What Is Socialisation and How Do We Socialise Dogs?

Publishing Author : Jay Gray

Date Published : 30/09/18


An Introduction To Canine Socialisation And Issues Within The Industry

Understanding the socialisation of our canine friends is an invaluable skill to carry throughout the career of any canine professional.  Currently, with the lack of a governing body among the industry, many canine professionals (namely Professional Dog Trainers and Canine Behaviourists) are misunderstanding the basic and fundamental concepts in Canine Socialisation and the social needs of dogs.

There is an ongoing misunderstanding among canine professionals on how dogs need to socialise and what their needs are which is causing ongoing and serious behavioural issues for dog owners, requiring more training from the initial trainers who are causing this problem, the vicious circle within the industry continues round for an infinite amount of time.  This could be a marketing ploy or could be simply a lack of understanding from a professional that was self-taught and not only that, but potentially self-taught many years ago.  Among Professional Dog Trainers you will frequently find those whose only claim to a formal education is that they have been living and working with dogs for multiple years.  These people are causing havoc on the Dog Training industry and producing some of the problems outlined in this paper.

It is key for all Canine Professionals to fully understand the fundamental needs surrounding canine psychology and anthropomorphising dogs whilst training them further fuels the problem.  There have been multiple accounts of trainers anthropomorphising dogs around these social aspects misunderstanding the core principles of this study.  As an aspiring Canine Professional, it is paramount that you understand the anthropomorphising surrounding socialisation and how to properly socialise dogs of all ages.

The canine (as proven by Dr David Mech) we now understand to be a Social Opportunist, meaning that dogs can be happy in a solitary life but will come together in groups (commonly referred to as a pack, but not to be misinterpreted with the Social Structure of Canis Lupus).  With this in mind, our dogs are completely content without large amounts of interaction from other dogs.  They do certainly do not need large amounts of interaction from other dogs that do not fit our social constructs and are ill mannered or pushy.  Excessive exposure to such interaction sends our dogs training backwards and breeds other issues that will need dealing with on top of the initial issue of socialisation and proper understanding of how to socialise the dog.


Issues In The Industry Relating To Socialisation And Training

As outlined in the opening statements, there are many issues among the Dog Training industry that are having a domino effect on the public and the progress they are having on their journey.  There are a few key points that certainly need looking at in this area to make sure that moving forward we do not continue to replicate the same mistakes that are happening in the industry today.

The lack of governing body within the industry is certainly a factor in the lack of knowledge among many canine professionals today.  There is definitely a direct correlation between the knowledge of an individual and the education undertaken in his or her lifetime.  With this said, it is important to look at the scientific information that we have about our dogs rather than an opinion that was likely birthed many years, or in some cases even decades ago.  Self-taught dog trainers are still preaching what their teachers preached to them and taking no time to understand the modern studies and education that we have available today.  This is resulting in dogs still being referred to as pack animals and therefore trainers thinking that dogs must socialise in large groups and that the ‘alpha’ of that group will deal with any issues that may occur whilst the socialisation progress is ongoing.

We know that Canis Lupus Familiaris (the domestic dog) is not a pack animal but a Social opportunist.  These professionals are teaching incorrect information to members of the public that have no need to know anything further.  When a member of the public addresses a professional in their field, they expect to be given appropriate and up to date knowledge on the topic at hand.  This is where it becomes the responsibility of the Canine Professional to address their knowledge and not the public, although as time goes on more and more regular members are becoming more knowledgeable within this field and others relating to it.


What Is Socialisation?

Socialisation has many definitions outside of the canine world and it is important to differentiate these from the dogs in our lives.  Dogs do not think like humans do.  A human is an episodic learner meaning they learn by episode and store this understanding as an episodic memory and stored in the hippocampus.  Dogs are associative learners and their experiences stored in the hippocampus are that of association.  Dogs also lack the cerebral cortex power to manage advanced logic like humans do.

For example, if you ask a person to recite the last time they went to a restaurant for a meal, they can logicize the entire experience, explaining what went on and why certain things happened at certain times.  We have to remember that many of these constructs are man -made, such as time itself in the way we have come to understand its measurement within society.  A dog, on the other hand, cannot rationalise and logicize in this manner.  If you show a dog the jacket that you go for a walk in, they will often exhibit behaviours of immense excitement even if the entire picture does not look as it should when they are indeed going out for a walk.

