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!

7 thoughts on “The Sociable Dog

  1. Socialization to be among other dogs and people/crowds is extremely important. A confident dogs takes unknowns easier. Your bulleted points are good. Also good to remember to know your dog and not ask more than the dog is able to give – know when they are tired, feel insecure, overwhelmed and What can trigger not the best behavior – especially if you have a rescue dog – you must watch and keep them safe and out of trouble.

    1. Phil, thanks for taking the time to comment. You make an excellent point that we must “not ask more than the dog is able to give.” That came home to me (again) on our afternoon walk, when the combination of dogs, kids, ducks, and passing vehicles almost became too much to handle. I keep treats and kibble in my pocket for situations like these, so I can help her stay focused on me and keep her calm. And I was thrilled when Sasha reacted calmly to the dog (loose in his unfenced yard) who came rushing over to us. She was actually much calmer than I was, which is just another example of me learning from her!

  2. Anna

    We use the “Ask three times” rule for children.

    1- Ask the adult with you. I have to hear the adults answer. If you aren’t with an adult then it’s no.

    2- Ask the adult with the dog. If it’s not an adult, then it’s no. If they don’t hear you or respond, it’s still no.

    3- Ask the dog. If the dog doesn’t know you’re there, turns it’s head or body away, walks away, the handler changes their mind when you approach then it’s no.

    1. Anna, I really like your “Ask three times” rule!

      I’m becoming much more comfortable saying “No” to people who want to pet Sasha. If I don’t like the way they behave or if anything about their movements or speech raises red flags for me, or if I sense that Sasha is uncomfortable, I’ll move her away. Her safety and happiness take precedence for me.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Any dog or cat react to children can vary from the situation the animal is in
    When Kato was a kitten who was will socialize, he was great with children. Until on summer a group of children tease him. Now be wants nothing to do with children. I wouldn’t trust him alone with them. We were not pret when the teasing occurred or it wod not have happened.


    1. I’m sorry to hear Kato had a bad experience. You’re wise to not push him. My own rescue kitty Buddy doesn’t have much interaction with kids, but he’s always polite when we have guests of all ages, and the visiting kids are always gentle with him.

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