Socialising pups: the big mistake

While I love training puppies and their new owners, a large part of my job is working with clients who have dogs (usually around the age of 12-18 months) that cannot control themselves around other dogs.  

Most commonly these dogs will come to us for training and behaviour issues ranging from general bad manners to over excitement and lack of impulse control to reactivity and more extreme forms of dog aggression like predatory aggression.

We work with lots of dogs who can’t control themselves around others

Their owners are generally prompted to come for training because they are finding the dog is near impossible to control on walks. They are so desperate to get to other dogs they pull on the leash, lunge, bark, and are generally uncontrollable if they see another dog. This behaviour makes taking their dog for a walk stressful, frustrating, upsetting and they start to feel dread at the thought of taking their dog out. Going for a walk with their dog has become unpleasant, a punishment rather than something enjoyable. Their dogs quality of life is effected because their owners regretfully leave them at home when they’d otherwise take the dog out, if the dog could control themselves.

In 90% of cases these owners will tell me they don’t understand why their dog is like this because they “socialised them HEAPS” with other dogs. So why are they having these problems?

Anyone who follows our training will know that Steve is extremely passionate about educating owners on the importance of appropriate socialisation, see articles like “Socialisation, what is it exactly?” and “Socialise now, play later”.

Appropriate, effective socialisation is critical

If you have read these articles before, or come to see us for training, you will know that appropriate socialisation is a lot more complex than simply letting your puppy play with other dogs. But, that is not to say you SHOULDN’T socialise your puppy with other dogs – OF COURSE you should… and this is where most puppy owners make one of the biggest mistakes you can make when socialising puppies.



So where is the mistake made?

It stands to reason that we don’t want to raise a puppy who is fearful, unsure, hesitant or uncomfortable around other dogs. But socialising them to the other extreme of having too high a value for other dogs will cause the exact problems that see owners of adolescent dogs arriving in our consult room, day after day, week after week.

There is a huge misconception that to socialise your puppy with other dogs means letting them play with as many dogs as possible.

This is where the big mistake is made – socialising a puppy with other dogs is about more than JUST play. There are many other forms of dog interaction pups need to learn, like how to be calm and relaxed around other dogs, appropriate greeting behaviours, how to walk past other dogs politely on the leash, how to be around and see other dogs without expecting to greet or play with them etc.

Every pup is different

When I have a puppy I start by assessing its behaviour around a stable, adult dog I trust that is new to the puppy. I want to gauge where on Steve’s socialisation scale they are sitting when it comes to other dogs.

Steve’s socialisation value scale

This provides me with information that tells me what my puppy needs in terms of socialisation with other dogs. For example, consider we have three different pups we expose to a new dog for the first time:

Puppy 1 

Puppy 1 is excited to see the other dog, shows no hesitation in approaching them, is confident and demonstrates nice play skill. We can assume this puppy has probably had a good education from their mother and litter mates in how to interact and play with other puppies.

This pup still needs more socialisation around other dogs so they can learn how to relax around them without expecting every interaction will lead to play. I also want to make sure the puppy can learn more fun will be had engaging with the handler rather than the other dog.

Bec teaching Blaze as a puppy to engage with the handler, rather than the distraction of other dogs. This encourages Blaze to see the handler as more valuable.

Puppy 2

We need to teach pups about appropriate interaction

Puppy 2 is extremely over stimulated by the other dog, is overly rough, inappropriate and already demonstrating a very high value for the other dog. This tells me that this puppy needs more education on what appropriate play looks like.

I might let it have a run with my older female who is very experienced with pups and will appropriately correct over the top behaviour.

This pup also needs a LOT more socialisation around other dogs where it learns how to interact with them without becoming over the top, and how to relax and be calm around other dogs. I would have this puppy out around other dogs A LOT without allowing play or greetings until I felt its value for other dogs was more appropriate. Allowing more socialisation where this puppy practices rough play behaviour will undoubtedly make this behaviour even more ingrained, developing it into a dog who is obsessed with getting to other dogs to “play”.

Puppy 3

Pups lacking confidence need controlled socialisation

Puppy 3 is scared, hesitant, worried, overly submissive, runs away from the other dog or won’t approach it. This tells me that Puppy 3 has a negative value for other dogs. This could be a temperament issue, a flaw in genetics; it could be based on a bad experience the pup had or how it was raised in its first few weeks of life. Regardless of the reason why, this puppy needs extensive socialisation with dogs I know and trust so that we can build confidence.

