Importance of off-lead socialisation
Updated: Jun 12
The degree to which a dog interacts with something or someone should be up to the dog, not the owner.
Far too often dogs are forced to interact with other dogs or humans on-lead in a context where they have no sense of agency or choice in the interaction. On-lead interaction is not adequate socialisation, however, and socialisation is an integral part of responsible dog ownership. When a dog meets other dogs or people on-lead, tension in the lead and the lack of freedom of movement can cause frustration, stress and reactivity.
Moreover, when dogs meet on-lead, they are usually forced to greet each other face-to-face; yet this is a wholly unnatural way for dogs to greet each other and can lead to hostile and aggressive behaviour. Though it may not be how us humans do it, the safest and most polite way for dogs to meet is face-to-rear rather than face-to-face. Sniffing the rear of another dog provides information on their age, sex and reproductive status, which is how dogs find out information about one another. Dogs can also walk away and exit an interaction a lot more easily when off-lead.
We also tend to overlook the importance of canine body language on approach or just prior to interaction. Dogs are constantly displaying and interpreting signals that communicate their intent and state of mind. Posture, tail and ear position, mouth and eyes can all indicate a dog’s emotional state and the nature of interaction they wish to have. For example, a dog who play bows with a fluid, wagging tail when another dog approaches is likely showing that they indeed want the interaction. But a dog with a stiff tail in between the legs and ears pushed back would suggest apprehension or wanting to avoid interaction. A dog might also display a cut-off signal as another dog approaches them, such as turning their head or walking away in an attempt to avoid interaction. These signals might be missed by an owner however, and then when the dog is forced to interact closer to the other dog, they are punished for baring their teeth, growling or trying to move away, when this is simply a clearer attempt at communication.
This is what makes a daycare setting a
great place to socialise your dog.
With experienced carers on hand to guide and structure interactions to ensure communication attempts are being acknowledged and responded to safely. Dogs also have the opportunity to interact in the way they wish to, rather than in the way their owner wishes for them to!
It’s most polite and least threatening for dogs to approach each other in a curve and face-to-rear and it’s important a dog always has the freedom to exit or disengage from an interaction. If not, stress can build and escalate to more overt communication attempts such as snarling, growling and biting.
Socialisation in a daycare setting also allows for calm and safe interactions with a variety of ages and breeds which helps build a well-socialised dog. A well-socialised dog is more likely to be even-tempered and less likely to show aggressive or fearful behaviour. Continued socialization with other dogs is important to reinforce a dog’s learning about the language of dogs – how to play, how to listen and respond to reprimands, how to interpret another dog’s mood, etc.