This is a rather poorly named post because there were no reactive dogs in Mexico. Not one.
Not one snark. Not one growl. Not one lunge. Moreover, the dogs at the conference where I taught looked perfectly happy and relaxed. So many new friends to play with! All sizes and all breeds! They were fine – happy!
Don’t get me wrong. I am quite sure there are reactive dogs in Mexico. But in the week I was there, teaching in a conference and watching dogs in public (both owned and street dogs), I didn’t see any. So how is that even possible?
If I teach at a conference in the United States, I can guarantee that there will be reactive dogs. Management becomes the name of the game.
I want to throw something out there. Something to think about.
When we raise our children, we do not micromanage their every move. We do not hover when they make a new friend. We do not feed them treats to ensure that they will like other children. We do not hyper focus on ensuring that they meet every “type” of child of every size, age and ethnicity. We live our lives and allow socialization to happen naturally.
And our well loved American dogs who live on-leash? We obsess. Every interaction is scripted by us. We “reinforce” what we like as if we know this process better than evolution knows it. Wow. How controlling is that?
Isn’t the interaction itself reinforcing and the correct focus point? Why are we distracting dogs from looking and briefly interacting? We script what to do if they get excited and start to run around on their leashes, how we’ll handle it if they are fearful, etc. We have taken responsibility for a process that should happen naturally. What would we do with a child who was not enjoying the interaction or who was behaving badly? We would move on. How simple is that? The bullies would learn that bullying ends the interaction, and the softer dogs could make a choice… Maybe next time they would want to be more bold if they were truly interested. Or not!
How about puppy play groups? That’s not natural either. They often take place in small spaces where the dog doesn’t have a lot of choice about what they do and where they go. If the dog wants a break they can’t just walk away, because it’s very likely that some other puppy will come barreling after them. And if there’s an overly assertive puppy? They can hound other puppies mercilessly, because the others can’t get away. Imagine a playground where the bullies get to bully and the softer ones can’t leave.
That’s not great. So what’s the solution?
Honestly, I’m not sure there is one because our culture is one of on-leash dogs and scripted interactions as a way of life. But I can say this. The next time I have a puppy there won’t be puppy playgroups. There won’t be heavily scripted greetings. My plan is to take my puppy walking and hiking in areas were off leash dogs are allowed, and just keep right on moving! The dogs can greet, I can walk, and then we move on. I happen to have access to a dog park which is more of a hiking place than a dog park, and I plan to make good use of it.
I’m not going to reinforce greetings in any way, shape or form, because I don’t believe it’s my job to create positive associations, and I think that is distracting from the real source of reinforcement – the interaction itself. I will not hover! I will allow the interaction to happen and then I will continue. Just like if I were hiking with a child who encountered other groups on the same trail. If we’re heading the same direction we’ll interact – or not. And if we are heading in different directions? We greet and move on.
How about in formal training spaces? That’s not a place to socialize; that is a place to work. And that’s the way it will be right from the start – it’s about me and my dog. They’ll figure out the difference.
Am I taking a risk? Could my dog be harmed? Yes, but life has risk, and frankly, so far none of my dogs has been attacked so I must be paying attention or something. Fortunately I’m not a highly risk-averse person so this will work for me. You should do what makes sense for you, based on where you live and what kind of dog you are likely to encounter.
Are there dogs that are simply reactive and will not thrive this way? Sure there are. If I get a dog like that I’ll deal with it when it comes, but I’m not going to assume a need for intervention
So someone is thinking….but dogs where I live are not friendly! Well. If it were me and if I lived in a place with unfriendly off leash dogs, I can guarantee you I would get in the car and drive somewhere else to do my puppy socialization rather than trying to protect my dog from bad situations in the neighborhood. In the same way that it wouldn’t take my small child into a bad neighborhood and try to protect them from bullies, I would do the same with my dogs. Find other places which can be safer for your situation.
Your mileage may vary.
Edited to add: Somehow, it appears that people have read this article and think I’m against socialization. Considering that half of this article is about socialization I’m a little mystified by this. However, for the sake of clarity, I will state this again. I socialize my dogs. I believe that socialization means exposure and does not require interaction. I do not include food in most normal socialization interactions, but I bring food just in case I need it for something – training or some random bad experience. As I stated above, this is because I believe that food often acts as a distraction from the actual event, so I prefer not to use it unless I have some reason to include it. These choices are based on my personal interactions and observations. Other people have different interactions and observations. Anyone who says that science supports the use of food in socialization experiences in order to obtain a good result have not actually looked at the science, because such a thing does not exist. The only thing scientific studies say about socialization is that you need to do it. Nothing about how much or how little, and nothing about including food in those interactions. Some people feel there’s no harm to including food. That’s another perspective and that’s fine. You can read the article again to see why I choose not to use food as a routine addition to socialization.
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Exactly! I consciously made the decision to do this with my puppy two years ago because I was so sad and sick to see how many ill-behaved and reactive dogs I see on a daily basis (professional dogwalker, avid hiker and agility competitor). It finally dawned on me a while back that puppy playgroups weren’t that great. And this after working as a training volunteer for many years.
So far, he’s turned out pretty okay.
Excellent article. It should be given by every breeder when they send home a puppy, and by every shelter that adopts one out.
Yes, I totally agree. As a small time breeder of Belgians (9 litters in 40 years) I have always marveled at how my puppies placed in pet homes typically grow up to be more mentally sound than the pups placed in experienced homes that do everything “right”. We need to let the pups be pups and give them the time and space to reach their own conclusions.
Super interesting – I lived in Mexico for the last 3 months and am now in Costa Rica. I’d say there are far more dog-aggressive dogs than I saw in most places in the US. My dog and I have been chased and attacked during walks and runs almost every week since leaving the US. No blood, yet, but I’ve run through two bottles of Spray Shield. It’s not the urban dogs, though – it’s out in the country. They’re doing their jobs. But they’re terrifying. http://elperrotambien.com/running-with-dogs/
My best, easiest, bombproof dog, Pokie, I raised this way. It was so many years ago though, when I was in college…the world is so different now. It would be harder. Not to say it can’t be done, but it would be harder now. But I completely agree with everything you said.
I hope you get a chance to attend some well-run puppy socials – they are out there.
And when we start euthanizing kids for biting, we can start comparing their upbringing methods.
I think this is spot on Thanks Denise
Truth! This is largely how I manage my dogs. They ha their friends, and love to see 5em and play with them. Hiking we greet and move on. Dog walks in the neighborhood, my job is to ensure she doesn’t get bullied by overly rude dogs. And classes and trials? Those are ALL about working, and her greeting her human friends.
I agree to this. Except that many of the reactive and feral dogs I am seeing as a dog trainer are imported from Mexico. What’s going on there, I wonder?
Stupid question, but what behaviors typically define a reactive dog?
A dog who reacts more than one would expect considering the circumstances at hand. Snarking at a dog that gets in their face? I think that’s perfectly normal. Lunging at a dog 20 feet away who is walking by and minding their own business? I would call that reactive.
Denise, wondering what you do on one of those off leash walks when a dog, or multiple dogs approach your dog and start something?
I choose my locations with care so it hasn’t happened to me. There is one dog park that I can go to that requires a 1/2 mile hike up a hill. It takes a pretty committed owner to go there. I also know which locations are heavily policed for on leash expectations. If I only want to encounter on-leash dogs then I would go there, and of course my dog would be leashed as well. As often as not that might be exactly what I’m looking for… dogs see each other, have a quick sniff, and just keep right on walking. If I lived in a place where it was simply not possible to find exposure to these kind of dogs, then I would opt not to allow interaction with other dogs at all, and I would rely exclusively on formal dog training clubs, dog show competitions, and other places where my puppy could see other dogs but not interact. Indeed I have raised several dogs that way and it’s worked out fine. My personal belief about socialization is that it requires exposure but not interaction so this is not a big deal.
I take a huge amount of responsibility for locating safe places to take my puppies, But I also don’t fret about every approaching dog. I am extremely aware of what is happening around me, and I see problems coming before they blowup. Which does not mean that bad things can’t happen. I’m sure they can. But so far they have not happened to me in any significant manner
This is not something I will probably ever be comfortable doing with my Dobermans. My male has absolutely no aggression, and my female while never starting anything, will not tolerate rowdy behavior, and feels she should be responsible for shutting it down. If I was walking down the street with either of my dogs and another dog started something and it escalated it would be the Dobermans fault. I’m not risking that for my dogs. Also I have no idea about other dogs health issues. I may be paranoid but I honestly am not worried about my dogs having other doggy encounters or friends. Maybe because of their breed I’m fine not having them socialize with random dogs.
Love this. This is how I raise my dogs as well.
Our home here is a dogs dream place. Hundreds of miles of off leash, voice controlled hiking. Paved trails in town where offleash is the norm. For the most part, the dogs up here are very friendly. Raising my puppy, I guarded every interaction for the first year with a “Is your dog friendly” before the meet and greet. My fear was the single interaction which could create a dog fearful dog which would banish him onleash in an area that’s so great offleash. He is now 19 months, confident and friendly, but intact. I’m thinking other dogs don’t see him as a puppy anymore. When the other dog shows dominance behaviors (standing tall with their head over his back), we try to move on quickly. I had one instance where a dog did that and then started growling and turned to attacking. I yelled enough to discourage the dog, my dog just moved away. The second interaction with another big dog that did that, my dog didn’t recall immediately (he was mid interaction), then they started playing (as if maybe my dog could tell the difference)? Either way, I don’t want to hang around when I see that dominance behavior. Your thoughts on dominant behavior type dogs? Also, do you think I need to be cautious because my dog is no longer a puppy, but a more mature, intact male (he’s happy go-lucky, its the other dogs reaction to him that I’m wondering about).
