Imagine how it feels to your dog if it doesn’t have anything to offer to social situations or tasks, to not be accepted by people and not have any useful skills to offer. In other words, what is it like if your dog is a misfit?
The easy dog, the social and trained dog, finds comfort in social situations and in doing a variety of tasks. They can interact well with others or relax and self-entertain when asked or when alone.
Misfits, on the other hand, are more likely to offend, receive teasing, bullying or neglect. No good dog owner wants that for their dog.
Unsocialized dogs have a hard time figuring out the social rules and interpreting the emotional clues that people and animals display. Untrained dogs have a hard time with impulses and distractions and don’t understand what is being asked of them.
Since I began training dogs, I’ve seen many dogs that could have been much more if the owners had done a better job of socializing and training their dogs. This is starkly evident almost every time I have evaluated rescued dogs in foster homes, kennels, or shelters.
For humans that don’t fit in, they experience significantly uncomfortable levels of stress, fear, and anxiety. Their self-esteem is broken, and talents are wasted as they cope by isolating themselves. For dogs, a similar effect is seen. Unsocialized and untrained dogs are also plagued with stress, fears, and anxiety. Their talents are also wasted because many people don’t have the patience to help these dogs fit in.
It’s slow going, especially at first, with any dog that is unsocialized or untrained, or both. When you first start working with them, they don’t see the connection between what you want them to do and what they will get out of it if they do. These dogs start out with varying deficits, being disorganized, usually hyperactive, and often withdrawn in unfamiliar situations. Some dogs are partially socialized, so they desperately want affection, but don’t know how to appropriately give it or receive it. When people see any of this kind of behavior, they tend to start cracking down on the dog, or detaching from the dog to get away.
When I work with any dog, especially dogs that are under socialized or lack any basic training, I begin with teaching Manners. Manners are unwritten rules of conduct that form the basic tokens of good behavior that can be exchanged between a dog and a person. I also set out with high expectations of what is possible with that dog. I’ve seen people who gave up on dogs, abandoning them to a backyard, crate, garage, or room. That kind of treatment is cruel and locks a dog into a doomed future of desolation. Low expectations causes low commitment and poor animal welfare results.
Yes, it is a pain to start out with an obnoxious dog. I recently started out with a socialized, but untrained Doberman a few days ago. He’s a big boy. He constantly pesters people for attention or play, jumps up to their faces with his nose, and mouths their forearms and hands with his teeth. No one likes being treated that way, including myself. Those heavy claws hurt, and those teeth can scratch deep enough to draw blood. Some dogs like this even will grab your clothing and pull you to the ground. But I don’t lash out at dogs like this. I don’t do quick fixes. Instead, I start with the most basic of Manners and go from there. Dogs like this need a lot of social contact and clear training to show them what to do. They also need to learn emotional self-control in exciting situations. That’s the opposite of what a lot of people do instead: finger snapping, “being the alpha”, physical compulsion, harsh corrections, banishment, scolding, or punishments. I especially don’t support whisking these dogs away to a bootcamp. Instead, everyone in the family needs to establish a consistent set of specifically defined good manners and ways to reward them. We aren’t here to break these dogs, we’re here to help them.
In similar ways, it is a pain to start out with an under socialized dog. I’ve worked with a lot of them throughout the years. These dogs don’t know how to interpret what others are doing, especially in unfamiliar situations and locations, and they choose what family members, guests and friendly strangers would consider incorrect responses. Social Manners are taught best through a lot of social contact and training, as well. These dogs need more interactions, not less. These dogs also need more time, so they don’t default to engaging in fearful or anxious behavioral sets. This work is often slow going. It is a lot easier, and takes a lot less time, to properly socialize a young puppy, than to remedy a lack of proper early socialization in an adult dog. What could have been done in the first 16 weeks of life can sometimes take months or over a year or two to remedy. I remember a dog I worked with about a decade ago. He was found as a stray on a local reservation. Except for the owners, a husband and wife, he was feral to everyone else. Fortunately, he was good with other dogs. Even after a year, he would still sometimes nip guests. That’s a clear indication of fearfulness. Punishment wasn’t the humane answer. But slowly, that worked out as they kept heavily socializing him and doing their homework. I’ve had many long-term students who were dedicated like this to make as much of their dogs as possible. For some, I might see them once a week, or even once a month, as we slowly turn these dogs around. As they get more comfortable, then the obedience training adds to how these dogs interact. Dogs learn obedience best when they feel safe.
If you have ever been a misfit in any social gathering or group, you can empathize with how these dogs must feel. It’s no fun being socially awkward, and it doesn’t make you want to get in those situations again. Usually, however, if you have a good parent, friend, co-worker, or boss, they can help ease you into these situations until you are no longer an outsider, and everyone is now your friend… or at least they are polite.
Is your dog socially compatible with the life they should have? If not, you have some homework to do.