Some dogs are naturally friendly and easy-going, happy to socialize with any dog they meet. Some, however, aren't interested in canine meet-and-greets. They may become fearful, aggressive or indifferent. You can help your dog learn get along with other dogs, but there's no one-time fix. Instilling socialization skills and good behavior is a lifelong process that you'll have to practice or reinforce on a regular basis.
Dogs are instinctively pack animals. They thrive in structured environments with a definitive leader, or alpha, in charge. It's your responsibility to become the alpha in your pack; otherwise, your dog may assume the alpha role himself. If you live in a multi-dog home, you must enforce the hierarchy within the pack and make sure your dogs get along with each other. As alpha, you must lead with confidence and consistency. As a responsible pet owner, you must do so without getting angry, using physical discipline or raising your voice. Praise, fair reprimands and clearly defined expectations will firmly entrench your alpha position and stabilize the pack. Now you're ready to teach.
Socializing Your Puppy
Most puppies are naturally curious, friendly and generally accepting of other dogs. The first 4 to 5 months of a puppy's life, called the sensitive period, are when his little mind is open to learning and absorbing experiences that will carry him through his whole life. If you've just adopted a puppy, it's important to socialize him with other dogs so that being around other dogs becomes comfortable for him and not something to which he should react with fear or aggression. All pups should stay with their mother and litter until they're 8 weeks old, and after that you have to socialize with caution: Young puppies are not fully vaccinated, so places like dog parks or other unsanitized areas are too risky. For safe and healthy socialization, the ASPCA recommends puppy classes, car rides through a variety of environments and carefully arranged play sessions in your home with other puppies you know are friendly and healthy.
Socializing Your Adult Dog
Socializing an adult dog is different from socializing a puppy. Puppies are happy to interact with groups of strange puppies, but this type of group dynamic is unnatural for adult dogs who don't live with other dogs. Adult dogs who are thrust into an environment like a dog park may react with avoidance or aggression. It's unrealistic and even unfair for you to expect your dog to "play nice" with groups of strange dogs. Teaching your adult dog to get along with others should take the form of calm, polite behavior in public. Take him on daily, structured walks during which he's expected to sit and politely allow other dogs to pass. Enroll in obedience or agility classes, arrange carefully supervised play dates with a friend's dog, or take your dog to a highly recommended, organized doggy daycare once or twice per week.
Some dogs are so aggressive toward other dogs that it becomes a problem. According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the main reason for dog-on-dog aggression is improper socialization. Other contributing factors may be hormones, abuse by humans, past attacks by other dogs, chaining and long periods of isolation. Dunbar and Jean Donaldson, training director at the SPCA in San Francisco, both recommend professional aggression rehabilitation that forgoes punishment and reprimands. Positive reinforcement techniques include rewards, shaping, counter-conditioning and desensitization.
“In any discussion of aggression, it bears remembering that the bar we hold up for dogs is one we would consider ridiculous for any other animal, including ourselves," says San Francisco SPCA training director Donaldson. In other words, be realistic and open to what your dog -- with his own likes, dislikes, quirks and social preferences -- is able to accomplish. Some dogs respond well to basic socialization, as do many who require aggression retraining. Some dogs, however, may not ever learn to get along with other dogs and will always retain the tendency to fall back into aggression when stressed. In cases such as this, sometimes the only solution is to limit your dog's exposure to other dogs and to take precautions such as using a muzzle when you walk your dog in public.
- The Whole Dog Journal: Teaching an Aggressive Dog How to Be Social Around Other Dogs
- Mercola Healthy Pets: Does Your Dog Get Along With Other Dogs?
- Animal Humane Society: Socializing Adult Dogs
- ASPCA: Socializing Your Puppy
- 2ndChance.info: When Your Dog Bites - Understanding and Correcting Aggressive Behavior
- ASPCA: Aggression in Dogs
Yvette Sajem has been a professional writer since 1995. Her work includes greeting cards and two children's books. A lifelong animal advocate, she is active in animal rescue and transport, and is particularly partial to senior and special needs animals.