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  • Richard Chan

I must make my dog "friendly"!


A lot of dog owners like to encourage their dogs to say hi to other dogs and people. They believe that if they do not do this, their dogs will not be friendly and could become aggressive.

Because of this mindset many owners spend many hours and lots of money to "socialize" their dogs to make sure they have a "friendly" dog.

Many day cares or boarding facilities call it social experience when they put a bunch of dogs together and let them play until they are tired. Often, to the owners of these facilities and the owners of the dogs, there is no distinction between high energy play (or high tension play) and socialization.

I was one of such owners.

Back in the early 90's, I used to believe in letting my puppy meet hundreds of random dogs--and I used to let my dog greet mostly dogs that I knew nothing about. I was new to the dog show world at the time and I had a puppy I needed to prepare for a show. I read lots of books and watched lots of tapes (VHS, not DVD) and they all recommended that I should bring my dog to as many different places as I could and let my dog meet as many animals and people as possible.

Back in those days, taking the advice to heart, I would take my puppy everywhere and asked strangers to pet my puppy. I believed this step was essential to make sure the puppy will not become scared of people, dogs, cats, and so on. I also made sure my puppy took advantage of all opportunities to say hi to other dogs by sniffing each other when they met on leash. I used to think I was doing the best thing for my puppy. My first puppy turned out great with this approach.

After I had a few more dogs, however, I started to come across some problems with this approach. I started to notice that some puppies who were quite "normal" in the beginning would become "shy" and even fearful of other dogs. I also noticed that some puppies started to act "funny" towards other dogs when I walked them on leash. I did not understand why at the time. I thought it was genetic and brushed it off. After all, I did everything by the books so it must be the dog's fault, right?

Later on, I had one dog which turned out really bad. This dog would not stop lunging, crying murder, and spinning at the end of the leash whenever he saw another dog. I never had a dog like that before. I talked to lots of people and I was told I should never correct the behavior. I was told (and the books I read also stated the same) if I corrected my dog he would think he was corrected by the other dog and would hate all dogs and became very aggressive. The behavior never went away despite many attempts at various methods.

I was told to turn around and walk away, and to use treats to redirect the dog's attention away from other dogs and to teach "leave it". I still remember one time I ran out of treats on the street, and I panicked because I had no idea what to do if a dog just appeared around the corner.

It was becoming really ridiculous so I started to wonder if there was more to socialization. I started to pay a lot of attention to owners who had very confident dogs that did not react at all to my dogs, and observed what they did. I also talked to them a lot trying to understand how they raised their dogs to achieve such a consistent and positive temperament over a long period of time.

I talked to a trainer who had some very well behaved Doberman and I was shocked to hear "never let other dogs sniff your dog when you meet them on the street!" It went against everything I believed in up to that point.

He said many dogs did not feel comfortable meeting another dog on leash. Meeting head on was a very unnatural form of greeting and could create a lot of pressure on the dog. By allowing strangers and random dogs to keep approaching my dogs with unwelcome petting and sniffing, I was putting a lot of stress on my dogs. What I thought was good for my dog (say hi to everyone) was indeed causing a lot of anxiety and stress on my dog. When my dog lunged forward he was not trying to attack but was trying to create space for himself by pushing the other dogs back.

He also told me ignoring the reactivity will not make it go away just as ignoring a speeding car will not make it slow down. He recommended me to teach the dog the right behavior and correct the wrong behavior. Furthermore, he said it was a very bad idea to meet dogs I knew nothing about because they could attack or scare my dogs which could cause the fearful behavior I noticed in some of my early dogs. When I, who was supposed to be my dog's leader, did nothing to help my dog when he needed more space or when another dog bullied him, my dog lost trust in me as his protector, and lost faith in me as his leader. This was why the dog wanted to react like a maniac and would not just calm down and let me handle the incoming dog.

This all came as a big shock to me. It was like someone telling me the earth was flat!

But I decided to give it a try anyway as I was running out of options. As I had the opportunity to handle more dogs I started to notice a great improvement in their temperament after I have stopped letting them sniff and play with random dogs. I started to correct inappropriate behavior and reward good behavior. I stopped my dogs from playing with random dogs and selected playmates with good energy and nice polite behavior to play with my puppies and they were developing much better in all aspects.

I also learned that play is not the same as socialization. Just as a person who spends his whole day in a hyper mental state is not mentally balanced, a dog who is compelled to very excitedly chase every dog he sees is not necessarily a "social" or a "happy" dog.

Dogs need to know how to focus on their handlers/owners and listen consistently. Dog socialization is about building confidence and engagement in the dogs. They will learn that they can trust their human if they feel unsure or scared in an unfamiliar or new situation. Letting a dog go crazy and keep chasing each other for hours will never teach the dog how to focus on their owners; what is worst is that it teaches them the opposite, which is to ignore their owners and view other dogs as a source of extreme excitement (in many cases, dogs are viewed even as the most exciting things in the world, much more so than the owner). When a dog has such a view how can you expect this dog to listen to his owner when he sees another dog coming at him?

The Doberman trainer told me all these back in the mid 90's and I am forever grateful for his wisdom and willingness to share his wisdom with me.

The year is now 2016 and I still notice lots of people holding the same misconception as I did in the early 90's about dog socialization.

I still hear people telling others to say hi to strangers and their dogs in order to make their dogs friendly. Is being a 'friendly' dog the best thing that could ever happen to a dog? What if the dog is not a friendly type of dog? Should we force such dog to be "friendly"? Are we doing what is best for the dog or are we trying to fit into the norm and social expectation so we will feel better about ourselves?

I will take a dog that knows how to confidently ignore people and dogs than a dog that loves to interact very excitedly with every dog and person all the time.

Many people believe a dog is either friendly or aggression. When I told someone not to approach my dog because she was fearful, the reply was 'So, I can't touch your dog? If she is not friendly why isn't she wearing a muzzle?"

Just because a dog is not friendly does not mean it is aggressive. There are many shades of greys between being super aggressive to being super friendly--and most dogs are somewhere in the middle between these two extremes.

There are introverts in the human world who may not enjoy having a conversation with strangers but it does not make them evil. A dog who does not wag his tail to every strangers is not necessarily an aggressive dog. As a matter of fact, many well trained dogs are selective in who they want to listen to. It does not make them aggressive dogs; they are just engaged dogs who listen to their owners and ignore strangers.

If we truly love our dogs, we need to help our dogs to develop confidence. To do that, we need to advocate for our dogs.

We need to be mindful of their emotional and psychological needs and not try to blindly force our dogs to fit into the social expectation of "friendly dog".

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