While socialization is vital to your dog’s happiness and good behavior, there are some potential pitfalls to be aware of. The benefits of a socialized dog far outweigh the risks, but you do have to be aware of them.
Health and Safety
Just like when kids socialize at the playground, there is the possibility for illness or injury when your dog socializes with other dogs. The large majority of dog-dog interactions are peaceful, provided people don’t try to dictate how the dogs interact. Occasionally, personality conflicts between dogs arise, or an irresponsible person lets their dog bully other dogs. Like people, not every dog in the world is going to get along with every other dog, and some dogs are outright dangerous. If in doubt, keep moving and look for another playmate.
Risk of Injury
Even if everybody gets along, dogs can get injured just by playing. In addition, there is the chance of your dog becoming infected with a communicable disease from socializing with other dogs. Unvaccinated puppies should not interact with dogs that have the potential to be carrying disease. There is no guarantee, as even vaccinated dogs can fail to form an immune response and be infected or become carriers of disease even if they don’t appear sick.
Animals Are Animals
It’s not just your dog’s health and safety you have to be concerned about. If you have other household pets, never forget that your dog is an animal first, and any interactions with smaller animals should be attempted only under close and careful supervision. Also realize that interactions with smaller animals are never 100 percent safe. There are some animals that are just never going to get along. In these instances, careful management or even finding a different home for one of the pets may be necessary for the safety of everyone concerned.
Dogs tend to act more like dogs when they’re with other dogs. Until your dog is trained reliably, don’t undo your hard work by giving your dog commands you can’t enforce when he’s playing. Give him a CR or treat any time he checks in with you, and then let him go play again. If he’s fearful, either temporarily in association with a sensitive period, or genetically, he should never be forced to interact with anyone or anything that triggers the fear response. Use desensitization and counterconditioning to improve his opinion of whatever triggers his fear. Good timing is essential, as you can just as easily teach your dog to be more afraid if your timing is off, and you mark and reward fearful behavior instead of marking calm or confident behavior. If your dog has severe fear or aggression, consult a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you get started.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
You have a good chance of modifying your dog’s fearful behavior with desensitization, a systematic process of reducing fear; and counterconditioning, which teaches the dog a new reaction in response to his fear triggers. Before you start, make sure you have you have sit and look on command. You’re already presenting yourself as a good leader, right?
- Identify the trigger you want to work on, skateboards, for example.
- Present your dog with his trigger at a low level of intensity. In this instance, distance is one way to lower the intensity, and making sure the skateboard doesn’t move is another. You will have to experiment to find your dog’s critical distance, or the closest he can be to the trigger without fear.
- Teach your dog to sit and “look” at his critical distance. CR/treat for success. Repeat until he’s not even thinking about the trigger at that distance
- Move a little closer to the trigger (or it can move closer to you), 1–5 percent of the distance to start. Work on sit and “look” until the dog is comfortable again.
- Very gradually, always based on your dog’s success, move closer, until you are right next to the trigger and he can still function.
- Repeat the process with each trigger or each variable (a moving skateboard, for example).
- If your dog shows fear at any time during the process, back up to where he can be successful.
- Be patient! It can take days, weeks, or months to make progress.
- End each session with success.
Control the Triggers
It is important to reduce (or eliminate, if possible) your dog’s contact with fear triggers during the desensitization/counterconditioning process. Some fears, like thunderstorm phobia, are more difficult to treat, both because you can’t control them, and because your dog may be reacting to more than just the obvious triggers (like barometric pressure, not just thunder).