Why I Don’t Let My Puppy Interact with Random Dogs - and What I Do Instead
It’s really important to me that my personal dogs represent me as a trainer. Pretty much the last thing I want is to walk around with dogs who bark at other dogs on leash, get all worked up over normal life stuff, and are unresponsive to me. My dogs have solid temperaments, so it is entirely reasonable to hold them to the standard of being calm and well-mannered in the majority of “normal life scenarios.”
Ok so, why am I talking about this? Because that is the reason why I do not let my puppy interact with dogs who are strangers.
“Hi, can you give us some room to pass please?”
“Oh don’t worry he’s friendly!”
“Oh, no thank you! Can we just pass by please?”
“He loves other dogs; he just wants to say hi.”
“Sorry, I don’t care!”
Allow me to explain.
Remember this was all inspired by my puppy, so allow me to get into a teeny tiny bit of theory here.
Puppies have what’s called a critical learning period where they’re learning some socials skills and learning how to be confident and comfortable in the world. The critical learning period refers to a specific range quire early in the dog’s life, but even beyond that, young dogs are malleable. They’re affected by experiences more so than older dogs - kind of just like people. It’s just easier to make an impression on them one way or the other.
So, a common socialization mistake that people make is something that some people call “over-socializing.” Some people let their dog go up to every person in the world and every dog that wants to say hi to them, and that can cause problems. It can kind of cause problems in two different directions.
If the dog is worried and stressed out during those interactions, the dog can start over-anticipating that, “Oh my gosh, something’s going to happen because I see another dog or human approaching us. I’m a little worried about it, so now I’m going to get more worried about it because every time I see someone heading towards us, I’m probably going to have to interact with them.”
On the other hand, if the dog is really into those experiences, really pumped up, excited, they usually get over-excited, because again they’re constantly anticipating those kinds of interactions whenever they’re out and about in the world, on a walk, visiting a pet store, etc. They’re just overly anticipating that something is going to happen with that person or that dog, so they start being obnoxious - pulling, barking, getting all worked up, and being unresponsive to commands.
And a dog can experience both! They can be overly excited and worried at the same time, and it’s just a lot. It usually doesn’t lead to great things.
So, most of the time my dog sees another dog, I do not want them thinking that any interaction is going to happen. Because, the majority of the time, it’s not going to happen! If we’re just going on a walk, visiting a store, or training somewhere, and another dog passes by, I want my dog to know: It has nothing to do with you. Don’t think too much about that dog.
Some people might say, “I like letting my dog say hi; it’s good enrichment for them; it adds spice to their life; it’s a good thing for them to do for entertainment.”
It might be, a little bit! But not really that much. Unless you’re really connecting with a person, like swapping phone numbers. “Oh, our dogs like each other; we should make a playdate.” That would be a different story. But a quick pass and go - there’s not really that much benefit. Your dog can’t play when they’re on leash. (We’ll talk about off leash stuff in a second.)
To me, the risks just outweigh the reward.
So then what about dog parks or off-leash friendly areas like the beach or park?
I don’t take my puppy in particular to these places much.
As a professional, I am gifted and cursed with the perspective of knowing just how many people have no idea about canine body language and have no clue that their dog is not really doing nice things when they interact with other dogs: they’re fearful, defensive, pushy, inappropriate, over-excited, obnoxious, rude, or just straight up aggressive.
People just don’t know. There are people that genuinely think that their dog’s aggression or other behavioral problems need to be fixed by meeting more dogs.
And sometimes dogs are stoic, and you don’t necessarily know that they’re going to be weird until you’re too close.
And while I would like my dog to be able to cope with those nuanced interactions, I don’t really want him thinking that that’s something that’s going to happen very often. (And, it’s not going to, because I’m going to protect him from those interactions.) I don’t want him to “figure it out” with other dogs and learn how to match being overly rough and obnoxious, rude and snappy, or whatever.
Puppies are very malleable, and it is at a young age that dogs develop bad habits around other dogs.
