Social Butterfly or Homebody? How Social is YOUR Dog?

dog temperament group training classes life with dogs obedience shy dog social dog Oct 26, 2023
Everyone has an image of the ideal dog in their mind. My ideal and your ideal are probably different. That’s fine because my dog, lifestyle, and expectations differ from yours. Is your dog a social butterfly or a homebody? Does your dog have the skills and the temperament to do all the things you want your dog to do? These are important questions to consider, but there’s a more another question we need to answer: what does your dog want?
Life Skills
What are the skills your dog needs to be successful? Did your dog learn everything she needed in a puppy or obedience class you attended? Probably not. Most generic group classes won’t be able to teach the essential life skills your dog needs.
Group classes cover general skills and include teaching cues like sit, down, and stay, with a bit of leash walking and recall. Multiple group classes are needed to achieve basic cues with the distance, distraction, and duration, the kind of training most owners want. In short, it takes more than a six-week class to gain proficiency. Think about the time and effort it took to learn how to drive. You may have learned the basic skills in a 6-week driving course, but becoming a skilled driver in various road conditions, like ice and snow, took practice and experience.
There are more skills needed than are typically taught in a group class if you want your dog to be socially active with you. Let’s say you want to take your dog patio dining. What skills does your dog need for that experience? A relaxed down, which is different from the traditional sphinx type down. That traditional down is not a comfortable position to hold for an hour. Teaching a comfortable down position paired with conditioning a relaxed emotional state is needed. Your dog will need to ignore all the other people on the patio. For highly social dogs, resisting the urge to go say” hi” to others is difficult. And don’t assume that other people want to be greeted by your dog. There may be people who are allergic to dogs, afraid of dogs, or who, for religious reasons, may not interact with your dog. As your dog goes to greet a stranger, saying “he’s friendly” while letting your dog go up to them is not polite. Your dog must also be comfortable with being ignored, confined to a small space, being stepped over and around, and not taking things off the ground. And your dog should be able to coexist calmly around all other dogs – no straining at the leash, barking, lunging, or growling as other dogs walk by or lie down at another table. This process takes months of consistent practice before your dog will be proficient. While your dog may master the skills, it doesn’t mean that your dog enjoys patio dining (or going to a soccer game, the park, or anywhere else.
Unique Temperament
We tend to lump dogs into broad categories. We assume that every dog in that category is the same. When we bring a dog into our homes who don’t fit neatly into that category, we think our dog has a problem. Maybe, but not necessarily. The gun-shy gun dog doesn’t have a behavior problem; he just doesn’t like the sound of gunfire. Not desirable for a hunting dog, but it’s not a behavior problem. It’s just who that dog is.
Every dog is an individual, with their preferences and ability to tolerate their stimuli in the environment. Breed or breed mix contributes to the overall temperament of a dog, but your dog is unique. Golden Retrievers are assumed to be friendly, outgoing dogs. But your Golden Retriever may not be so extroverted. Your Golden may be cautious around sudden environmental changes, like toddlers screeching, chairs scraping on the floor, or strangers petting them. Or perhaps you have an Australian Shepherd. They tend to be focused on the environment and want to control the movement of people and other animals. But your Australian Shepherd may prefer settling down and relaxing around new people. Your Australian Shepherd is able to watch a soccer game without joining the soccer team on the field. The cautious Golden may learn to tolerate patio dining, but she probably won’t enjoy it. The chill Aussie may have the skills to do a fast-paced sport, like agility, but may not like it. Those aren’t training issues but expressions of your dog’s temperament or personality.
Life Skills + Temperament + Experience + Genetics = Your Dog
Your dog is a complicated, sentient being. Saying “he’s just a dog” doesn’t take everything your dog is into account. That would be like saying, “You're just a human, " assuming all humans are the same. I have two dogs. What does that tell you? Not much. If I said I have two big dogs, that gives you more information, but it doesn’t tell you anything about their skills, abilities, temperament, experiences, or genetics.
