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.