written by Turid Rugaas
Dogs are born to be social. They suffer when they do not live a social life and it is our duty to give them that possibility, being together with people, but also with dogs. A lot of people know this and social groups pop up like mushrooms and everything is called social activity whether it is or not. Just stop for a minute and think: When do you feel social and having a good relationship with somebody? Being with a friend or in the middle of a huge crowd?
Dogs are very much alike us. We have the same brain, the same emotions, the same reactions. Too much before we are ready for it will only create fear, helplessness, and all kind of negative reactions. It is the same with dogs who will easily get in defense mood, get stressed or shut down when things get too much.
Therefore we start with care, letting the dog having a chance of learning to be social in a calm way, by being with one other dog and having the time to observe and learn to be polite. The better he is with one dog at a time, learning the skills of communication and polite behaviour, the better he will later cope with other dogs and situations.
Starting with the puppy or very young dog is always best. Let the puppy meet an adult nice dog - nobody will be better as a role model. As he grows up let him meet different dogs. Different ages, sizes and breeds, but one at a time. That will widen his horizon and make him confident in being social with all kinds of dogs.
The more careful we are with a gentle start, the more confident he gets, and if he has learnt he can do it, he will build that self confidence he needs later.
Puppies must also meet puppies their own size and age and play a little, but only short, maybe 5-10 minutes, and the walks are also short of course.
If you have an adult “not-so-social” dog, you can still start with social walks.
Find another dog to take walks with. Walking parallel with distance enough for them to be sufficiently calm, looking at each other, sniff and explore, and be able to observe each other and learn about each other.
The walk itself
When you have found another dog to walk with, you plan where you are going to walk. Find an area with space around, so you can walk parallel, and have space to see early what is approaching. Industrial areas, parking lots, school yards, fields. There are plenty of possibilities if you look around. You agree to meet at a certain place and if you arrive in cars, just park a little away from each other so the dogs do not jump out of the car into the other dog’s face.
The rule is that walking out of a door, into a new area, out of the car and so on, you stay calmly with the dog and just let him look around for 20 seconds or so, and then start the walk. Do not distract him with talking, commanding, or pulling him. Just be quiet and let the dog observe the surroundings calmly. Then the start is the best, and he will learn so much better, faster and more efficiently.
If the dog is medium or small size you have to walk VERY slowly, and in any case so slow that your dog walks and does not have to run. Look at your dog and be sure of the movements. If he is trotting more than a few steps you walk too fast.
Because if you walk too fast:
he must concentrate on following you and cannot take the time to observe and learn;
he will get quickly tired, and in many cases - too many - start to feel muscle pain, getting tired, and then getting more irritable and stressed. That is when so called overreactions appear; barking, lunging, and so on.
So slow down, walk relaxed, loose leash - and if your dog explores, sniffs, looks at the other dog and seem to be relaxed, then he will learn something from the walk.
No. It only distracts the dog from what we want him to learn: be social with the other dog. No treats, no talking to him, no commanding - it will only distract him.
The people present can talk with each other, so do that. It might keep you from distracting the dog! And the dog knows the difference. But do observe him. It is up to you if he is going to have optimal possibilities to learn.
Be sure the leash is loose, and that means it needs to be long enough, otherwise it gets tight at the first step. Do not pull the dog at any point.
How long and how often?
Walk like that - short in the beginning, maybe 10 minutes, not more. The dog will get very, very tired from the concentration. Then just go home and let him rest. The walk can get longer each time you meet.
Meeting 2-3 times a week is great. If it is less it is still helpful. And then the walks can become longer, but only gradually, and maybe walk with another dog. Then after a while you can have more dogs together, but only when you see his social skills are good, the dog using calming signals and responding to other dogs using them. And if he feels relaxed with it, and seems to enjoy it. If he does not behave politely, he is not ready for a bigger group yet.
Social walks is the most important activity you can do with your dog. You do not need to do anything else, especially if you walk different places with different mental stimulation for the senses.
Be sure that they never play a lot and create a lot of exitement that can easily turn into harassment. They walk on leashes calmly till they are calm and polite with each other. It depends on the dogs when they can be free on the walks.
This activity alone will make your dog a social, polite dog who might never get any problems. It is worth the work and the consideration you put into it.
But do it more or less right, otherwise the social walk with too much excitement, too long, with too many dogs in the beginning, can easily turn into double trouble instead of double joy.
Turid Rugaas is a Norwegian dog expert, who has been at the forefront of canine communication for many years and founded Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) in 1998.