I make sure my dogs have enough social skills to get them through “figuring it out” in some situations, but I wait until they are mature adults before I ease up on allowing random interactions with other dogs, such as on hikes or at the beach.
So, when I got my puppy, I immediately knew that it was very important to me that he
Have social skills with other dogs
Have the ability to mostly be neutral around other dogs, on and off leash
Be deferential to my bitchy herding breed female Mars, who is in charge
I achieved this by:
Taking him to some puppy socials but not over-doing it. (He went to I think 4. He was immediately comfortable at all of them, so there were no socials spent with him just “warming up” as sometimes happens with shyer dogs.)
Introducing him to a small handful of playmates in my yard over his puppyhood.
Setting up regular playdates with a couple of special buddies during his early teenagehood.
*I’m a really big advocate for play dates. It’s so great to be able to have a relationship with the other dog(s) owners and be able to communicate when you would like to pause and practice some training, when you want to give your dog a time-out for being rude, when the dogs seem overly tired, etc. Dogs also benefit greatly from being able to build relationships with other dogs. Just like people, intimacy builds as dogs get more comfortable with one another, because they just know them.
Having some of those playmates not want to play rough so that he could practice doing nothing and being chill around them.
Having his playmates be mostly females with excellent social skills who would not let him act obnoxious.
Practicing coming when called and attention during those play sessions so that he doesn’t think, “It’s just me and the dogs, no human influence in these scenarios” and I could control him being overly excited or overly rough.
Practicing automatic attention around EVERY dog that we saw while outside.
Using toy play as an outlet for if a strange dog got him excited (by barking at us) - since he’s a puppy and still learning how to regulate his emotions.
Doing training field trips specifically to practice being around dogs outside and still paying attention to me, to balance out his high-volume playdate stretches.
Giving space to other dogs on walks (always at least across the street).
Blocking him from other dogs in areas where off leash dogs are nearby, like the beach. I have him stand in between my legs and eat continuously. This picture often does wonders - other dogs think it looks strange or generally uninviting, and I’ve had good success with them leaving us alone.
Ok, so what if a dog just absolutely charges us out of the blue?
I would look at that dog and their body language, and I would consider just letting the greeting play out. This is because me adding tension to the situation could in itself make the interaction go badly. I would definitely be yelling for the owner to immediately get their dog, and I would be assertive about that. Don’t be afraid to be assertive with people! Be an advocate for your dog!
I have been known to put my dog in a down-stay, grab someone else’s dog by the collar, and walk it all the way back to them.
So, that’s why I don’t let my puppy interact with strange dogs to the best of my ability.
Some dogs certainly have a nice time playing with other dogs, even random ones. But, considering how often dogs, at worst get attacked, and at best rehearse being over-excited and unresponsive to coming when called in these scenarios - I’m just a risk averse person, and choosing to partake in that activity on a regular basis does not make sense to me.
I get so many clients whose dogs are showing signs of being really stressed in those scenarios and not enjoying it anymore, and the client is beside themself imagining how else their dog is going to be able to enjoy their life ever again. They’re often resistant to the idea that their dog is not having fun in the dog park and may in fact be quite stressed. They don’t really have any other means of meeting their dog’s needs.
Well, if you’re thinking that this might be you, I have good news for you. Mentally and physically enriching activities are kind of my favorite thing, and I always have lots of ideas for people. Check out my blog and vlog about physical and mental enrichment ideas for high-drive dogs that don’t require you getting tired yourself (click). Take a look at my virtuald tricks class: they’re a great way to get physical and mental enrichment via tricks requiring strength, balance, and coordination (click here!). It wears your dog out! My Rockin’ Rally-O Group is a gateway to dog sports, if you’re curious about dog sports but don’t really know where to start, or you’re curious about competition obedience but you’re intimidated because everyone seems snooty and all of their dogs are perfect. Start with Rally! (Click here!)
Please reach out to me if you have any questions! Enjoy the rest of your day!