Luvk9s Dog Training

Socialize your dog

When asking clients what they hope to get out of a group obedience class, the most common response is to socialize their dog.

Is enrolling your dog in a group class for socialization purposes a good idea? The answer, of course, is “it depends.”  

A tale of three dogs

Rover was a very social dog but became slightly fear reactive after the pandemic lock down last year. Fearful dogs often feel that the best defense is a good offense (which is why they often bark and lunge towards other dogs). Rover was wearing a collar, so when he pulled towards the other dogs, the collar tightened up which made him feel even more frantic. The decision was made to introduce Rover to a head halter instead. Now, when Rover started to react, his owners very gently pulled on the head halter to redirect Rover’s attention back to them. When he checked in with his owners, they rewarded him with a high value treat. Rover’s comfort level improved dramatically and by the third week, he was able to work closely around the other dogs in class.

Cupcake was a small dog who had also lost some social skills during the pandemic. Cupcake was uncomfortable and was placed further away from the group to initially give him space. Cupcake was taught some coping skills outside of class (“look” at the dog and “check in” with the owner) and started doing one-on-one walks after class with his classmates and became comfortable enough to enjoy the remainder of class.

Button was an incredibly nervous rescue whose history was unknown. Despite being placed at a distance from the other dogs, Button was so stressed that she simply could not concentrate in a group environment. The decision was made to take her out of class and work with her privately.

The moral of this tale is while most dogs do enjoy group classes, it isn’t for everyone.

Socialization tips

How can you socialize your dog while keeping his stress in check? It takes some time and patience but is easier than you think.

The socialization process uses classical conditioning to teach our dogs that “stuff” isn’t scary. By pairing sightings of people and dogs with food, for example, dogs learn when a human or dog appears, good things happen. It is best to start this process from a distance and gradually move closer over time.

If your dog is nervous around humans, sit on your front porch, or on a bench near the grocery, hardware or drug store. When a human comes into view and your dog notices, immediately start feeding your dog high value treats; when the person disappears, stop feeding.  You’re making progress when your dog sees a human and immediately looks at you in anticipation of a treat. Once this happens, you can slowly, over time, move closer and closer to humans. The goal is that when your dog sees a human, he isn’t fearful but checks in with you instead. You can even put this behavior on cue, asking your dog to “look” and “watch me.”

The same process applies if your dog is nervous around other dogs. Grab your folding chair and find a spot where there is dog traffic. This may be near a dog park, a walking trail, the parking lot of your veterinarian’s office or near your favorite pet store. Sit far enough away so your dog sees the other dog but doesn’t react. When a dog comes into view and your dog notices, start feeding your dog treats; when the dog disappears, the treats stop. Again, the goal is that when your dog sees another dog, he joyfully looks at you in anticipation of a treat.

On a walk, have lots of treats handy and easy to get to. When a person – or a person walking a dog – comes into view, hold the leash in your left hand and feed treats with your right as you briskly walk past the person and dog. If you walk your dog on your left side, stay on the left side of the trail so you are between your dog and the person/dog you are passing. Consider stepping off the trail to get more distance if need be. Again, the goal is that every time your dog sees somebody approaching, instead of being fearful, he checks in with you for a reward.

What’s next?

Once your dog becomes more comfortable, you might want to set up a walking date with a friend and their dog. Do a short walk with your dog or play a game of fetch or chase “to get the edge off” before actually meeting. Start walking a few feet apart and as the dogs fall into a rhythm, move closer and closer together. Keep up a fast-walking pace and try to keep the leashes loose to avoid tension on the dog’s neck.

Be patient and take it at your dog’s pace. Behavior modification takes time but reducing your dog’s stress is worth it.