I discussed this briefly on the agilitynet facebook page when someone asked for more information on reactivity and agility “situations” (classes/competitions). To my surprise it didn’t turn into an evil argument and I had quite a few people message me asking for my opinion on their personal scenarios, so this post is a little bit late but I wanted to write about what I think in more detail.
There are two types of achievement in particular that I expect from socialisation:
- Recovery Rates: to be able to recover very quickly from something “spooky” or “scary”, and to be able to have an “it’s cool” attitude to something particularly overwhelming. Examples would be getting snapped at by a dog, hearing a loud noise, someone approaching rudely, being in a busy environment etc. I would like my dogs to think these things are no big deal and nothing to worry about.
- Social Skills: to be able to use the “correct” body language in different situations and understand how to use signals to get an increase or decrease in distance from different dogs.
With the first point, agility and flyball competitions can be awesome for this. There is so much going on – loud noises, huge amounts of dogs and people, loads of different sights and smells etc.. building recovery rates in a situation like these (when the dog is ready) can be amazing.
With the second point however, agility and flyball competitions can be really bad for social skills. Many people automatically assume that because of the amount of dogs at these shows, this will provide good socialisation for their own dogs. Unfortunately how realistic that idea is is very debatable, although of course it always depends on the individual show.
The problem lies where dogs simply stop caring about interacting appropriately with other dogs and more on lunging, barking, screaming etc. I hate to say it, but even tugging.
Understandably handlers want their dogs focused on them and they want their dogs “revved up” ready for their run. When dogs lose their heads for the sport, they build up a huge amount of adrenalin inside them and become much sharper in their reactions. Calming signals occur less and less because they are so pent up, so they either ignore social interaction completely or they become desperate and start to snap or attack. Ignoring social interaction isn’t too bad, but if that includes lunging and barking then it can seriously worry other dogs. Dogs that have good social skills (and use them) can often reassure worried dogs with the right body language, whereas barking and lunging can reinforce their worry.
I tend to compare these competitions to some music festivals and football games. The people become so “into” their entertainment, that social manners go out the window. You don’t get the same sort of social interactions and a heavy music gig that you do in a cafe down the street. Pushing and shoving, shouting and swearing – if you are “into” the game then this is fun and you can join in, but if you find this too rude then it can be terrifying.
For dogs it can be a lot worse. At least if you book a music gig you often have the choice of sitting down rather than standing and being pushed around to the music. In fact, at least you have the choice to go at all. For dogs they are often pushed into these situations without much choice.
Leads can be a problem, dogs that want to interact can end up frustrated and dogs that don’t want to interact can’t escape.
It’s important to note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t tug with your dog at a competition or let them bark. I think it’s very important that your dog is mentally ready before they run. However if you have a “fight or flight” dog, in other words a dog that feels it either needs to run away from dogs or attack them – you need to bear in mind that being around so many adrenalin-fueled dogs will more than likely not be helping your dog. Your dog needs to learn to use calming signals and have dogs use them back in order to gain social skills, and you can’t really get that around the rings in agility or flyball. If you have a dog that ignores social skills and just focuses on the game, please bear in mind that there are worried dogs and to give them space yourself.
My friend was upset this weekend because her dog snapped at another dog and someone made a rather nasty comment. The other dog got into my friends dog’s space and no one, except for my friend, made any effort to help her dog. Just because your dog is friendly does not mean that other people’s dogs are “bad”, only that they need extra space and that putting too much pressure on them will make them worse. Of course there are many dogs that have such large fear issues (whether it is fight or flight) that they cannot deal with competitions at all and in my opinion should not be forced to – but there are many dogs to are fine as long as people are understanding.
My advice to anyone who gets a new puppy or a dog that is just starting agility competitions, don’t bring them for social skills with dogs unless they are off lead in a quiet place with the right sort of dogs. Around the rings is often too stressful and can teach them that body language means nothing. With my own dogs, I have one genetically amazing dog who is calm pretty much all of the time and has taken very little work in terms of socialisation. But I also have one young dog who has experienced quite a few bad situations with other dogs and could extremely easily have issues – but thanks to social training dog shows don’t phase her. We are currently playing “Look At That!” from Control Unleashed where she points out lunging/barking dogs to get a treat. This means that those dogs become a game, not dogs she needs to interact with socially or be concerned about. If anything ever happens where she gets snapped at by a random dog or a dog lunges towards her, we get away from that dog as quickly as possible – and play a game. This is building her recovery rate that what just happened was “no big deal” and something cool happens afterwards anyway.
If your dog gets into a snappy fight (no injury), move away as quickly as you can. So many people force their dogs into a down a metre away from the dog they’ve just fought with, and get them to stay thinking that they are becoming calmer. In actual fact they are being put under more pressure as the dog they didn’t agree with is still so close. Split the dogs up, apologise to the other owner if necessary then run off somewhere quiet and find a good game to play or stuff their face full of food. You are not rewarding aggression by feeding an aggressive dog. Aggressive behaviour is the result of an emotion, it is not a trick you can train with food. By giving something good after a scary experience, you are encouraging a quick recovery rate – “forget about that, look at this food!”. When you change the emotion from scary to “who cares”, the behaviour will disappear. However if you push, shove or force your dog as punishment, you are telling them what just happened is a VERY big deal. The fear is likely to get much worse and therefore the aggressive behaviour will too.
So with new puppies I teach them that lunging, barking dogs are not part of it’s “social system”, only part of a recovery rate game. My puppy is then socialised with well mannered adult dogs in the exercise area and on walks at home. I also use a lot of BAT (functionalrewards.com) and counter/classical conditioning.
Here is my favourite example of classical conditioning:
If you are interested in learning more on the way I view socialisation and aggression, I am releasing a short booklet which you can preorder here: