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Socialisation? What is it exactly?

Thirty years ago I remember being told that if you wanted a good guard dog, you don’t let anyone near it, you start with a territorial dog, don’t socialize it and it will be a fierce guard dog.

If you looked at that dog as an adult, it would be a mix of fear, territorial aggression, rank aggression and uncertainty. It probably has learned that being aggressive and biting gets rid of people, maintains territorial control and relieves pressure.

On the other end of the scale, the responsible dog owners and breeders of that time were pushing “socialisation” to ensure your dog was friendly.

So when people got a puppy they were told to socialise it. When they asked the breeder what that was, the common answer was to take the dog out and expose it to everything.

Make it love everyone and everything including other dogs.

Lets understand that this era was predominantly governed by training styles that reflected Bill Koehlers methods. Many check chains / compulsion / pressure methods were floating around then so whilst people may have been openly socialising their dogs, the training of that time was designed around correcting drive out of the dog.

Come forward 30 years and the common message of “socialise” is still going strong, but training methods have certainly changed. Many people no longer suppress drive in their dogs and many more select dogs for higher levels of drive.

So now we have dogs with more power, speed and determination but no suppression methods in sight.

Right or wrong?

Well I believe training in drive is the best training method world wide, and this means preserving all the drive you can and using no suppression at all. So training I believe has definitely evolved the right way, but what about “socialisation”?

Is exposing your dog to everything and every dog still the way?

For a long time I have believed that it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean I think the dogs should be left unsocialised either.

First let me explain what I think socialisation is: –

In my view socialisation is: exposing your dog to something new and assigning a value to it.

Value? What does that mean ?

So look at this scale below, it shows the value system I use to rate values of experiences.

socialisation

When a dog has been exposed to other dogs and has been allowed to gain a high emotional value for them, they become a huge distraction that can be hard to compete with or even maintain control around.

Another consideration is that when you are taking your puppy to places to actively socialise it you may strike an aggressive dog that will attack your pup. Other than the risk of physical damage the psychological damage that can occur can be impossible to totally rectify.

When your puppy matures it will likely be fear aggressive toward other dogs due to having a high negative emotional value for dogs.

So again, what is the answer?

For many years I have been advising people to neutralise their pups.

In actual fact neutralisation IS socialisation, just not aiming at the high positive emotional values many people do. I call it neutralisation to pull people up and get them to pay attention to the differences in my programs.

I advise “controlled exposure”, aiming at a low “rational” value of others dogs, adults and children.

This controlled exposure also applies to the owner. The dog learns the highest value for the owner via games and bonding that encapsulate the dog’s genetic attributes whilst including some training that includes the dog being somewhat independent and not anxious when the owner leaves for work.

I have designed this program after doing hundreds if not thousands of Behaviour Consults in which the problems have been created when unlimited exposure has been allowed.

Having a dog that has a low rational value for other dogs, people and children, makes maintaining  obedience around these distractions much easier. There never is a desire for your child loving dog to belt up to a child and inadvertently knock the child down or frighten them.

If you are not aware, an action such as this can see your dog be Declared Dangerous (read my article on this topic here), no matter how well intended your dog may have been. Rushing a person or animal is enough to put you on the wrong side of council and your dog can end up on the wrong side of a life sentence of heavy restrictions.

There are certainly dogs that have received unlimited exposure to other dogs and have played with them and will still come when called, but I can tell you that is far from the majority, or even common.

Trainers universally tell owners they need to be more fun, more appealing to their dogs to get their dogs attention, but is this just due to the high competitive value of other people and or dogs?

If so it doesn’t have to be this way. I want my dog to feel that in my presence he can earn the highest rewards possible and the only effect other people can have is to get in the way.

The dog does not want for anything because I take on the responsibility of provider when I get a dog or puppy. When people see dogs that have been through this program, they are not really that different in their behaviours, the differences are small but significant.

A friend once told me that “The difference is in the details” and this was something he got from Le Corbusier, a famous French Architect.

I am not trying to convince anyone that my way is better, but I suggest you look at the value system above, have a good think about this article and what it has to offer you.

Breeders feel free to point people toward this article, it produces a well balanced, easier to train dog that will be exposed to less risk.

Vets and vet nurses that run puppy classes perhaps should rethink what they are doing and the advice they give.

We have to look at what the end results are and the problems that are arising from over-socialisation of pups.

Take a look at our video example on Socialisation

 

As always, love to hear your thoughts, share them with us below!

Steve

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51 comments

  1. Glad you’ve made this post because I often think about your ideas on neutralisation vs socialisation.

    I think that neutralisation has a role for people who want to train their dogs to a high level – dogs in working roles and dogs in sports. I think it’s a very valid outlet for these people.

    But I also think for the ‘typical pet dog’, who spends most of its day in the backyard, comes inside for the evening, and maybe goes for a walk in the morning, then having a dog that likes people and likes other dogs is actually more in keeping what the ‘typical person’ wants. Furthermore, I think it’s easier for dogs to be taught ‘everything is good’ than ‘everything is so so’, and, again, this is more attainable for the pet dog owner.

    I will be sharing this post on Twitter and I look forward to reading more comments as they come. Thanks for posting this on your webpage at last (instead of DOL where I had to refer to it before!).

    • Thanks Tegan I used to only use this methods on working dogs years ago, but the common pet dog these days coming in for behaviour problems is suffering from socialisation that is contributing to these problems so I advise everyone make some consideration to the value system at least.

      It is actually risky to take a puppy around a number of adult dogs to socialise with, whereas neutralisation can be done with the dogs never making contact, so when you understand how to do it, it is very simplistic even for a pet owner.
      Remember not all people will get or even aim for a neutral dog, but knowing how the system works can help you not over value your puppy toward certain things such as other dogs. Leaving you with more focused, less distracted dog.

      Thanks for linking us, and your comment!

  2. Interesting thought, and I agree with some of it, and I think puppy classes aren’t doing the best thing for puppies when they organise it as a big play group. However, how does a dog who has been “neutralised” respond if he’s ever in a situation away from the owner? If a stranger does try to interact with the dog (e.g. if the owner is away), how does it respond? Does it happily interact, or does it treat the stranger as a distraction and ignores him/her? What if it’s in a situation where another dog is trying to interact? Again, is it capable of friendly, appropriate interaction, or will it completely ignore the other dog?

    I agree with what you’re saying, but it seems to me that this applies only when the owner is around, in controlled environments. The owner has the biggest value for the dog and everything else is a distraction. But what about in those situations that you can’t control, either because the owner has gone away and someone else is watching the dog, and/or the dog gets out, or a loose dog approaches, etc.

    Interested to know your thoughts on this.

    • Hey Marianne, great questions, remember neutralise is a name to prompt interest, in fact the program is designed to set the dogs socialisation values lower (rational not emotional) than tradition.

      So the value may be (if we look at the scale) maybe positive 12 or 3. So hey I like you I am just not insane to get to you.

      So the values may still be positive, just not over the top, so if the dog is around other people or dog it can take a rational approach, rather than an emotional one, the owner through training and interaction of course can provide higher values.

      My dogs have been boarded places and have no problems getting along with the people there or dogs.

      Puppy schools sure can be the make or break of a pup, we have an article on Puppy Schools here http://blog.k9pro.com.au/523/

      Steve

  3. I’m glad you posted this Steve it has kind of summarised the way I have raised my working dogs . The end result being a dog/s that I can take anywhere . We recently took Remy my 4 year old male to my sons school for a bitework demo . ( on a tennis court ). 20 minutes later he was in the classroom getting pats why we took questions from the kids.( muzzled). I find my dog at work takes his reaction values from how I as a handler react . And I believe this comes from him being well experienced (social) but neutrally as you have explained.

    • And I guess Sean that is where it came from for me. I have always had higher drive dogs, dogs trained in bitework etc so I needed to have dogs that could be trusted rather than managed. Management is a temporary tactic…

      You hit the nail on the head for me…

  4. I’ve got a Shepherd who’s probably at the high end of the drive scale for GSDs – prey, food, scent, you name it, he’s got it. I pretty much didn’t know what drive was when I started taking him to puppy school, much less that you could actually train in drive. The trainers stressed socialisation, but puppy school was sensory overload! When we got within a mile of the location, he started to get worked up, and by the time I got him out of the car, he was completely out of control. We hung in until the ‘novice’ stage, but stopped going because it was doing way more harm than good; they used the old fashioned way of training, and he was essentially immune to leash corrections. If we saw a ‘roo or a rabbit on one of our walks, he’d pull my arms out of their sockets. By the time we visited you he was already 14 months old and I’d done a lot of things wrong by then.

    I guess he’s what Tegan describes ad a “typical pet dog” in that he spends most of his day in the back yard, comes in at night, and goes for a walk in the morning and evening, but not so typical in many other ways! He’s a beautiful dog with a really sweet nature, but Shepherds aren’t typical dogs I guess. He’s much better now, after a lot of work, but he’s still too easily distracted by other dogs and goes a bit deaf when they’re around. (I find it really annoying that some people let their dogs run up to him without asking if it’s OK.)

    Maybe neutralisation is unnecessary for some dogs, but life would certainly have been a lot easier for me if he was a bit more neutral.

    • Hey Dub, a high drive GSD is a few notches outside the capabilities of many basic trainers, if you haven’t worked them before then they can be very full on and uncontrollable. So I bet the puppy school people were a little out of their depth lol.

      On the upside they are highly trainable dogs that are a pleasure to own, train and work.

      The method has to suit the dogs temperament not the dog suit the method, then it is smooth!

      Steve

      • Hi Steve,
        My boy mirrors ‘Dubs’ dog… My boy (show line GSD) is 25 mths and 4 mths old when he came to me.. He had been kept to run on (show and breeding) but due to a change in circumstances it was decided to sell him on.
        Up until that time he had run free in the kennels with other GSD’s with NO discipline and no socialisation outside of ‘puppy buyers’ coming to visit.
        I got him (had never known a GSD and he is my 5th, with such high drive) and I could not find a Trainer (including at the GSDA) that could help me ‘control’ him.
        Doing what I thought was the right thing to exercise him I took him to the park and let him ‘run’… He chased every dog he could find that could run faster than him… never would he allow another dog to chase him. If only I knew then what I know now.
        I have since found an amazing trainer her in WA and we are working (in drive) focussing primarily on his engagement and things are progressing well… but other dogs are certainly a challenge!! He is a very gentle boy – unless there is another dog and then he becomes feral. If he were to go, he goes in hard! He is actaully not aggressive and I am convinced that all he wants is the chase, but if a dog reacts aggressively he won’t back down – and if the dog runs, he will chase and his otherwise terrific recalls go out the window – he is deaf at that point!
        Is there any chance do you think that we will overcome this, or will it always be a problem.
        (PS I am currently talking to Bec et al about you coming to Perth to run a workshop so I hope we can pull that off) 🙂 Thank you Steve

        • Hi Lynne, I think that with drive work alone you probably wont get where you want to be with this guy, I think that some behaviour therapy which would include teaching him how to meet dogs in other than prey drive, counter conditioning the value of a dog that is running in the park so that he doesn’t go over the top and chase will be some steps outside of drive training that you will need to look at.

          Training in Drive will help drain some of the drive load that he may have which means he will be less desperate to chase everything that moves, but I don’t think it will provide a total solution given his history.

  5. Hi Steve, very glad to read your article. I have 2 Koolies and walk them regularly on the beach. They are both very friendly, and I have had difficulty with them running up to people and other dogs, assuming they are welcome. After reading your article, I will be working a lot harder at keeping them focused on me. I totally understand what you are saying, so thanks so much for the info, not everyone welcomes a dog running up to them for a pat, and certainly not every dog does either, which they have on occasion found out.

    • Koolies are an awesome dog, they do really well in our training in drive program. You can change that running up to others with a highly motivational recall and eventually have your dogs change their thoughts. Ideally the end result would be “Hey there is a person on the beach, that means mum is going to play that game with me”.

  6. HI Steve thanks for the great article super informative as always indeed.
    For a long time when i am trying to assist someone with there dogs whether its a puppy i have bred or someone I see really struggling in a big class at a club that means well, but has no consistant method of teaching across the 15+ volunteers ( All with different ideas and methods depending on how they have learnt). That having your dog value you above all else in the world is not somthing that comes without work. and turning a puppy loose in the middle of a pack of other puppies to work out there own social order is not a good thing but rather a controlled exersize where the puppy is on lead can approach a freindly dog/ person say hello and them be called back to you for a mother load reward is a much better way of socializing.
    I try and use the analogy of someone offering you 10c to come back and be with them whilst there is a party in full swing, Versus if someone offered you $1000 000 cash with no catches just lots of fun times over that party. Probably not perfect but it seems to make sence to most. I will definantly include this article in the information.
    As for socilisation on the other side a short story of my big learning curve into it.
    I think back on this Particular time in my life and recall my potential super star (confirmation wise) rotty puppy Navaah I purchased from a friend in the breed. she came home to me at 7.5wks old and I proceeded to socalise her straight away in controlled situations.,by the time she was 12wks old she had nerves of steel from a enviromental point absolutely nothing fased her she would walk through a massive crowd of people in a Rundle mall in SA (at xmas time mind you) up and down elavators buses cars trucks horses you name it she had seen it and wasn’t bothered by it as everything had been positive BUT (always a but) if a stranger tried to touch her they risked her trying to bite and she ment it. it was a interesting situation to say the least and when i think back n what she was like in the litter she was always standoffish and at the back. and i wouldn’t come forward at all what i know now just proves to me (please correct me if i am wrong ) that she was indeed a very fearful puppy but if her boundries where pushed she would fight rather than flee and it was only my socalisation that made her confident in her enviroment I tried lots and lots of things to remove this boundry till she was almost 6mths old as she was a truely beautiful example in confirmation. but in the end Basic genetics one and I made the decsion to send her to rainbow bridge. as I was not willing to have her hurt someone seriously out of my care.

  7. Hi Steve,

    I find your approach to training very interesting as I have been doing a bit of reading and have come to the conclusion that we cannot subscribe to one specific way of training for all dog personalities. I have a Shiba Inu who is nearly turning 2 and as a Shiba Inu goes, she has a very interesting personality which I feel would be hard to neutralise in most environments due to her natural curiosity for all things and her stubbornness. For example, she can become really focused on a scent and either doesn’t hear me/chooses not to listen even when I bring her squeaky toys or wave and make sounds.

    In such as case, how would you neutralise a dog like a Shiba Inu to an environment when they have an innate curiosity and are awfully stubborn?

    • Hi Jessica, when a dog has a solid socialisation value of say dogs, then neutralisation as a socialisation step isn’t possible. It would be addressed by distraction training etc.

      Socialisation values are set when dogs are young and strengthened as they grow.

      I would need to see your dog and what goals you have to put together a program for you which would address these behaviours as every dog and owner is different.

  8. Having been a ‘pet’ owner who needed your help Steve, I totally support your method of ‘neutralisation’. Nothing is worse than having a large dog wanting to socialise with every dog in the park or on the beach while their owners start reeling them in because your dog is just so boisterous. Some of these problems we large ‘pet’ dog owners encounter are totally due to dog owners letting other dogs be the sole entertainment for their animal. Love the recent influx of training articles.

  9. Wow, interesting, I was having this discussion with a friend a few days ago.

    My girl is a working malinois, and I’ve neutralised/socialised her Steve’s way and am pretty happy with the result. She has high value for me and low value for other dogs.

    My friend’s dogs are working labs & spaniels, and he’s done exactly the opposite, also with a good result – his dogs are kenneled as a large pack 24/7 so they’re exposed to each other 24/7. They have all learned that other dogs are boring and getting individual time with humans is “special” – so they have high value for him & medium value for other dogs.

    We were wondering if maybe it’s just the middle ground that causes problems – i.e. dogs that are exposed to other dogs intermittently, and so that exposure is really exciting for them? Which is how most dogs in suburbia experience other dogs.

    • Well yes and often no, there are many variables to consider I think. If your friends dogs are highly driven and have had a good reward system put in place since birth, then any socializing at all could be omitted as the dog is highly reward driven.

      The problem with community housing with many dogs is that, it isn’t a program I can prescribe, when a client comes here with a puppy they don’t have a kennel full of dogs that are already reward driven to neutralise their puppy too, so we have to look at a different way.

      If the puppy isn’t a high drive pup they may never build a solid enough reward system that will out gun playing with other dogs.

      There are probably 500 unique ways that one can tackle the problem of getting a reliable dog around other dogs, but some need more set up and resources than the average person can provide, they have risk and don’t work as well as others.

      This is just one guess to get people thinking and hopefully nopt just over expose their new dog to other dogs and lose control.

  10. Steve, there may be disadvantages to neutralisation that you are overlooking in this article. Imposing constraints on socialisation limits the increase in drive and confidence that can accrue from maximising a stimulating environment for your dog outside of its home life. There’s no better way to increase prey drive, for example, than to let your dog chase rabbits. Sure, there are distractions that you are inviting into your dog’s life in this way (& you may not want to increase prey drive), but that is only a problem if you can not avoid these distractions when necessary. Of course, this may be a huge problem for some owners. It depends on your circumstances, but, for me, I try to limit constraints on my dog’s socialisation because that it has its costs as well. Look at it this way: it’s no different for humans!

