How to Properly Socialize Your Dog
There are several variable factors during your dog’s socializing process. This includes the levels of the task, levels of obedience, levels of proficiency, and the intensity of the environment (which includes training your dog’s social skills).
Without being aware of these guidelines, you could be in for a lot of problems during training. For example: Don't ask for an advanced task from a dog that is still at a lower proficiency level in a highly intense environment. You would be setting yourself up for failure.
On the flip side, if you’ve just started your training, starting on a low obedience level in a low-key environment, using beginner tasks, makes a lot of sense.
Part of your training process is knowing how to grade your dog’s skill and ability to work in different environments.
Here’s a breakdown of these elements:
Dogs, like humans, gradually become more proficient at what they are trying to learn. Starting out, and when working with a dog who’s new to training, it’s usually necessary to begin at a first stage of obedience. In time, a dog may graduate to a full obedience level, able to perform a wide variety of tasks. The road to get there is going to be faster or much slower depending on the individual characteristics of the dog. Here are the 4 stages:
• Little to no obedience: Simply not allowing the dog to practice bad behaviors, but not yet trying to teach specific commands.
• Very little obedience stage: This is when we ask the dog to perform a few easy commands that they can get proficient at.
• Medium obedience stage: implementing a few more complicated commands and more repetitions of the easy commands.
• Full obedience: This would be more of the final stage when we are asking the dog to perform all obedience and service dog tasks.
Likewise, it’s possible to grade a dog’s proficiency during obedience training. How long for a dog to become highly proficient may depend on your dog’s level of perseverance.
Command proficiently levels:
• No proficiency: Completely unable to follow any level of obedience training.
• Slightly proficient: Can take on basic tasks and basic positions (having your dog sit for a treat).
• Mostly proficient: Can undertake basic tasks quickly and easily, and is capable of learning more complex tasks.
• Completely proficient: The dog is skilled at all learned tasks and can quickly take on new tasks from basic to advanced.
Next, it’s important to grade the dog’s actual tasks based on levels of difficulty. This is fairly straightforward:
• Basic tasks include what we all know: sit, down, come, loose leash walking, stay, etc.
• Advanced tasks: Service dog tasks and other advanced obedience concepts, such as retrieval training or a focused heel.
Environmental Stimulation/intensity levels:
A superstar dog is able to perform advanced tasks even in a very distracting environment. But most dogs are not at that level and must start much more slowly.
• Almost no stimulations: This would be a place your dog is very comfortable at, such as your home.
• Very little stimulation: This would be a place your dog is comfortable at, but with some natural distractions. An example of this could be your front or back yard.
• Somewhat intense: This would be a new environment that has some distractions, but not so many that the dog could become overwhelmed.
• High stimulation / most intense: This would be a new environment with multiple distractions, such as a very busy park, people grilling food and wild rabbits jumping around (you get the idea).
Let’s go deeper into the concept of stimulating environments, and getting your dog used to socializing / performing with other dogs around:
The main goal with this element of the training process is desensitization. This is the technique of making your dog less reactive to stimulus that would ordinarily cause a bad reaction (chasing after another dog or other strangers), and is done by exposing the dog to the stimulus at a very low level until there is no response. Gradually, as you increase the stimulating environments, the dog will become non-reactive.
The process of socializing (and desensitizing a dog) could mean first taking the dog to a park in the early morning without many other dogs or people around. Later, as you increase in intensity, you might return to that park in the afternoon on a Sunday with lots of other people and dogs around. The goal is for the dog to behave the same way in either situation.
• At the beginning, start with low levels on all the stages discussed above. So, a low intensity area, low task levels, low obedience levels, etc.
• You can move on to higher levels once it seems clear the dog is very proficient.
• When moving into a situation with higher environmental intensity, start again with a low obedience level. This will increase with the speed of the individual dog. Eventually, like before, the dog will master this environment (eventually).
Goals to Aim For
Here’s some things to aim for with your dog as you work through these different levels of training, and how to know you’re making progress:
Dog Social Skills.
Much of our socializing process is more about exposure and less about contact. However, part of the process of socializing the dog is to reinforce the dog’s social skills around people and other dogs, namely ensuring the dog is not aggressive or reactive in any way. This requires controlling situations so the dog can have nothing but pleasant experiences with other dogs and humans. This will help prevent fear or aggression issues in the dog you're training.
A busy area with other people’s random dogs around may not be such a good idea compared to a barbecue with friends who are savvy dog people themselves, who have behaved dogs and who don’t reward bad behavior like jumping.
This is the concept that the dog knows that a command applies in any situation. This is where the dog’s proficiency in the training and desensitization really comes into play. A dog that has generalization ability knows to “sit” whether at home, in a busy dog park, in a shopping mall, a park with squirrels, you get the idea. A dog that is less well-trained may only sit at home, but once exposed to a new environment the training goes out the window. This is what we seek to avoid happening, by training our dogs in multiple environments. A superstar dog will sit obediently and perform necessary tasks in virtually any situation.
Road Map to Success
Here’s an example of how to apply everything outlined so far on a schedule:
Day one: a new environment with almost no stimulations. This could be something as simple as your front yard or local park that doesn't have much traffic. Start with little to no obedience, but don't let the dog practice bad behaviors such as barking at other people and dogs or pulling on the leash.
Day two: The same environment, but start asking for basic tasks.
Day three: The same environment, but ask for basic tasks and start introducing more advanced tasks.
Day four: The same environment, but ask for basic and advanced tasks and work on proficiency in the commands.
Day five: New environment with very little stimulation. Repeat the previous process.
Day six: New and somewhat intense environment. Repeat the previous process.
Day seven: New Intense environment: Repeat the previous process.
Day eight: New High stimulation/most intense environment: Repeat the previous process.
If you follow this simple process you will be able to train your dog to behave with other dogs and humans, as well as responding to your commands, in all environments.