As the director of training at a facility that also offers doggy daycare, I often get inquiries asking for help in socializing adult dogs with other dogs to stop leash reactivity, aggression, poor manners, and so on. I also see owners bring their dogs to daycare for the sole purpose to socialize with other dogs. With my background in human psychology, I always wonder (feel free to leave a comment!), too, what people think when they hear socialization? How do they picture a trainer socializing their reactive dog in a private lesson? How do they think daycare or dog parks will help socialize their dog? In what ways do they imagine being in a group of dogs will help them be friendlier?

I recently read a story of a dog seriously injuring two other dogs in a local dog park. A couple of witnesses mentioned that the dog just needed to be better socialized. “Socialization” seems to be trending among dog owners as the solution to dog aggression—and I wonder if the owner of the aggressor dog had been given that advice and thought taking the dog to the dog park was going to help with socialization. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s too general—and it’s wrong. You cannot socialize an adult dog the same way you would with a puppy because the socialization window has closed.

The most important window for a puppy’s social development is 4 to 14 weeks; the window for socialization closes by 16 weeks (some recent research says it closes as early as 12 weeks). Socialization is really classical conditioning, and whatever experience puppies have had with other dogs (or anything else) before they’re 3 to 4 months old will inform their opinions for the rest of their lives. After that socialization window closes, exposing dogs to other dogs will only reinforce these early opinions, unless the dog receives specific, targeted training (not running around at a park or daycare). This training is called “desensitization,” and there’s a significant body of research detailing exactly how it should be done so as not to make everything worse. So, what people should be really saying to other adult dog owners is, “Your dog should be desensitized (not socialized) to other dogs.” Desensitization changes associations and opinions in puppies over 4 months old; socializing does not.

Let’s look at an example: my recently adopted 10-month-old American Bulldog, Saint. When I first got Saint, I quickly learned he didn’t have any relationship with humans. He was sweet as can be, but didn’t know how to work or even play with me. During my weeks of working and playing with Saint, I noticed he would stare at other dogs and get excited.

I decided to take Saint to daycare and have him temperament tested while I observed via remote cameras and monitors. I chose this setting for two reasons: first, it is where I work, so I knew what was possible and trusted the people who would be working with my dog; second, I thought Saint would be more likely to make positive changes in the daycare setting than in a dog park. The joy and happiness that came out of mellow Saint was surprising and—quite frankly—shocking. He was running, jumping, spinning, greeting every dog excitedly, and at times humping them (a common sign of over-excitement in dogs).

At no point was Saint aggressive, but he was overly excited/aroused, which was something I did not want him to rehearse. As soon as I saw this behavior, I knew he could not continue to play with dogs in such a manner. Also, because Saint is deaf, he needs to learn how to read other dogs and make good decisions about how to interact with them, yet his over-the-top excitement was keeping him from doing this. It wouldn’t be long before his emotional state would get him in trouble.

Saint needed to be desensitized properly. I need to change his current association with other dogs, from being over-aroused to being calmer and more in control. Here was my plan:

1.Build a Relationship with Saint
2.Build a Foundation of Skills
3.Get Saint Calmer Around Dogs On Leash
4.Get Saint Calmer Around Dogs Off Leash
5.Have Saint Choose Me Over Dogs
Note that my plan WAS NOT to go to daycare more often or let Saint greet every dog he saw, which would run the following risks:

1. It could create more excitement, due to the limited space for free movement (due to being on leash).
2.It could create the false sense that all dogs are available for play all the time, resulting in frustration, which could turn into reactivity.
3.It could make the other dog feel “trapped” by my overly excited dog, and run the risk of the other dog reacting in an aggressive manner. (This, in turn, could result in Saint feeling aggressively defensive on leash.)
4.It would decrease my chances of building a relationship with Saint (how can I ever compete with his own species?)
The truth is, it’s a lot easier to build associations during the critical periods of socialization. Puppies are just learning about the world, and they’re a little like blank slates until we train them and expose them to all types of stimuli. It’s harder to change these associations once they have been set in puppies older than 4 months.

In my next post, I’ll go to details about my plan and Saint’s progress.