, we're not talking about puppies here. We're talking about dogs who have missed the early socialization window, dogs who have spent time on the streets or in shelters and are now adjusting to living in your home.

I'm not sure when it became the norm to expect that you could say hi to every dog or that your dog should be able to sniff every strange dog it passes on your walks. Even if you know that your dog is "good with every dog" (this is a myth, but that's a whole other post), you don't know that the other dog is going to be good with yours. And it's not worth it to risk a terrible interaction that could leave your dog traumatized. Dramatic? Maybe. Possible? Absolutely.

We teach children to ask "Can I pet your dog?" when they're already standing a foot away and reaching their hands towards the dog. Because the expectation is that every dog is fine with being pet, as long as the kid's asking politely. That's not always the case, and that's okay.

I don't know how long this has been the norm and I'd love to learn more about where this expectation originated from, but the truth of the matter is that there is a huge community of reactive dog parents who feel ostracized for crossing the street because they know that the big, fluffy GSD coming towards them is going to set their dog off on a reaction that they can just avoid. Or feel isolated because they can't properly socialize their dogs and they themselves lose out on a lot of socialization as a result. The fact that they feel judged for taking certain steps to advocate for their dog means that the norm is "Your dog should be good with all dogs."

Here's what I think socialization does NOT mean—socialization doesn't mean letting your dog play unsupervised at dog parks (again, a whole other post) while you stare at your phone. It doesn't mean taking group classes if your reactive dog can't handle being that close to other dogs, and it certainly doesn't mean taking more group classes so that your dog can eventually get used to the dogs. Socialization doesn't mean that when another dog is walking towards you, you continue towards them and let them sniff each other. Wait, what? How are they supposed to be exposed to different dogs and be okay with them all? Keep reading, my friend. 

As dogs get older, or as we adopt dogs who are past that early socialization age and have an unknown history, we need to practice selective socialization. Selective socialization means that you can still socialize your dog, but with specific dogs and in specific environments. The root of this is really understanding your dog (focus on building a solid relationship with them first and implementing structure into your daily lives), and knowing how to work at their pace in a way that they're comfortable with.

One could argue that failing to socialize your dog can lead to behavioral issues. And I'm not saying don't socialize your dog, I'm just saying to do it selectively, in a more controlled environment. Here are some examples of ways you can selectively socialize your dog:

Arrange play dates with dogs you know

There may be dogs in your life that you know your dog gets along with. Having 1:1 play dates is a great way to tire them both out and socialize them! If there are multiple dogs in your dog's friend circle, that's even better because they'll learn how to adjust to different play styles and learn how to read the other dog's body language. Honestly though, as I get older, my friend circle gets smaller. And it's totally fine for Kono's friend circle to be small, too. 

two brindle pit bulls playing together

Introduce new dogs across the street or on socially distanced hikes

The reality of this for a lot of reactive dog parents is that they may never be able to introduce a dog closer than 6 feet (or even farther than that). And that's okay! But one option for dogs that can't walk right next to a new dog is for them to walk across the street from one another, if it's something they can handle. If not, you can work your way up from farther away and gradually decrease the distance, but the most important thing is recognizing at which point your dog gets stressed. Some signs of stress can include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Yawning
  • Licking their lips
  • Tucked tail
  • Raised hackles

Let's normalize socially distanced hikes, for multiple reasons! Walking next to another dog vs walking a bit farther away on a hike with many exciting scents and sounds is not going to make a difference to your dog, who will be living their best life either way!

Take your dog to different environments but don't interact with others

Part of socialization is exposing your dog to different situations, environments, smells and sounds. You can do that without greeting other dogs or people. In fact, it's a great way to practice getting your dog to focus on you because there are so many distractions around. This method of selective socialization is also a good way to do some counter-conditioning. Make it a positive experience! The best thing we can do for our dogs is set them up for success.

Maybe your goal when you adopted your dog was to have a companion to sit next to you at crowded breweries and give a friendly greeting to every dog that walked by. Maybe you wanted to be able to go on hikes with narrow pathways and not have to worry about passing other dogs too closely. Regardless of what we envisioned, we have to accept our dogs for who they are, and that might be a dog that doesn't love every person, dog, cat, or squirrel that crosses their path.

In my case, I absolutely wanted a companion to hang out at local breweries with me. And I got one (at least, for pre-COVID times)! It just looks a little different than I imagined. Instead of sitting at a center table (I hate being at the center of things anyway), we might have to take a corner table that's a bit farther away from other dogs. There are certain breweries that I can't go to with Kono because there's not enough space, but there are others that I can definitely go to with him and have a great time at. Because he loves most people, he's totally fine as long as I create space for him away from larger dogs.

If your dog isn't fitting in your lifestyle the way you'd hoped, ASK FOR HELP. I am in no way a certified trainer so don't ask me. Not for professional help anyway. Sorry if I tricked you with my super eloquent article.

There's no shame in asking for help by seeking out a certified trainer if you have certain goals you want to reach with your dog!

The biggest takeaway from this is that the norm should not be for every dog to love every single living thing. We need to normalize selective socialization and the fact that it's okay if you need to hand pick your dog's friends and should be comfortable telling someone that no, they can't pet your dog.

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