    • Thanks for your comment Chris, but as someone who see’s dogs come in with huge problems as they have learned to chase rabbits, then allowing dogs to build a value for a behaviour that is very hard to control is a dangerous behaviour to allow.

      • Building a value for a behaviour that is very hard to control is a dangerous behaviour to allow. I couldn’t agree with you more, Steve.The question is whether chasing rabbits, for example, is a behaviour that is very hard to control. It is around rabbits. But that’s not the point I was making. I understand, of course, that you have to deal with problem dogs and that they get that way because they establish values for behaviours that their owners can’t control. But what if I come to you and ask you to help me control my dog’s ‘dangerous’ behaviour, but I don’t want you to destroy the value that that behaviour has for my dog? I guess, in that case, it wouldn’t be appropriate to advise neutralisation.

        • Chris I think you have missed the mark on understanding this article, this is about socialising puppies, not older dogs with previous values. So I would set the “value” of wild prey” like rabbits to very low, but build prey drive with suitable items like tugs, balls etc that I can control and use as a reward. If you brought me an older dog with high prey drive and the dogs primary prey item was wild rabbits and you wanted to stop uncontrolled chasing for example, I would counter condition your dog not extinguish its prey drive. SO your dog would maintain its drive but the idea would be for the dog not to try and use prey drive on rabbits, but instead something you can control better and then use that item to reward desirable behaviours that have been influenced by prey drive.

          Dogs with high prey drive need to have that drive be satisfied or it can cause major behavioural issues, so redirecting it is a better option than trying to squash it.

  11. You can change that running up to others with a highly motivational recall and eventually have your dogs change their thoughts. Ideally the end result would be “Hey there is a person on the beach, that means mum is going to play that game with me”. Ah, the penny just dropped for me!!! Thankyou. Please please please could you consider a trip to Darwin??

  12. This sounds to be a very interesting program. When I first saw the title I was concerned re the Neutralisation title. But upon reading it I was re-assured. I have owned several entire male GSD’s in the past, and all of them have been wonderful obedient companions that were both agility and demo dogs (public agility events at fete’s and fairs). I even have pictures of one of my fellows lying down and wagging his tail as a friendly and curious smaller dog walks all over him. (I was walking Hieko through a train terminus when some people with a smaller dog crossed my path. The smaller dog was at first nervous but I reassured the owners that Hieko was friendly and made him lie down. I told Hieko “Gentle” with is a command I use when meeting new people and things. Once the other dog got over it’s nervousness it was more then interested to sniff and run around Hieko who just lay with a happy look on his face. Now the little dog is better socialised in that large dogs are Not a threat)
    Currently there is a huge push re sterilisation which is being touted as the cure all for any behavioural or prospective behavioural problem. Once a male dog is sterilised then he is ‘perfect’ and non aggressive, and need no further training. Many of the dogs who have shown aggression against mine are neutered but because my dogs are entire then mine are aggressors!!. Or that with all of my work and training I am still an irresponsible owner for not neutering.
    Good work with your program.

  13. I just saw this and hope it is not you late. My dog a miniature schnauzer is very dog focused I have been trying to get her to focus more on me and having some success but it seems very limited. We have an appointment yo see you in about 3 weeks and after seeing this I hope you will be able to help us.

  14. Hi Steve. Great article! I feel that this answers a few questions that I had about my 5yr old german shepherd. She lives on a rural property and never received much socialization with dogs outside our yard. However, when she goes out to the vets or in town she ignores any dog who comes to her, and focuses entirely on me (usually has to be on my lap). She has reacted (bark) before when another dog tried to get pats from me. Im not sure if this is neutralization or a fear of the unknown??

    • Although she has been left largely unsocialised, she probably has good nerve and doesn’t scare easy, because a dog that is unsocialised will often turn to aggression in the face of the unknown.

      I would say when she barked at the dog she was resource guarding you. If you mean a lot to her this would be pretty normal.

  15. Hi Steve,
    after reading this I know I need some help with my GSD cross. He is 2 years old and was bought earlier this year from Hawkesbury Shelter. I really need some help with basic training. He is a good dog and will come straight back to me when I call him. Though he is improving he has a habit of jumping up to greet people which although is generally unacceptable it is extra unacceptable in our household because I have a daughter who has trouble walking and she has carers who work in our home. He is kept in his yard while the carers are here but I would like to feel more confident in him keep four feet on the ground. He is very intelligent and a gorgeous dog and I am confident that he will respond well to training but I do not want to muck it up, would rather get it right first time.

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