Is socialisation causing reactivity?

Recently I read, on social media, that we should not allow our young dogs to play with other dogs. The suggestion was that it causes reactivity or that dogs will injure people as they attempt to play with other dogs. There was also a suggestion that reactivity has increased in line with the practice of socialising dogs. Could this be true? Could we really be increasing the problem of reactivity through the widespread practice of socialisation?

I don’t write this blog in order to put others down: it’s vitally important that we question common beliefs; I do this very often. However, we should not assume that dogs are socialising more in the present day than they did forty or fifty years ago. My recollection of dog ‘ownership’ forty years ago is that many wandered the streets during the day and returned home in the evening. They tended to meet up in small groups and wander the estates. I don’t remember seeing a single fight and there was certainly no mention of behaviour problems. I agree with the notion that we now have more behaviour problems, but I suggest this is in fact because we actually have far less socialisation today than in the days when dogs had a less restricted lifestyle.

Any idea that dogs should be prevented from playing together is, in my view, to prevent dogs from being dogs. There are of course exceptions because many dogs are not able to play with unfamiliar dogs due to aggression or fear issues. But how is a dog to learn appropriate behaviour around other dogs if they do not learn how to interact with them? How are they to practice the subtleties of canine body language if they don’t interact with other canines? For many dogs, especially young dogs, playing with others is fantastic for coordination, fitness, and emotional development. Furthermore, critical periods in the early development of animals are well understood. A lack of appropriate exposure to other dogs at this time will make it more difficult for the dog to be at ease with such exposure later on.

The law (in the UK and many other countries) specifically states that animals must be permitted to express normal (species specific) behaviour. What could be more normal than young dogs playing together? Nobody is suggesting that dogs should be permitted to run around in the street, darting off in all directions to say hi to all the other dogs. It’s not an all or nothing situation. Dogs are quite capable of understanding the concept of playing with other dogs on the field, but remaining with us at the roadside. To prevent friendly dogs from interacting together is to prevent them from being dogs. I want puppies to be puppies, not puppets! But, of course, dog to dog socialisations should be done without ever exposing the dog to situations they cannot cope with; this is what leads to reactivity.

5 thoughts on “Is socialisation causing reactivity?

  1. Completely agree. The “problem” might be that opportunities for dogs to freely interact (safely) are few; due to increasing rules, regulations and media headlines. As a result, more and more dogs are being walked on leash; dogs are restrained, arousal is increased and responding to commands is not a priority.

    1. These have long been my worries.
      The more restrictions there are on where dogs can be and the necessity of lead the more problems there seem to be with lack of social nous in both dogs and their owners.

    2. I think a big reason most dogs have lost their freedom to interact with other dogs is quite simply urbanisation and human population density (and pet dog population density too). Think about how much typical human lifestyles have changed since 40 years ago, and how many more of us here are now, and how much closer together we live – we’re surrounded by strangers a lot of the time, and overall spending a lot of time being competitive and busy. It is a rather extreme development (especially population growth)… and then we try to fit dogs into those small territories we now have, and try to prevent them from bothering or being a risk to others. Of course they need to lead very controlled, restricted lives in this situation, and of course it leads to mental health problems

  2. I wouldn’t call it a trend exactly, but there is a certain school of thought among some people that puppies shouldn’t be socialized because it will create fear issues. There have been a number of great trainers who have written blogs and such reminding people that forcing a puppy into interactions they don’t want to have and situations they are afraid of is not socializing, and that people should be careful when socializing their puppies that they are making it a positive experience. I think the “don’t socialize your dog” thing is just people misunderstanding that message and taking it too far.
    Kind of like the whole fetch thing. Some people have warned against excessive fetch, because some people will throw the ball until the dog collapses with exhaustion, and naturally that’s unhealthy and people shouldn’t be doing that. Some people understood the message correctly: EXCESSIVE fetch is not good. But certain people misunderstood and started preaching that fetch is 100% bad, always, fetch is evil and if you throw the ball one time your dog will instantly drop dead, and also, actually, all physical exercise is bad and you should only do mental exercise with your dog.
    Some people always take things too far.
    If we don’t take our time when we are reading and pay attention, we miss the nuance.

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