I would encourage the pup to play with these dogs until it was showing more confidence and learned appropriate social skills and I would give it a lot of controlled exposure to other dogs where it learnt that every interaction isn’t about play but that we can relax around other dogs too. The goal isn’t to make them have a high value for other dogs, but a more positive one.

What should we do next?

In all of these scenarios you can see that regardless of where the pup is sitting in terms of value for other dogs, play is only one type of interaction they need to be exposed to and ALL puppies need to be socialised around other dogs until:

  • The pup displays an appropriate, low positive or neutral value for other dogs. Note that this is NOT the same as ignoring the dog. I want my dogs to be confident around other dogs which means they may look at them and can acknowledge they are there, but they aren’t particularly interested in them.
  • The pup can interact with other dogs (appropriately greet them, relax around them, walk past them) without needing or expecting play.
  • The pup can maintain handler engagement and obedience around other dogs without any difficulty

For some pups this may mean they need to be out EVERY DAY in their critical development period being exposed to and interacting with other dogs.

For some pups it may be enough to do this once or twice a week.

But when we tick the box of ‘dog socialisation’ because our pup has only had one type of interaction with other dogs – play, and lots of it – we are making a big mistake that will inevitably set us up for difficulty as our puppy matures.

Aim for neutral

I would consider my dog Blaze has been “socialised heaps” around other dogs – she has probably been around 1000 or so dogs in her 4 years of life. She has maybe played with 10 of those dogs. She is a dog I would say is very neutral to other dogs, she doesn’t ignore them, she is simply not interested in them.

Blaze relaxing around puppy Drama, who is learning to be neutral too

Puppies MUST learn how to be calm and relax around other dogs. They can LIKE other dogs, but not to a point where the value becomes so high that they cannot control themselves, are incapable of moderating their emotions when they see another dog and the value for the handler pales in comparison to the value for play with other dogs.

Make no mistake that socialising pups with other dogs is a very important part of effective socialisation, but if we isolate socialisation JUST to play we will have issues down the track, just like the clients I see every day at K9 Pro HQ are experiencing with their dogs.

If we want to prevent the influx of behaviourial and training issues we are seeing in dogs we need to put more emphasis on educating owners on appropriate socialisation, what this is and how to do it, and move away from the misconception that socialisation = play.

As always we welcome your thoughts in the comments below!

About Rebecca Chin

Bec has been mentored by Steve Courtney since 2007 and works full time at K9 Pro as the Senior Dog Trainer. She primarily works with dog owners to help them teach their dogs good life skills and general obedience, works with our board and training dogs to rehabilitate dogs with serious behaviourial issues as well as helping new puppy owners with puppy foundation training.

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  1. Great info, thanks!
    My just turning 5 months Aussie girl is very high energy and always wants to play with other dogs over being with me, though if I get up from sitting or go in or out the door she wants to follow me. She is always looking to see where I am while engaging our other older dogs. BUT, 90% of the time if I call her while she is playing she doesn’t even look my way. I have to appear to be leaving before she responds. Now that she has put such a high value on play with a dog rather than me, what do I do? We have 7 other dogs here so separation isn’t easy. Help!!!!

  2. I love this article, I wonder how people can expose pups to other “safe” dogs frequently and with enough variety if they or other family members or friends don’t have appropriate dogs.

    How do you achieve this in a controlled way

    The question holds true for any other animal – cats for example

    • Hi Troy, each pup is different so they won’t all require the same amount of exposure, or frequent close interaction with other dogs (like play). If you had a pup who was very nervous and exhibiting a low value for dogs I’d recommend engaging a professional and they can help with exposure to appropriate dogs.

      We tend to have pups in areas that other dogs will frequent but are generally under control like markets, cafes etc rather than areas like dog parks where it can be a dicey free for all.

      It is impossible to socialise your pup to every possible stimulus or distraction they may encounter in their life but if you give them enough and varied exposure to different people, objects, environments etc in their critical development period then you are building a robust and resilient pup who knows how to behave in new places, or around various stimuli and this will carry through to adulthood.

      For example my dog saw a pig for the first time at a farm stay style place we popped into for lunch and though she had never seen one before, had enough appropriate socialisation and training in her early life to know how to cope with seeing something new and could maintain obedience under that level of distraction easily.

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