The Sociable Dog

Sasha 3-20-16 posing for spring CROPPEDBefore Sasha came into my life, I already had a reasonable collection of dog-related reference works in my office—about what you’d expect for anyone writing fiction involving dogs. Now that I have a Sheltie, my collection of resources has grown significantly. Being the research geek I am, I’ve collected just about every reference available related to Shelties plus books, videos, and websites dedicated to dog training and rescue dogs in general. The more I read, the more I realize how much there is to learn and relearn.

Every day with Sasha is full of learning moments—some repeats, some new, and some downright unexpected. Take interaction with children, for example. You’ll find plenty of folks who swear Shelties are great with children, including the volunteer who fostered Sasha for a few days. The volunteer assured me Sasha was “good with kids.” That assessment, though, was based on her observations of the dog with a single toddler over a span of a few days. As any researcher knows, it’s not possible to generalize results from a miniscule sample. In simple terms, this means I cannot accurately predict how Sasha will behave when interacting with children.

Experienced trainers and responsible dog owners emphasize the need for early socialization (which I’d argue is essential for humans and dogs alike).  Since Sasha is a rescue, I have to rely on what little I know of her past, what I’ve learned about the breed, and my own instinct when we come upon children as we did today at the park when two very small girls wanted to rush over to “pet the pretty doggie.” Fortunately, their grandmother was quick to remind them to never approach a dog without permission (I wish all adults were that smart about dogs). I’d been working Sasha on the 30’ long line in the field but quickly switched to her standard leash. Then I knelt and showed the girls how to hold their hands out toward Sasha, who greeted them with a polite sniff. In less than a minute, Sasha made it clear she’d had enough social time, although she was polite and quietly shared the sidewalk as everyone moved off in the same direction. (That bodes well for the upcoming Dogwood Walk benefiting the Humane Society of the Ozarks.)

Today’s experience reminded me that while Sasha feels safe with those in her household, she tends to be reserved but polite in public and has limited tolerance when others (of the human or canine variety) venture too close. So we’ll keep working to increase her comfort level with others while being mindful of her need for personal space. When it comes to children, that means taking her near the playground but not letting her be surrounded by overeager little ones. We’ll keep exposing her to different environments with plenty of room for her to move away from others if she needs to.

I came across a blog post that includes a succinct description of the socialization process as perceived by that dog owner. The infographic comes from the same post, by the way. Here’s what one dog owner thinks:

My understanding of the word, is that “socialisation” is a process of exposing the dog to a variety if things and circumstances. The Socialisation Process can be seen to be beneficial for the dog if the dog displays positive emotions and socially-acceptable behaviour towards what it is being socialised to.

socialisation-depends-onYou can read the entire 3-part post here.

For another perspective, let’s consider a professional’s point of view.  Starr Ladehoff, CPDT-KA (which stands for Certified Professional Dog Trainer — Knowledge Assessed) contributed an article to back in 2012. Here’s what she said:

Socialization really is:

  • Exposure to the world the dog will be a part of in a safe manner with rules and guidelines
  • Learning to be calm when the world is stimulating
  • Learning to respond to signals when that is not what they want to do

Yes! Socialization is learning and maintaining acceptable behavior in any situation, especially when they would rather not. It is learning to handle any experience they will normally encounter throughout their life without becoming fearful, overly stimulated, reactive or aggressive.

You can read the entire article here.

Your own view of the socialization process might vary depending on your personality, your dog, the bond you share, and the environment in which you live.  For my part, I want Sasha to learn to be calm, confident, and responsive wherever we are. And that means daily training and time spent in different places with myriad distractions. Every day we both learn something new!