Socialization:The Importance of it and why it doesn’t always fix everything

One of the first commandments of dog ownership is to “socialize your pup/dog”. Its importance in raising a dog to be a well balanced, happy dog is even stated in the actual breed write ups aka breed standards of many different breeds. Some dog breeds of course, require much more extensive socialization than others, due to their genetic predispositions to things such as dog aggression, or trust of strangers.
What does it mean to socialize your puppy or dog? It means exposing them to as many new situations, places, people and animals as you possibly can,early on, so that the pup will grow to be confident and secure no matter where you may take them or whom they may meet later on in their life. It is extremely important that any socializing be monitored so that new experiences are made as positive as possible for your pup/dog. A bad experience can leave a dog that was once confident and secure, quivering in fear at even the sight of another dog, person or place. This is one of the reasons dog parks can be such a disaster, especially for a young pup who is still learning the ropes so to speak. They can learn to distrust and fear dogs in general after being bullied at a dog park….leading to the owners having to then bring in trainers or behaviorists in the attempt to reverse the problem. And sometimes, no matter how much they work to correct it, that dog may never be the same again. May never be totally stable around other dogs.
Many people suggest, myself included, that instead of putting your pup or older dog in situations that can be unpredictable and risky, it is safer to arrange smaller, more secure settings where you have a better idea of how things will go. For instance, instead of taking your pup into a large gathering of other dogs to socialize, pick a dog or two that you know and trust, who’s play style suits that of your pup/dog and go from there. Arranging play dates with your friend’s dog is a much safer bet than putting them in a fenced in area with strange dogs you’ve never met before, and have no way of knowing how they will behave…or if the owners are in control of the dog/s.
Try not to overwhelm your dog. Too much of anything at one time is never a good thing. While some dogs may cope just fine with an overload of stimulation, others can shut down completely, leaving you ten steps back rather than ten steps ahead.
It is true, that by socializing your dog as much as possible, you can make a dog much more likely to be confident and secure in new situations. That is a given. However…what I do not agree with, and never have, is the idea that socialization is the cure all to ALL behavioral issues, or that it completely erases a dog’s genetic predispositions. I’ve seen far too much evidence to the contrary to believe that. It is a preventative, it is a teaching tool,but it is not a one size fits all fix to everything.
I hear of or have seen, an awful lot of dog owners who have gone into the relationship with their new pup or dog, no matter the breed, thinking that as long as they socialize, that dog will never have dog aggression issues, never be afraid of or not like people, never chase rabbits or want to kill a cat. It simply isn’t always true. There are some dogs, who despite all the socialization in the world, still retain certain personality traits that while may be controlled or containable with proper care and consideration (being careful about what dogs they meet, where they are taken in public, never allowed to run off lead for instance) are never quite trustworthy in certain situations 100%. It is when these owners refuse to acknowledge that fact, that disasters can and do occur.
Some breeds are just naturally leery of strangers for instance. This is in their genetic makeup. Even when breeders have tried over the years to breed more stable, friendly dogs, many still retain those original traits.Some breeds have a natural desire to chase prey. Some need to herd. Take herding dogs. They may not all be living on farms nowadays, herding sheep…but they still retain that desire, that genetic NEED to do so. How many of these breeds end up in shelters when the owners live a lifestyle that isn’t conducive to fulfilling those needs, and can no longer cope with the consequences of choosing a dog that NEEDS to be stimulated?
It bothers me when I see people trying to fit dogs into their own cookie cutter ideals and personal needs, and when the dog doesn’t conform 100%, they suffer for it.
Here is the fact. While socializing your Great Dane will go a long way to helping them be more trusting and comfortable with strange people and other animals, it does NOT guarantee that your dane is going to end up loving all animals and people they meet on the street. At the end of the day, these are still dogs who have a genetic predisposition to be protective of their immediate families, to be a bit leery of strangers. While dog aggression is not a huge problem in general, it can and does happen, and just because your dane was great with dogs for the first year or two, does NOT mean that they will not later on with maturity, develop some sort of DA.(Irregardless of how well socialized they may be or have been) Not ALL Great Danes are going to “LOVE” children and want to be climbed all over and mauled. And I don’t think it’s fair to fault them for it if they just happen to have the personality that they were originally meant to have. Faithful and protective of their masters and immediate family, guardians of their home and territory and leery of those outside of that intimate circle.(as all mastiff’s are supposed to be) Nor is it fair to expect every single dog of any breed to share the exact same personality or traits. We are each individuals at the core, and so are our dogs.
I think it can be very dangerous in some ways, for people to tout socialization as the automatic fix of all issues. When we refuse to realize that there are some things that just cannot be completely removed, we put our beloved dogs in danger of reacting in ways that may cause them harm, other dogs or people harm, and ultimately end their lives. It happens a lot with bull dog breeds. People refuse to accept that their dog just may never like other dogs. Period. They continually try to “socialize” that out of them…putting their dog and the public in danger by forcing them into scenarios where they might react negatively. If you know your dog has a problem with male dogs for instance, you simply make sure you avoid letting that dog engage with other males. You don’t stick them in the face of every male dog you come across, hoping that by flooding them with the very thing they can’t handle or don’t like, they will magically become the friendly dog at the park who loves and wants to play with everyone. It’s irresponsible, and as far as I’m concerned, another great example of how we as humans continue to put our dogs in harms way just so we can show off how superior we are as trainers, as dog owners, as “alpha’s”, or what have you. And when you make a mistake, when you’re not watching for one instant, when your dog attacks and maims another dog, or a child, when you KNEW that it was a very good possibility, and that dog is forced to be euthanized, labeled a vicious dog, you have no one to blame but yourself. And maybe the people who spend so much time convincing the dog world that by bombarding your pooch with experiences they can’t handle or don’t enjoy, you’re going to cure them of that dislike.
There has to come a point when you realize that changing certain traits that could otherwise be managed and prevented, is not worth the risk. When the children you so desperately want your dog to be fine with, might prefer keeping their skin intact, rather than being a guinea pig so you can re program your dog. It’s fine to try and work with your dog to get over fears, to help build confidence, to eradicate certain negative associations. I’m not disputing that at all. What I am saying is, that when you get to the point where you just know in your heart that your dog is never going to be a lover of strangers, of certain people, of other dogs, of cats,etc…then accept those “flaws” if you see them as such,and manage them the very best that you can so both you, your dog and the public will remain safe. And so your dog can lead a happy life not having the very things they will never enjoy shoved in their face and down their throat all of the time.
Luke does not like children. I know that, I accept that, and I manage that by not constantly parading children in his face every day. I make the public very aware that he doesn’t want to be manhandled and to please respect his space…as you would want people to respect yours. And guess what? You could not ask for or probably find a more socialized dog than Luke. That poor guy has been literally bombarded with people of all ages, shapes, sizes and dogs of all shapes and sizes and breeds, since he was a pup. And yet he still does not like certain male dogs now. Nor does he want people man handling him anymore. Socialization didn’t affect that. What he put up with and seemed to even enjoy a year ago, is not what he prefers now. And I don’t see anything at all wrong with that.
The point? Know your dog. They’re strengths, their weaknesses. How far you can push them and when to just back off and let them be. Don’t let anyone else talk you into putting YOUR dog in dangerous positions that may harm you and the one you love, just so you can say you didn’t give up, you got the upper hand, or what have you. Sometimes we just need to let them be who they are. We don’t have them with us nearly long enough in the first place…let’s not let their short lives be full of turmoil as we try to force them to be something they are not.

