With an adult dog, things around the house are usually quite a bit calmer than with puppies or young dogs. Watch for changes in behavior from younger days. Dogs who went to day care or were the life of the party at the dog park may show signs of no longer enjoying these activities. I often tell my clients the following analogy: “When I was younger, I used to slam dance in a mosh pit, but I rarely enjoy large crowds these days.”
Like me, our mature dogs may no longer appreciate rude space invaders. If this is the stage your dog is at, find other ways to meet your dog’s mental and physical needs. Don’t ask your dog to put up with slam dancing or rude dogs if he no longer enjoys that kind of party.
True socialization only takes place when your dog is a puppy. After about 4 months of age, everything else is remedial, but the principles are the same.
For your dog, the world is all about associations. We want to help our dogs make great associations with the world. Think of Pavlov’s dogs. The dogs heard a bell and salivated because they knew that food was coming. Our goal is to help dogs have good associations.
The age range of an adult dog is from about 2 years old to 8 years old. The exact age varies depending on a few factors. Large breeds with shorter life spans generally mature faster than smaller dogs. Genetics, environment and overall health also help to determine what stage of life your dog is in. As a broad generalization, dogs are considered adults at approximately 3 years old.
Here’s To You, Mr. Nice Guy Collie
Well-socialized, confident dogs who can be taken anywhere and everywhere are not as common as people may believe. I have two dogs; one is a behavior (head) case and the other is Finnegan, the smooth Collie. Finney, like all dogs, is a product of nature and nurture. He hit the jackpot and got the best of both. He is a lucky dog and we are lucky to have him. As super, wonderful, fantastic (insert even more superlatives!) as he is, I still work hard to protect him. I know he doesn’t like his face jumped on by puppies, so I play referee to puppies. Finney has been to huge dog events, walked in numerous parades and has come with me to hundreds of dog training classes. Finney works with me to help dogs with behavior issues and he is solid as a rock. But still I protect him from unwanted advances from unknown, leashed dogs. Those of us with bombproof, wonderful dogs need to realize that a lot of the dogs we meet do not want to say hi. If we do try to say hi, we just may undo another dog’s training.
And Here’s To You, My Collie-Cross Freakazoid
Beck, my rescue dog, is also a product of nature and nurture. Beck is the polar opposite of Finney; he has neither good breeding nor proper early socialization. As such, Beck is on constant management and training. With Beck, I never leave things up to chance. Never. I could fill this page with Beck’s dossier of reactive behavior, but it really doesn’t matter because the treatment is the same.
Dogs who are reactive need three things:
- They need to feel safe.
- The need their issues addressed at an emotional level.
- They need a new behavior to replace the unwanted one.
To remedially socialize a dog to a stimulus that he is uncomfortable with, you need to pair that dog’s trigger to something good. For instance, if your dog barks every time he sees a skateboard, you can stop this behavior with counter-conditioning.
- Learn the first rule of counter-conditioning: Distance is your friend. Start counter-conditioning far enough away that your dog is neutral about the trigger. This is called staying under threshold — it is important! If you are not working under threshold, then your dog really is not learning.
- Watch your dog for signs of stress! Know what your dog’s normal, relaxed behavior looks like. Stressed dogs may pant, have glassy eyes and dilated pupils. Stressed dogs have a difficult time concentrating and stop taking treats. Stressed dogs may bark or lunge and their body language changes from soft and fluid to hard and stiff.
- When the skateboard (or whatever upsets your dog) appears at a distance, give treats freely to your dog. When the skateboard is out of sight, stop giving the treats. The key to changing your dog’s behavior is setting him up for success and working at a distance that doesn’t stress him so he is interested in taking treats. Take cues from your dog on how close you should be to the trigger and how often you set up training opportunities. The goal is to keep your dog comfortable as you gradually bring the trigger closer so that eventually he no longer reacts to it.
- Eventually, the skateboard becomes a predictor to the dog that something good (usually high-value treats) is about to happen. You have successfully counter-conditioned your dog.
Working with dogs with reactivity can be super frustrating. In most cases, working with a good positive trainer is the best course of action.
Of course, most people’s dogs fall somewhere in between my polar opposite dogs. The rules remain the same for every dog. One simple rule to follow: Always set up your dog for success.
You see it all the time, but meeting dogs on leash is a no-no for all dogs, in all life stages. Meeting and greeting dogs on leash has been shown to be a cause of leash reactivity. Have you ever watched two off-leash dogs greet each other? They almost always meet in an arc. The dogs do not go to each in a straight line, but instead use calming signs and body language and move a lot slower than the way most people introduce dogs on the street. Each dog moves in an arc in the opposite direction, and they very rarely end up face to face.
We always want to set up our dogs for success, but if we are allowing our dogs to randomly meet and greet strange dogs on the street, we are putting a lot of faith in not only the dog but a stranger. Let’s face it — a lot of people out there are clueless about dog behavior.
Does Size Matter?
Size does matter when socializing dogs. You need to use extra care to help small dogs feel safe. Holding them when people and other dogs come over so they can’t escape often makes them turn to distance-seeking behaviors like lunging and barking to drive the scary thing away.
All dogs will be much more accepting of new dogs if they have a chance to process, get a little space and sort things out for themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, people with large dogs tend to take a heavy hold of the leash when meeting and greeting new people and dogs. Even “Moose” needs to be able to get away if he wants. When introducing dogs off leash, err on the side of caution. It is more natural for dogs to meet off leash, but not all dogs like each other. Do introductions when both dogs are calm. I prefer to let the dogs get to know each other from a distance first — fences, gates, crates, doors and leashes are all your friend at this time. When in doubt, call a trainer to help you.
As your dogs mature, their needs may change. Things they loved as youngsters, like wild play with multiple dogs, may need to be toned way down. Our dogs really don’t require lots of other dogs to live happy, fulfilled lives. Always remember that you are your dog’s world.