Contributed by Irith Bloom, faculty at Victoria Stilwell Academy and certified animal trainer with multiple certifications, including CPDT-KSA, CDBC, VSPDT, KPA CTP, and CBATI.
Puppy Socialization With Other Dogs
One of the fun things about my job is that I get to work with a lot of puppies. People come to me soon after getting a puppy, and I help them teach their puppy basic skills, such as sitting on cue and walking on-leash politely. The most important part of my job, though, is helping families with proper puppy socialization before the puppy is 4 months old. After a puppy is 4 months old, the puppy’s sensitive socialization period has ended, and the puppy is less open to new experiences. This article will give you tips on how to socialize a puppy with other dogs and point out mistakes to avoid.
The Problem of Being “Magnetized” to Other Dogs
The biggest problem I see with puppies—and adult dogs—these days is that too many of them are magnetized to other dogs. (I am borrowing the term magnetized from my trainer friend Madeline Gabriel, who uses that term when talking about kids and dogs.) A magnetized puppy will try to rush over to every other dog he sees. It’s like the other dog is a magnet and the puppy is a piece of iron.
Being magnetized to other dogs leads to all kinds of problems when you’re learning how to socialize a puppy. Magnetized dogs may bark or whine when they see another dog, and will also pull when on-leash to get to that dog. Magnetized dogs are more likely to do something rude when they approach another dog—such as jumping in the other dog’s face, which can lead to bad reactions from the other dog. Bottom line: While dog-dog socialization is important, it’s best not to magnetize your puppy to other dogs during puppy socialization.
So how can we socialize our puppies without magnetizing them? Let’s begin by picturing the ideal adult dog-dog interaction. Imagine you are walking down the street with a 150-pound Newfoundland, and there’s another dog down the street. It’s much nicer if the Newfoundland simply looks at the other dog and continues to walk calmly on-leash—with no pulling, lunging, whining or barking—rather than dragging you down the street toward the other dog.
Or let’s say that my Beagle is playing with another dog, and it’s time to leave, so I call the Beagle. She comes, and I feed her a few treats, clip on the leash, say goodbye and walk away calmly with a loose leash. That sounds a lot nicer than chasing my dog and pulling her away while she barks and whines because she wants to keep playing, right?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying dogs shouldn’t get to play with other dogs. I’m just saying that there should be structure to how that play happens. For example, if the dog I see down the street is a friend, I can give my dog permission to go and say hello. If the dog is unfamiliar, though, or I am in a rush, I’d like to be able to walk away with my dog on a loose leash. Similarly, I’d like to know that when it’s time to leave a doggy playdate, I can get my dog to come back to me without any difficulty.
I also recommend skipping on-leash greetings with unfamiliar dogs, since dogs tend to be much more tense when meeting on-leash, and that can lead to trouble. We don’t say hello to every single person we pass walking down the street, so why should our dogs?
How to Train Your Puppy to Pass Other Dogs Calmly
So, how do you get your puppy to walk calmly past other dogs or come back to you rather than continuing to play? You begin by teaching your puppy that hanging out with you is rewarding. Start by feeding your puppy something like a Zuke’s treat any time your puppy is hanging out near you. Repeat this at random times as long as he is close by. Soon, you’ll notice that your puppy is walking away from other things to come be with you. Be generous with the dog treats! You’ll be giving a lot of treats at first, but over time, you will need to use fewer and fewer.
Start out practicing at home with your puppy off-leash, and then in your home with your puppy on-leash. This will help with your leash walking, too! After your puppy starts to check in with you regularly both on- and off-leash, take the puppy training on the road and follow the same routine while outside your house. Try different treats, such as Wellness Soft Puppy Bites or Nulo Freestyle Training Treats, so that your puppy learns lots of different yummy things can come from being around you.
What to Avoid
Now that your puppy is spending more time focused on you, it’s important to make sure you don’t accidentally magnetize your puppy to other dogs. Resist the urge to enthusiastically point out other dogs to your puppy. After all, if you want your dog to remain calm, it doesn’t make sense to shout, “Look! Another dog! Let’s run over there!” Your excited behavior teaches your puppy that other dogs mean excitement and also gets your puppy into the habit of rushing over to other dogs.
Use Lots of Dog Treats
Instead of pointing the dog out, wait for your puppy to notice the other dog, and then feed your dog a treat. I generally speak to the puppy when I do this, saying, “Did you see another dog? Here, have a treat,” in a calm tone of voice. Then continue your walk, without even walking over to the other dog. This teaches your dog that you don’t approach most dogs, so he won’t get frustrated if he can’t say hi to every dog. You can always arrange off-leash playdates to give your dog a chance to play with other dogs.
Make Your Expectations Known
If you do want your puppy to greet, make sure you follow a consistent set of rules so your puppy knows what to expect. Your puppy should always get permission before greeting another dog. Your puppy should be walking calmly (if he’s not, the greeting is not likely to go well). Also, ask the other person if their dog is friendly. If the person hesitates, or tells you he’s only good with some dogs, walk away! You don’t want to find out the hard way that the dog doesn’t like your puppy. If everything looks good and your puppy is approaching calmly, you can cue your puppy to say hello and walk up to the other dog, keeping the leash loose the entire time (tight leashes can lead to fights).
Once the dogs are close enough to sniff, let them sniff each other for about 3 seconds. After 3 seconds, thank the person and say, “Let’s go” to your puppy. Stick a treat in front of your puppy’s nose to help distract him and get him refocused on you. Keep the treat by your puppy’s nose as you move away, and then feed your puppy the treat when you’re about 10 feet from the other dog. Then continue walking.
Key Points of Dog-Puppy Socialization
Here are some key points of puppy socialization to remember during puppy training:
- There is no need for your puppy to greet other dogs on-leash. On-leash greetings are not natural for dogs and are much more likely to lead to fights than off-leash greetings.
- Your puppy should learn that seeing another dog leads to a treat from you and then continuing the walk without greeting the other dog.
- If you are planning to allow an on-leash greeting, make sure your puppy approaches calmly and waits to greet until you give him permission.
- Keep on-leash greetings very short, and use treats to help your puppy move away.
What if you’re off-leash in an appropriate play situation? In that case, call your puppy over to you every couple of minutes and feed him a treat. Then immediately send him back to play again. This will teach your puppy that checking in with you during play earns bonus treats, so when it’s time to go, you can call your puppy, put on the leash and leave without any fuss.
If you practice these exercises regularly during puppy socialization, your puppy will soon be a superstar with other dogs. Instead of crying or pulling when he sees another dog, he’ll look to you for permission. Instead of forgetting you exist when he’s playing with another dog off-leash, he’ll check in with you regularly.
Teaching your puppy that seeing other dogs is a signal to check in with you also makes your puppy less likely to rush up to other dogs rudely. Fewer rude approaches means fewer bad reactions from the other dogs, so your puppy is much less likely to develop aggressive and fearful behavior around other dogs—and you’re much more likely to wind up with a well-socialized adult dog.