Not that it’s the reason for so many reactive dogs in the USA, but it’s my observation that the early spaying of lady puppies has helped to contribute to all sorts of disordered behaviors.
I’m afraid that you’ll really do people a disservice if you discourage them from taking their puppies to well-run puppy socials.
I work with a lot of reactive dogs, most of whom missed out on socialization as pups. In my area – Silicon Valley – there are NO off-leash walking/hiking trails; dog parks are a free-for-all; and my of my new-puppy owners do not know a bunch of friends or neighbors with appropriately friendly dogs to invite for a playdate. I recommend them to go to puppy socials that are run by experienced trainers, trainers who will separate the shy pups and stop the bullies; they act as the “Lifeguard on duty” or the recess teacher to make sure that play is appropriate (and enforce breaks when needed). I feel that this is vital to many of my clients. I cannot fathom telling them to skip this vitally important step of socialization!
I also live in Silicon Valley. If you are truly interested in finding off leash dog walking options here, please search Google for “off leash dog walking options in Silicon Valley” and you will find quite a lot.
I recognize that we have a difference of opinion on the matter of puppy socialization – that’s okay! I would still discourage people from doing puppy socials, unless they planned to engage in a dog park lifestyle (which is fine – many do). In that case, one might as well see how that is going to work for your puppy and make the best of it, depending on what results. Clients have opinions and I’m inclined to try and work with those opinions. But for those who have no interest in a dog park lifestyle, I stand by my preference not to include puppy socials as part of their puppy education.
Because I am not very good at going on the type of walk you describe, I think with my next puppy I will look to have them walked occasionally (?weekly, ?twice weekly) by a trustworthy dog walker on small group walks so they can get this sort of interaction without me hovering. My criteria for selecting the dog walker will be careful in the same way your walking locations are chosen carefully. Do think this would be a reasonable thing to do?
Sounds reasonable to me
Denise, I went ahead and Google’d “off leash dog walking options in Silicon Valley” and didn’t find a single place to legally walk a dog off-leash in Santa Clara county (the fifth result that Google gave me is my own webpage, http://www.wagntrain.com/training-resources/stacys-training-tips/dog-parks-for-exercise-and-socialization/#Hikes). I love going to Sunol or Fort Funston or Pt Isabel – but that’s about an hour’s drive, and outside of this county. I don’t know of any legal off-leash trails closer.
Mind you, most of my puppy clients just have pet dogs, not sports dogs. Most of my adult-dog clients have pet dogs who are already reactive, and a history with very little socialization as a puppy. So this is undoubtedly coloring my opinion.
Consider the Fremont park system – much or all of it is off leash, or either Pulgas Ridge or Stulsaft parks in Redwood City – both are off leash friendly and “hiking” type parks as opposed to Dog Parks. If you can get to San Francisco in an hour, then these will be closer to 30 minute for you. There are others but those are the ones closest to me that I am inclined to use.
My dog is a young (almost 2years) intact male rough hair Dutch Shepherd. He loves people and toys, but doesn’t care one way or the other about strange dogs. He does snark at dogs when he is face to face—even if he initiates the encounter. He is scary looking (like a werewolf) but doesn’t seem to know how to handle such a meeting. We got him at ten weeks of age, and he played well with all our Shelties and still does. He has gone to conformation and obedience classes and has been shown. He has no problem being in close contact with strange dogs except when one stepped on him and he roared and air snapped. How do I stop this behavior? I don’t think he would hurt another dog, but they never stay around long enough for a second interaction. He did this when we brought home our DS bitch puppy—scared the daylights out of her, but within five minutes, they were happily playing. He has me so worried that being the big dog, he will always be seen as the aggressor that I am afraid to take him anywhere a dog might get in his face. He and I both need to get over this as he is training to be a service dog. Ideas?
My dogs don’t have to interact or go face-to-face with other dogs. My perspective is that dogs need to be able to be in the presence of other dogs and behave well. They don’t have to interact and they don’t have to like them, so I don’t think I have anything to offer you. If you were my dog, I would probably work on developing words and language to ask other people to please keep their dogs from running up into my dog’s face. Over time, when my dogs know I will work to keep other dogs away from them that are somehow upsetting them, I find they are perfectly happy to relax and just wait for me to do my job.
I know Leslie McDevitt and Grisha Stewart both have programs that are designed to help dogs eventually interact with other dogs. My reactivity program is designed to help our dogs be comfortable in the presence of other dogs, which it sounds like your dog is, and teach them to move past without a poor reaction.