The essential things my dogs need to know, the life skills, may differ from those your dog needs. Recall, attention, property boundaries, observing but not chasing, place/relax, and hand target are the top six skills my dog needs. Look what didn’t make the list – sit, down, stay, and leash walking. Do my dogs know sit, down, stay, and loose leash walking? Yes, but those aren’t as important in our day-to-day life. Moment of honesty – Ursa is three years old. She’s just now learning “sit” on cue. It’s only for a class we’re taking. “Sit” on cue just isn’t needed for our lifestyle. Does Ursa know how to “sit”? Of course! She sits when she’s observing. She sits on my lap. She sits at my desk to get my attention. “Sit” was never on cue until we started taking a Rally class.
You may want your dog to “sit” on cue. If it’s important to you and physically comfortable for your dog, go for it. Your dog may be brilliant at many life skills – sit, down, stay, loose leash walking, recall, attention, place – but not have the temperament to go to the local farmer’s market with you. Your dog may not like strangers patting or touching her head. That’s not a training issue. It’s a temperament issue. It’s also a cultural issue. Why do people think it’s ok to touch other people’s dogs? Some of the struggles dogs and their owners have in public are not the dog's problem, but rather that people don’t consider the dog's feelings. Would you ever run up to a stranger and put your hand on their back or touch their face? No? Then why let people do that to your dog? Dogs bred to be wary of strangers will not enjoy casual mugging by strangers. Not a training issue – it’s a people issue. Dogs who don’t like strange places or strange people are not broken. It’s just their preference. Trying to make your dog more social than they naturally are won’t work. Your dog may or may not learn to tolerate social outings but not enjoy the outings. Conversely, your social dog may tolerate being left home alone but would much rather go with you.
Your puppy may have started life as a social dog, and then it happened. He was mugged by strangers one too many times. Or there was a loud noise that terrified him while at a store. Or he was in the car when you were in an accident. Or you moved to a new house, perhaps from a rural setting to an apartment. Traumatic events shape your dog's perspective on the safety of the world. Resilient dogs can recover from traumatic events. Dogs who lack resilience don’t. The challenge for dog owners is that we can’t predict which dogs are resilient and which aren’t. This is particularly true for puppies. Owners are told to “take your puppy everywhere” for socialization. This can and does backfire. Sometimes it’s hard to know if the puppy is feeling safe and having fun when you’re out in public. Very social dogs are up for an adventure. They are flexible and adaptive. These happy-go-lucky dogs bounce back from sudden noises and rude people. Social outings are not fun or enjoyable for dogs who are easily overwhelmed, who shrink back or who try to avoid textures, sounds, people, or new things. They are situations to be endured because they are forced into the situation and restrained by a leash. The puppy that is enduring the social outing but not enjoying the experience may become reactive during adolescence or when hitting social maturity.
Whether your dog was purpose-bred (pure breed dogs) or are world dogs (mixed breeds or breeds unknown), genetics play a big part in who your dog is. Some dogs were bred to work independently of people. Those dogs are often labeled as stubborn when they are being true to their genetics. Livestock Guardian dogs, many ancient breeds, terriers, and bulldogs come to mind. Other dogs were bred to work in partnership with people. Dogs like Labrador Retrievers, Border Collies, Standard Poodles, and Australian Shepherds fit this category. Toy dogs are meant for lap sitting and alert barking to approaching strangers. World dogs may be aloof and independent or great at partnering with people. The point is that taking a dog genetically designed to be aloof and making her a social butterfly is difficult or even impossible. Teaching the independent dog the skills needed to be socially active won’t necessarily mean your dog will enjoy being socially active. Conversely, expecting a social dog to thrive when she is socially isolated for many hours a day cause problems, like chewing the furniture and digging in the trash.
If you and your dog are socially active, take the time needed to teach your dog the skills needed to be successful. A combination of training (group classes and/or private training), practice, time, and patience will pay off.

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