With this in mind we need to understand how dogs perceive social engagements and socialisation as a whole.  The act that they repeat over and over again will be the association that is made inside the dog’s brain moving forwards.  If that association is huge excitement with other dogs, then this is what will be created as a habitual behaviour.  Alternatively, if the association to other dogs is to engage with the owner, then this is what will be created moving forward as a habitual behaviour.  This is important to understand before looking into how to actually socialise our dogs because without this knowledge we fall dangerously close to the line of anthropomorphising our dogs and treating their social encounters like we would with those of a human.  This is normal of course, because without further understanding than our own experience we can’t properly get a handle on what is going on in this world.


How Do We Socialise Dogs?

            There will forever be endless debates among canine professionals about the appropriate and correct way to socialise dogs in order to achieve the outcome that we most desire.  Thankfully very few of these methods suggested are based out of any evidential factors so sifting through the options that trainers are suggesting is fairly straight forward.

Many individuals are part of the group that think all dogs should be free to socialise with one another, especially as younger puppies.  This is seen very commonly among many puppy classes.  The dogs will be taken to a hall or community centre and given free reign to play and enjoy themselves with one another.  Whilst this is certainly enjoyable for the puppies it can be harmful in the long run when further life rules are put in place.  Learning this association from day one allows the association to become engrained deeply in the dog and will result in an older dog associating all other dogs with huge play and therefore reward.  It is easy to forget that a reward does not have to come directly from a human but can come from another dog or even be from the dog itself.  This is known as self-rewarding behaviour.  Dog ‘A’ playing with dog ‘B’ can be self-rewarded even if dog ‘B’ has no interest in the participation of play.  When excitement and arousal levels go up, the release of dopamine occurs and over time the dog associates the release of this hormone (and thus enjoyment) with the act of playing with other dogs.

These hyper arousing behaviours can branch out into other behaviours as well going further down the road.  Any state of hyper arousal, whether that be excitement, anxiety, drive or fear can lead to problematic behaviours such as idiopathic aggression or complete lack of memory regarding foundational training.  This makes it important to understand in what state dogs should be in during the socialisation process.  If dogs are in a high arousal state, then it is likely that other problems will arise making the entire process worse than it was before training even began.

Socialisation within the canine world is a slightly arbitrary term and maybe one that should be changed for something more encasing of the behaviours we desire.

Correct socialisation is actually partially a lack of socialisation unless in a certain state, so to teach correct socialisation it is important for the dog to associate other dogs with either nothing, or engagement with the handler/owner.  This is something I refer to as the prison phase of training because the dog is under a fairly to strict regime where playing with other dogs is not part of the programme.

To initiate the prison phase of training, one goes out to an area where there are minimal dogs at a fair distance so the dog in training shows little to no interest in the surrounding dogs.  At this point, the trainer starts to engage with the dog, providing that the foundational engagement steps have been properly put in, so the dog starts laying down the very small building blocks of association between engagement with the trainer or handler and the presence of dogs in the external world.  This is repeated for a period of time with the external dogs becoming more interesting, closer and more frequent until the dog can stay fully engaged with the handler.

At this point, the dog in training has completed the core foundations of socialisation and can begin to interact with other dogs in a controlled manner.  This can be done on lead or off lead with the pros and cons to each being addressed and understood by the trainer before any training is undertaken.

Dogs with pre-existing behavioural issues which directly conflict with appropriate socialisation will need said behaviours addressing before a socialisation programme is started.  This ensures that the programme can run smoothly and the associations that the trainer wishes to build can be built without interruption and minimal risk to new, undesired associations being built.  For example, a dog with severe fear reactivity or forward aggression would not be a suitable candidate to embark on a socialisation programme until these problems are resolved because of the very likely outcome of the dog showing said behaviours during the social building sessions.

In conclusion it is important to remember that dogs and humans learn in very different manners and that dogs do not need to be hyper stimulated at all hours of all days in the presence of other dogs.  This can cause multiple other issues which will be discussed at length in forthcoming papers.


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