When professional trainers talk about “socializing” dogs, they mean letting dogs interact with each other so that they can learn and practice the complex social interactions that canines use to communicate with each other.
There is always some risk of a scuffle when introducing dogs to one another. There are so many factors at play with dog interactions, including the complex history of each individual canine. Sometimes a fight happens despite all of your best efforts.
This article will explore ideas for safely socializing your dog followed by a brief primer on what to do in the event of a conflict. Being prepared with a plan of action can minimize both injury and the trauma of the experience.
The most critical time for your dog to learn how to be socially appropriate is when they are a puppy. Once your puppy has had their first complete round of vaccines, they are ready to meet and play with other pups during this critical learning period.
Puppy classes are probably the best chance for your pup to play with others their own age. When searching for the right puppy class, call ahead and ask if supervised playtime is provided before or after class to make the most of this opportunity.
Lose the leash
It is a common misconception that dogs meeting on a leash is “safer”. While training a dog to have positive interactions with other canines on a leash is important, it should not be confused with proper socialization.
In fact, most dogs are somewhat more defensive when on a leash. Leash greetings can trigger one of two major negative emotional states in your dog: the need to guard their people or fear they cannot escape a potentially aggressive dog. Neither of these emotional states contributes to a relaxed greeting.
Either way, meeting on a leash can actually be riskier than free greetings in a fenced area. When dogs are not on a leash, they tend to be more relaxed with a full range of motion to allow for the complex greeting rituals of canines.
Another excellent opportunity for your dog to get some social time can be found at doggy daycare. Check in your area to see if there are any such facilities that let the dogs play with each other while supervised by professional “Dog Wranglers.”
These folks are experts at dog interactions and they know when to intervene to prevent most altercations. In addition, they screen dogs to make sure that aggressive canines are not in the mix, further minimizing the potential for conflict.
There are also huge exercise benefits at doggie daycare!
Dog park dilemma
The dog park can be a great place for socialization but beware of the risks as well. You cannot control the other dogs or owners that show up on any given day. A conflict between canines at the dog park is not unusual.
Here are a few tips for reducing risk at the dog park:
- Visit without your canine companion a few times to get a sense for the other dogs and owners that frequent the park.
- Do not bring toys to the dog park.
- Use a harness rather than a collar for more control if you need to act fast.
- Do not stand there with your dog on a leash inside the park. Once inside the fence, release them.
- Once you release your dog, calmly walk away but keep an eye on them from a distance.
- Choose a park with separate areas for large and small dogs.
- Watch all of the dogs in the park for positive and relaxed body posture. If you see a dog exhibiting aggressive or defensive postures such as hard stances, hackles on the shoulders raised or ignoring the boundaries of other dogs, then calmly exit the park with your dog.
What to do if a fight happens
Fights between dogs happen. It is a risk that is ever present when dogs meet, even if you have given your best effort to avoid them. Knowing how to handle a conflict if it happens is critical to minimizing potential injury.
If you see the precursors to a fight happening, use commands your dog knows such as “Come!”, “Sit,” or “Leave it!” to try to diffuse the tension. If this works, then calmly remove your dog from the situation and reward them liberally for obeying you.
If that fails, then you may need to intervene. Here are some tips:
- If you have access to a water hose or an air-horn you can try these tools to diffuse the situation enough to separate the dogs.
- Don’t panic. Easier said than done. However, be aware that your energy can feed a fight if you do not keep it in check. Try to be firm but calm until the fight is over.
- Never grab dogs by the collar as this is very likely to result in you getting bit. Instead, grab the back feet of the dogs, or wrap a leash around the back hips. Start with the most aggressive dog if you do not have help. Once the dog is secure, pull back towards the nearest barrier you can use to separate the dogs.
- Once a fight is over and dogs are separated, try to hand your dog to someone that was not involved. They can do an assessment of injury so you can calm down before interacting more with your dog. The faster the energy returns to calm and relaxed the better.
- If your dog has been involved in a fight, they have experienced trauma. Stick to socializing with dogs you know are safe with your dog for a while so they can regain their confidence with other dogs in a safe environment.
We hope this article has encouraged you to seek out safe and fun ways to socialize your canine companion! Remember that it is up to you to do your best to look out for your dog’s safety. Every positive social interaction they have with other dogs contributes to their quality of life and skill at the nuances of canine interactions.
Mat Coulton has worked with dogs for just under a decade and is the founder of WileyPup.com, a doggy lover’s website that provides great tips and advice for pet parents everywhere.