The Surprising Truth About Socializing and Dog Parks

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog socialization

Story at-a-glance -

  • Like people, dogs are individuals; some dogs enjoy being around other dogs, while others are uncomfortable or disinterested
  • If your dog is uncomfortable around other dogs, it’s important to learn why by observing his body language and behavior; it’s equally important not to force him into interactions with other dogs
  • Many adult dogs don’t do well at dog parks, so your pet’s behavior in that environment isn’t the best gauge of his socialization skills
  • Well-balanced dogs get regular opportunities to socialize at their comfort level throughout their lives through directed activities such as ongoing obedience classes, dog-centric events/competitions and daily walks with their humans

Like people, dogs come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. And also like people, some dogs are the outgoing extroverts of the canine world, while others are less comfortable around members of their own species. If your dog falls into the latter group, you may wonder why and what, if anything, you should do about it.

If Your Dog Isn’t Friendly With Other Dogs, It’s Important to Learn Why

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung, writing for PetMD, describes the situation this way:

“Dogs are social animals, which is why they make good pets. Most people expect their dogs to be friendly toward people and other dogs, but what if the puppy you raised or the adult dog that you recently adopted shows no interest in other dogs? Is it a dog socialization issue? Is this something you need to worry about? Maybe, but maybe not.”1

The answer often lies in your dog’s body language and behavior around other dogs. There are four common responses when dogs who don’t know each other well (or at all) meet: friendliness, fear, aggression or disinterest. Dogs who genuinely enjoy being around other dogs are easy to spot, as their body language and approach are relaxed, friendly and often playful, especially if they’re puppies or adolescents.

Dogs who are fearful will frequently try to keep their distance when another dog approaches. Their ears may lie flat against their head; and they may lick their lips or look away. Fear can also cause a more dominant dog to behave in an aggressive manner by barking, growling, snarling or snapping at an approaching dog.

Certainly if your dog is extremely fearful or aggressive around other dogs, I recommend consulting a veterinary behaviorist to help you determine what’s causing the behavior and how best to handle it.

Finally, there are dogs who will approach other dogs or allow them to approach, exchange greetings and then move on quickly to something more interesting. Again, like people, dogs’ personalities don’t necessarily remain fixed throughout their lives. In fact, many pet parents at some point realize their formerly friendly, social dog has grown disinterested or even guarded when other dogs are around.

Fact: Many Dogs Don’t Do Well at Dog Parks

If your dog seems uncomfortable around other dogs, it’s never a good idea to force the issue, as it will only cause her to feel even more stressed and anxious. As humans, we certainly don’t want to be forced to be around people we have nothing in common with, or worse, people we dislike or are wary of.

It’s also important not to automatically assume that if your pet doesn’t do well at dog parks, she's antisocial or unfriendly toward all other canines. In reality, mature dogs are more likely not to “play nice” with unfamiliar dogs in a dog park. Canines aren’t social in the sense of making friends with every dog they meet. This is a human notion that isn’t compatible with the true nature of dogs. It’s actually unnatural for most adult canines to casually mix and mingle with large groups of strange dogs.

That’s why socializing your puppy or dog should be viewed in terms of exposing her to other dogs and people through safe directed activities that build confidence. And as Sung points out, as long as you provide her with both mental and physical exercise and offer plenty of opportunities for social interactions with you and other people and animals she cares about, she can lead a very fulfilling and happy life.

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8 Tips for Lifelong Socialization

Dogs need regular opportunities to socialize throughout their lives. Here are some suggestions:

1. Obedience classes — Obedience classes provide an environment in which 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 dogs, but from a slight distance.

2. One-on-one play dates — If you have friends with dogs who do well with other dogs, arrange play dates with one dog at a time. Put your dog and her friend in a safe, enclosed area and let them get to know each other. This is another low-pressure social situation in which your pet can hone her 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.

3. Dog agility events — 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 exposed to other dogs and people while getting lots of exercise, mental stimulation and shared time with you.

4. K9 nose work — Nose work is an offshoot of the training that professional scent detection dogs ("sniffer dogs") receive. Elements of the training are used in K9 nose work, but for recreational purposes only. Nose work encourages your dog to use his natural hunting drive and unique talent for picking up scents and locating the source.

In classes, dogs work one at a time and rest crated or safely in a vehicle between searches, so reactive dogs can enjoy the activity, too. Focusing on scent detection can help reactive dogs learn to tolerate the presence of other dogs. It can help shy dogs grow more comfortable with their surroundings, and it encourages distracted dogs to stay on task.

Nose work is also beneficial for senior dogs, dogs recovering from surgery or an injury, dogs with hearing loss or eyesight problems and retired service, working or competition dogs. It can also provide a great outlet for hyperactive dogs.

5. Other dog-centric activities — If agility isn’t your thing (or your dog’s), there are lots of other activities that might be, including flying disc, dock jumping, 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.

6. Therapy work — Another wonderful socialization activity you can share with your pet, depending on his temperament and personality, is training to be an emotional support dog for pet therapy programs. These dogs and their humans 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.

7. Doggy daycare — 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. One word of caution about doggy daycare facilities: many, if not most, require over-vaccination of dogs. If this is the case with a facility you’re considering, I strongly encourage you to find other ways to offer your dog opportunities to socialize.

8. Walking your dog — Last but not least, never underestimate the socialization value of regular daily walks with your dog. You both get fresh air, stress-relief and perhaps even heart-thumping exercise, and opportunities to encounter old and new two- and four-legged friends.

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