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4 thoughts on “Socialization:The Importance of it and why it doesn’t always fix everything

  1. Thank you for posting this. We’ve had several “challenging” situations with our Dane, Dakota, who is a rescue. He is dog aggressive, but not with all dogs. He is also very protective especially now that my husband is working and living out of town most of the time. I’ve often been conflicted thinking I could “fix” Dakota by trying to socialize him more but deep down I just know that he isn’t going to like everyone. He’s still going to get snippy with people who aren’t introduced in the manner he’s come to identify with the “OK” people. If you’re a stranger and you push him or are too animated, he’ll let you know it isn’t ok with him. If we aren’t careful with other dogs, he will attack them (a lesson my husband learned the hard way.) I’ve wasted way too much time being stressed about whether I’m doing it right – whether I should be doing more to “fix” him. Now I feel ok with what we’re doing and my caution in new situations. Thank you for helping me realize it!

  2. Definitely. Some working breeds are naturally standoffish, some herders are nippy, some hunters would rather follow their noses then a command. I wish more people would choose breeds for their personalities, (and find one that suits their lifestyles), than picking them for what they look like. I really think that is where part of the issue lies…

  3. Great post, and I see my dogs in several of your examples. My Leah will never do good with crowds, so I don’t take her out to places where she might feel overwhelmed. Toby will never be 100% trustworthy off leash, so I stopped competing in Rally with him outdoors, just to make sure he is always safe. And while Meadow is still a work in progress with helping her with her fears, I can tell already she will never be comfortable about loud noises (fireworks, thunder, etc.,). They each also have great qualities which I appreciate, but they are individuals, and you need to take the good with the bad.

    • It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who is able accept their dog/s for who and what they truly are, instead of constantly fighting to make them into who we think they should be or would rather them be. You’d be surprised at the amount of people who will argue til they’re blue in the face that by flooding, or over socializing they can cure the worst of issues. And you know, maybe a good number of dogs CAN indeed be totally rehabilitated. What I take issue with though, is the people and trainers in the dog world who convince all prospective new dog owners, especially ones of certain breeds, that as long as they take their pup places and socialize them alot, they will NEVER have to worry about things like Dog Agression or a natural leeriness of humans. It’s bad for the person who is taking on maybe more than they can handle, and bad for the dog who may end up dumped when the owner can’t cope with the REALITY of living with and raising that kind of dog. Sometimes I think that while we fight so hard for animal rights and protecting them, giving them the best of foods and lives, we are so hell bent on being forever POSITIVE that we neglect the truth and the potential negatives that do indeed need to be addressed.

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