Training social skills is a little bit different for every dog. My 94 lb German Shepherd Dog (working and tracking lines) M’Ocean just turned three years old, ready to compete and earn more ribbons in rally, and start entering agility and tracking events. With warm ups and slow introductions, he often, but not always, displays amazing social skills. He loves people, he’s lovey dovey with my grandchildren. He’s gentle with guest puppies and dogs, he plays nice in big dog groups, he herds my ducks without harming a feather, but sometimes, when he’s leashed in the park, especially if another dog is staring at him , he’ll bark intensely at the other dog.
And in general, no one wants to see your german shepherd tell another dog off. German shepherd dog barks sound like a five alarm fire drill, extremely threatening, loud and scary. And even when M’Ocean is desperate to be friendly, 94 lbs of friendly german shepherd is more friendly than many people or dogs want.
There are many things on my training plan, upocoming rally and agility events, tracking events, some freestyle tricks I want to train, titles I want to collect. But nothing is more important than having a dog that won’t embarrass me (or scare/hurt anyone else). This is also true for dog owners in general, amirite?
So here’s where I stand with my “social” training plan. At the park, where lots of dogs are popping out everywhere, some on leash, and some off leash, I’m going “back to kindergarten.” That means, I will make lessons easier, clearer, train closer to the car for a while. That way, if M’Ocean whines or makes a small mistake, I can deliver a friendly consequence, and pop him back in the car. I don’t want to get myself in a situation where I have to keep on giving him a lovely walk in spite of the fact he just yanked the leash or barked at the off-leash dog. I want to be prepared to show him very clearly which behaviors earn more “privileges” and which behaviors mean he’s going “back to the car.”
We can measure our training progress partly by what gear the dog requires, and which environments are more comfortable and easy for your dog to be successful. My GSD is 3 years old now, and still at kindergarten (head halter) training level in many environments. As my goal is to have my dog become comfortable and reliably responsive off-leash in almost any environment, I need to progress training, and start practicing flat collar in more environments. For clarity sake, as well as safety sake, when he’s on a flat collar, I need to stay near a car or crate, so that if he’s naughty, I can stop the game. When my dog is responding well on a head halter around the car, and not reacting there even when other dogs cross the parking lot, then I can practice a bit on his flat collar. If he makes mistakes, I can put him in the car (or we could bring crates), and put his head halter back on. When he’s not making mistakes on his flat collar, then I practice long line games, and build some distance control, practicing stationary behaviors, and sending him to the car, and adding duration and distractions. Reinforcing crate games in the park may provide more confidence and clarity than all the frustrating not-loose leash walks in the world. Do you see how this delivery of incremental freedom, in responses to self control, can progress to great off-leash skills?
Yes it takes time, but if you don’t want to train, why did you get a dog? With my old dog Tigerlily, who was a super shy, very prey driven reactive barbet, it took me SIX YEARS! Partly, my second dog Bee helped me supervise Tigerlily, but as she hit about 5 years old, though she liked kitties more than dogs as “friends,” her visible reactivity went completely away. I brought her everywhere. I flew several times with her, she provided pet assisted therapy at Spring Harbor Hospital in the pediatric psychiatric unit (often outside in the playground with kids). Tiger and Bee sailed thousands of miles with us, from Puerto Rico to Maine, Maine to the Bahamas and back, visiting many classrooms along the way. The two of them were amazing, fun and easy, off leash on the beach, even around chickens and lizards! Just because your dog isn’t there now, doesn’t mean he never will be. We grow these skills. Tigerlily died at 16. My dog Bee is 11 now. She rarely needs a leash. M’Ocean is 3. Just three. Of course, he’s still learning how to handle his 94 lbs of energy. It takes time, and planning, for dogs to really trust and understand your guidance.
Moving skills forward means remembering that when I go out in public, I am rewarding self control and responsiveness with privileges and freedom. And if he’s being a whiny prancing overly excited pain in the butt, he’s going back in the car.
I have an airbnb guest staying in our training suite, and last night, M’Ocean opened the door and walked in, visiting the guest and his dog. Fred was like, oh wow. Big dog! And his dog Molly was like oh wow! Sexy! But there was no barking or hysteria, it was super friendly and funny interaction, M’Ocean scouted the room, they sniffed and wagged, Mo grabbed Molly’s dog toy and left! It’s a “good sign” when we see calm friendly dog/dog interactions. I’ve got to give Molly and Fred credit for handling the surprise with aplomb! But they had seen each other previously, out in the yard, across the gate, and so now he was walking around treating her like a member of the family.
Slow social experiences are good. Like humans, dogs do best when they get to know dogs a little bit at a time. People often hate the slow growth, we all want quicker fixes, but quick fixes tend to come with side effects. If we can relax and accept where our dogs are TODAY, and not worry about the fact that they still need to get to tomorrow, maybe that can make the learning process feel less fraught. Oh I just thought of a good thing to put on our blackboard in front of the farm stand. “Dogs Learning. No rush.”