My trainer said something interesting the other day. She claimed that dog-to-dog socialization is mostly for us humans; so we can conveniently take our dog with us everywhere.
Dogs according to her, really need to socialize with their people, but are perfectly happy with or without other dogs around. She said that dogs are happier curled up in bed with us, with a piece of steak, than they are socializing with their dog friends.
When we watch puppies at play, it is easy to believe that dogs really do need interaction with other dogs. They are so exuberant in their play, they have so much fun with each other, and then they just plop down in a puppy heap and fall asleep.
How can a human compete with that, much less replace it?
Here we consider what do dogs need, from a social perspective.
Dogs Need People
Dogs really need quality time with their people.
- Certain dogs, like my Shiba Inu, need to be with people that they have bonded with,
- While others, like my Siberian Husky, are happy as long as there are people around to interact with.
It is important to spend some quality time with our dog every day. Play time, obedience training, and daily walks, are all important, and will help establish trust, respect, and a lifetime bond.
We also need to be a good pack leader, and teach our dog the proper rules of behavior in a human world. This can be done by following the Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF) program, and using reward obedience training.
Dogs Need Socialization
Dogs may not need other dogs, but general socialization is extremely important.
Because our dogs live in a human world, it is important to expose them to a variety of environments, dogs, people, and weird objects (e.g. umbrella, balloons, garbage truck); in a positive way.
Young dogs learn faster, are more curious, impressionable, and eager to please. Therefore, I start dog socialization exercises early-on, when I first get a new dog. I carefully manage my dog, and make sure not to expose him to more than he can handle. Note that young dogs go through certain critical fear periods, where they are more susceptible to new external stimuli, so I am especially careful during those times.
I always start small and slowly build-up the social challenge, so that my dog will enjoy the encounter, and be successful at it. Success builds confidence, and breeds more success. Negative experiences, on the other hand, causes a dog to become fearful and uncertain. If a dog is fearful of people or objects, be sure to desensitize him to the problem stimulus slowly.
Remember that socialization is not only about the quantity of new experiences, but also about the quality of those experiences.
A well-socialized dog, that is confident and comfortable with his surroundings, is a joy to have around, and can follow us everywhere. He is less likely to misbehave or use aggression, even in stressful and unexpected situations. Instead, he trusts us to handle things, and is a happier and more balanced dog as a result.
Dogs Need Our Protection
Do not expect a dog to like socializing with all other dogs.
Many dog movies and television shows present an unrealistic image of the dog.
- He is naturally obedient and loyal,
- Magically understands verbal commands in at least 5 different languages, and
- Loves all people and animals (except for the bad guys).
The truth though, is that most dogs are not Lassie, and will not enjoy the company of all people or all dogs.
In He Just Wants to Say Hi, Suzanne Clothier illustrates how dogs have social boundaries, just as we do. We do not allow strangers to come up to us, invade our space, and physically man-handle us. We should not allow strangers to do that to our dogs either, especially if he dislikes having his space violated.
Always observe and listen to what our dog is trying to say. Understand his social boundaries, and protect him from rude dogs as well as rude people.
When adding a second dog to the family, it is best to introduce our existing pack to the new dog on neutral territory (e.g. a quiet park, empty parking lot). See if the new dog is accepted, and assess his temperament to determine how he may alter pack dynamics.
Opening our home to a new puppy or new dog, especially a shelter dog, is an awesome thing to do. However, I believe that the addition should not be made at the expense of our existing dogs.
Age, bad experiences, as well as physical health issues may change our dog’s social tolerance.
Puppies need to be with their mother and litter-mates until they are about 8 weeks old. Playing and interacting with his brothers and sisters, will help a puppy learn social manners, bite inhibition, and other useful skills. A puppy’s mother and adult relatives, also help to set consistent rules and boundaries for him, at an early age.
As a puppy matures, he becomes more independent, and has a lesser need for other dogs. In fact, if not properly socialized, he may become fearful and cautious. Depending on breed, some dogs may also develop stricter social boundaries, and may not want unknown dogs or people crowding their space, touching them, or sniffing their butt.
It is important to ensure that our dog’s interactions with other dogs are not negative. Too many negative experiences may cause him to become fearful and aggressive toward other dogs.
My Shiba Inu does not have very good dog greeting manners. He is a very in your face dog, and regularly annoys other dogs by invading their space without permission. I manage him very carefully, and when we see other dogs, we just calmly move on.
In this way, he is learning avoidance and building up many neutral dog-to-dog experiences. Doing desensitization training with balanced, well-socialized dogs, can also help improve a dog’s greeting skills.
Note that health and physical issues may also affect a dog’s social behavior and social comfort level.
I have a three-legged Siberian Husky who is friendly, but cautious with other dogs. Three legged dogs, seniors, and dogs with joint pain or other physical illness, will naturally feel more vulnerable. As such, they may perceive most things as threats, and may respond with aggression to protect themselves, especially when they feel cornered.
It is crucial not to expose such dogs to overly stressful situations, and to always protect them from unwanted attention (dog and human).
Dogs Need Companionship
Dogs may not need to socialize with other dogs, but if they can have a friendly dog companion, so much the better.
One of the best things we can get for our dog, is another compatible dog to play with.
My Shiba Inu loves wrestling and chasing, and it is just not possible for us humans to truly play dog. We cannot run very fast, and our wrestling skills are very limited compared to theirs.
In addition, it is generally not a good idea to wrestle and play rough with a dog. This may encourage him to start playing rough with other people, including children, seniors, or even adults that are fearful of dogs.
Unless we have great off-leash control over our dog, it is safer to institute the “no wrestling with people” rule, at all times.
If we get two puppies together, they may just bond with each other, and never truly warm up to human company. If we wait too long to get a second dog, our existing dog may get too set in his ways, and may not like to share with a new canine companion.
I chose a Siberian Husky because they are active dogs that like chasing and wrestling, just like my Shiba. Certain breeds may prefer retrieving balls or herding, so it is important to evaluate our dog, and pick a breed that is compatible with his play style and interests.
We can also –
- Organize small playgroups with friendly neighborhood dogs,
- Find a good dog daycare, or
- Hire a dog walker to take our dog on group walks at the park.
Enclosed dog parks are a risky alternative, because the environment is often unstructured, over-stimulating, and lacking in proper human supervision.
Do Dogs Really Need Other Dogs?
The dictionary definition of need, in this context, is to
require (something) because it is essential or very important
~~[Oxford American English Dictionary]
- I think that our dogs really need their people, but they do not really need the company of other dogs. Many dogs live perfectly happy lives, being an only child in the family.
- I think that general socialization, including dog-to-dog socialization (i.e. helping our dog be comfortable in the presence of other dogs), is important for us and our dogs. It will allow us greater flexibility and enrich our time together.
- I think that just like people, different dogs have different temperaments and social preferences. Some dogs are more dog-social, some dogs are more dog-tolerant, some dogs prefer the company of people, and some dogs prefer their own company. Social preferences and tolerances may also change based on mood, past experiences, health, and more.
- I think all of my dogs would prioritize steak, above most other things, most of the time. 😀 People with food probably comes next, and then other dogs.
- I think that my trainer’s “steak statement” is mostly accurate, i.e., it is probably true for many dogs, most of the time. This does not mean that my dogs do not enjoy interacting with other dogs, only that they prefer a juicy steak more!
What do you think? Do dogs need other dogs? In particular, is the company of other dogs essential to our dog’s life, or can they lead perfectly happy lives with just the company of people.