The eighth worst mistake that new dog owner’s make is assuming that all socialization is good socialization.
Somewhere along the timeline of dog wisdom, some misguided soul started the fallacious “fact” that dogs can work it out by themselves. It always makes me cringe when I hear people say something along the lines of “Let them be, they’re dogs, they will figure it out” or “they will teach each other”.
Unfortunately, many, many, dogs don’t abide by the rules when interacting with other 4 legged strangers. It’s up to their human companions to keep an eye out for the tell tale signs of puppies and/or dogs that are scared, annoyed, or otherwise uncomfortable.
Before we take a look at what sorts of signals a dog will give when it’s distressed, we have to talk about the ramifications of a bad encounter with another dog. I’ve heard of countless dogs that develop phobias of certain other dog types –big dogs, certain colored dogs, certain body type– and have a very hard time later in life when dealing with their specific trigger as a result of a negative socialization experience. In certain cases this fear can manifest itself in other areas of the dog’s life and cause behavioral problems that become very difficult to deal with.
We will touch on a field of canine study called calming signals in this series quite often. It is probably the single most misunderstood segment of dog behavior and training. For example, how many times have you heard someone say “Her tail is wagging…she is happy!”. If you are like me, you couldn’t count the number even if you had a million fingers and toes and while tail wagging can signal a dog’s happiness, if combined with other signals, it can be a sign of severe distress.
A great primer on calming signals can be found here. It is beyond the scope of this post to cover all of the signals a dog will use to convey his emotional state, but if you are so inclined Turid Rugaas –a pioneer in calming signal research– has a book that is a detailed foray into dog body language and I highly recommend it.
The takeaway from talking about improper socialization between dogs is that it is imperative to understand how a dog is feeling about interacting with another canine. It is the owner’s responsibility to her dog to ensure that each interaction with other puppies is a positive experience. This means that, sometimes, an owner will have to remove the dog from a situation that is out of his comfort zone! This will ensure a happy, non-reactive, dog that will be a joy to have around other dogs!