By Dr. Becker
Many dog owners at some point realize their pet no longer seems interested in being with other canines.
Their formerly friendly, social dog has grown standoffish or even guarded when other dogs are around.
Socialization is a Lifelong Pursuit
J.C. Burcham, a DVM with a special interest in animal behavior, thinks this widely reported phenomenon could be the result of a lack of ongoing socialization.
According to Dr. Burcham:
Being polite and friendly takes practice!
Perhaps your dog got along great with other dogs when he was younger—you took him with you on errands, visited the dog park regularly, and had play time with your friends' dogs.
But then, as time went by, life became more complicated in a way we never quite have the foresight to see, and you were no longer able to take your dog with you everywhere and socialize him all the time.
Besides, you reasoned, you socialized him well while he was young and impressionable, just like a good dog owner should.
Dr. Burcham believes even dogs well-socialized as puppies, if not given regular opportunities to interact dog-to-dog as adults, can lose their ability to mix comfortably with others of their species.
In her experience, some pets are naturally skilled at dog-to-dog dealings, but many others need regular practice through activities that provide the chance to socialize with unfamiliar people and pets.
Is the Dog Park the Best Place for Your Pooch?
If your dog seems to have lost the knack for being around other canines, there are lots of things you can do to help him regain his social skills.
But before I get into that, I want to caution you not to assume just because your pet doesn't do well at the dog park, he's anti-social or unfriendly toward all other canines. According to Kathy Diamond Davis, author and trainer, writing for Veterinary Partner.com:
It is actually more "normal" for a mature dog to NOT be able to "play nice" with strange dogs in a dog park than it is for the dog to be able to do it! Dogs in the wild are not "social" in the sense of making friends with every dog they meet. This is a human idea, and currently a big fad among people with dogs. It's causing a lot of serious problems.
I encourage you not to use your pet's behavior at the dog park as a gauge of his sociability.
Adult canines aren't wired to mix and mingle with large groups of strange dogs, so think of socialization in terms of exposure to other dogs and people through directed activities.
Tips for Keeping Your Adult Dog Well Socialized
- Obedience classes provide an environment where all the dogs are kept under control. This can be very helpful if your pet seems wary or fearful around other dogs. Organized classes give him the opportunity to be around other pups, but from a slight distance.
- If you have friends with dogs, arrange play dates with one (carefully selected) dog at a time. Put your dog and his doggy friend in a safe, enclosed area and let them get to know each other. This is another low pressure social situation in which your pup can hone his skills without being overwhelmed by too many dogs, or an overly dominant dog.
If things go well, you can arrange future outings for the four of you to take walks or hikes, toss Frisbees, fetch tennis balls, go swimming, etc.
- If it makes sense for you and your dog, get involved in dog agility competitions. These events provide a great opportunity for your dog to be around other dogs and people while getting lots of exercise, mental stimulation, and shared time with you.
- If agility isn’t appealing, there are lots of other activities that might be, including flying disc, dock jumping/dock diving, flyball, flygility, herding, hunt and field trials, musical freestyle and heel work, to name just a few. Dogplay.com is a good resource for exploring organized exercise and socialization possibilities for your dog.
- Another fabulous socialization activity you can share with your pet, depending on his temperament and personality, is training to be a therapeutic visitation dog. These dogs and their owners visit hospitals, nursing homes, detention units, rehab facilities, certain schools, senior citizen apartments and other places where people aren't permitted to keep pets or aren't able to care for them.
- Another possible option for socialization and exercise is to enroll your pet in a doggy daycare program one or two days a week. You want to ensure the facility you choose has at a minimum a knowledgeable staff trained in dog communication and interaction, separate play areas for dogs of different sizes, and supervised playgroups. Extensive temperament tests should be performed on all dogs to evaluate their behavior in the daycare environment. Introduction to the pack should be gradual for all new dogs.
A word of caution about doggy daycare facilities … most require at least yearly re-vaccinations for rabies, distemper, parvo and bordetella. This isn't the vaccine protocol I recommend for your pet.
- Last but not least, never underestimate the socialization value of regular daily walks with your dog. You both get fresh air, stress-relieving and perhaps even heart-thumping exercise, and opportunities to encounter old and new two- and four-legged friends.