To Greet or Not to Greet, That is the Question: A Brief Meditation on Socialization
Something that new puppy parents often have lots of questions about- especially now in the time of COVID when going out & about is a concern- is how to best socialize their new puppy. "Don't they need to play with X number of dogs in order to be well socialized?"
Well, the answer is likely going to surprise you...
But before we get into it, let's first define socialization. The literal definition of socialization is, "the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society." Now let's think about that in terms of dogs. Some of the most common complaints that I hear from pet dog owners are that the dog jumps up on people when greeting them, the dog pulls on leash or gets distracted/barks/pulls/lunges when seeing other dogs while out on walks, and/or that the dog is generally over-excited and distracted by everything out in the world. All of those things are not deemed socially acceptable to us.
For dogs, the most appropriate thing for them to do in almost every social setting is to ignore other dogs and people. So learning how to do that is still socialization! This is good news- your puppy doesn't need to say hello to every dog they see or X amount of people every week in order to be well socialized.
Now, I am by no means advocating for everyone to shut their dogs away and never let them see strange people and/or dogs. Quite the contrary, in fact! But what I am proposing is that your puppy doesn't need to directly interact with lots of other dogs or people in order to be a well-adjusted, four-legged member of society. In fact, I would argue that they shouldn't be greeting every dog and/or person they see while out and about.
Why? Because we are trying to set the expectation for our puppies of what's going to happen for the rest of their lives. If we allow our puppies to go up and say hello to every person and dog they see, then that is what they will think is appropriate whenever they see other dogs and people. Cue the pulling, lunging, jumping, barking, distracted dog antics.
But instead, if we set the expectation that other dogs and people mean nothing for our puppy and are just background noise, then we will have a dog that (for the most part) can go anywhere and do anything without much of a care that there are other dogs or people around.
So how do we do that? Well, puppy classes are a great place to engage in what I call "passive socialization." By that, I mean exposing your puppy to all sorts of novel distractions without directly interacting with them. And a well-run puppy class is a PERFECT example of this! In a puppy class, your puppy will be exposed to lots of other puppies and people, but they are not directly interacting with them- they are learning to stay engaged with YOU despite all those distractions that are around.
But in most puppy classes, we also allow some short off-leash play times either throughout class or at the end of class. This leads to my next point: direct socialization. Most people want their puppies to learn how to play nicely with other dogs. If your puppy came from a responsible breeder, then this process has already begun as your puppy was allowed to stay with mom & littermates until at least 8 weeks of age. But if, unfortunately, that was not the case for your pup or if you're just looking to continue that type of socializing, then there is a far better way to do so than sticking your puppy in day care or going to a dog park.
In fact, I usually implore my puppy parents to avoid day cares and dog parks if at all possible. Why? These environments tend to be a free for all, where dogs are allowed to run up to anyone they want (human & canine alike) without consequence, and most likely engage in some not so nice behaviors. This can lead to learning bad manners, like continuing to jump on people or playing too rambunctiously. As someone who used to work in doggy day care, I can tell you from personal experience that the overwhelming majority of dog day cares have groups that are far too large for just one person (or sometimes even 2-3 people) to manage. This makes it very hard to monitor groups for the more subtle signs that play is becoming inappropriate, and intervene. Which means that unfortunately some dogs learn to play too hard or too rough with others. Same goes for dog parks- the majority of dog owners aren't educated enough on dog body language to spot good play from not-so-nice play, which can lead to dogs learning bad manners when it comes to play, or even fights breaking out. Not to mention the risk of your dog catching kennel cough or other communicable doggy illnesses!
In short, the risks associated with dog parks & day cares are far greater than the benefits- which are usually just that the dog gets some exercise and comes home tired. We can achieve a tired, happy dog without dog parks & day cares. Trust me- I once lived in a townhouse in the middle of a busy city with no yard and a young, high drive German Shepherd who was not a candidate for day cares or dog parks. You have to get a little more creative, but believe me when I tell you it can certainly be done!
Think of large social groups like those found in dog parks/daycares like going to a frat party. That environment might be fun for certain individuals when you're young, but for a lot of people that kind of loud, hectic environment is way too overstimulating and not one we'd want to be in for very long (if at all). Instead, most people would rather go out for dinner or catch a movie with a couple of close friends. That is the difference between a dog park/daycare and small, supervised play groups with just 1-2 other dog friends.
Which brings me back to puppy classes- don't be shy! Exchange phone numbers with others in your puppy class and arrange for small play dates outside of class. A lot of dog training facilities allow students to rent their buildings as well, so even if none of your classmates have a fenced in yard to meet up in, you could always ask your trainer about renting the space for a play date!
However, puppy classes are not always an option for everyone. During this pandemic, it can be hard to find places offering in-person puppy classes or you might not feel comfortable attending one. But there are still ways that you can socialize your puppy without attending a class! The best thing you can do is take your puppy out to new places- on walks around the neighborhood, get in the car and drive to a new neighborhood and go for a walk, venture out to pet stores, hardware stores, tack & feed stores, outdoor shopping areas, or anywhere else you feel comfortable going where you're allowed to bring your puppy. And while out and about, practice some very easy engagement games! (I'll link some of my favorites below.)
This is a way that you can engage in socialization around distractions without a puppy class. In fact, I would encourage everyone to do this, even if you are attending training classes. Dogs are very specific learners, so just because they learn how to do something in one environment doesn't necessarily mean it will translate to new environments UNLESS you practice in lots of new places!
"But my puppy is soooo cute! Everyone wants to say hi to him/her whenever we go out!" I had that same problem with Chester, my Golden Retriever. I discovered very quickly that going out in public with a Golden Retriever puppy is like carrying around a giant neon sign that says "PLEASE APPROACH AND INTERACT WITH ME!!!" What I found to be helpful to keep the public (and their dogs) at bay was to make it inexplicably clear that my puppy and I are training. If someone began to approach us, I would have Chester sit in front of me. I would then feed him lots of treats for doing so, while saying out loud, "What a good puppy, yup we're not visiting right now, good job staying focused!" Obviously Chester had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, but I would say these things out loud to help cue the approaching stranger that we are not available to interact right now. Most people would take the hint and carry on, usually telling me how cute my puppy was as they passed by. For the few people who didn't get the memo, because I wasn't even looking at them they were forced to ask us, in some way, if they could say hi. To which I would reply some version of, "Oh not right now, we're training," with a big ol' smile on my face to help belay any rudeness.
And because that became Chester's expectation at a young age, now as a 2 year old dog we can go into any environment without him getting distracted. In fact, as a general rule, while my dogs are on leash I typically choose not to have them engage in any kind of greeting with other dogs or people. They get plenty of time to socialize off leash at our home and at friend's houses with their close friends (or at least they did in a non-pandemic year), and I would rather them learn that when they are on leash, their job is to stay focused on me and ignore all those tempting distractions out in the world. This also prevents them from ever learning bad manners; you can't practice jumping up on someone if you don't say hi to them in the first place!
I have so much more I could say on this topic- like for example how forcing a nervous dog to interact with people or dogs in an attempt to "socialize" them can actually make the problem worse- but perhaps that's a blog for another day.