While at Dogtoberfest this past weekend, I saw some really great things and some really concerning things. This event is not huge by any means but it is quite dense in terms of lots of people and dogs jammed into a pretty small space. There are plenty of people of all shapes, ages and sizes (some even wearing costumes), dogs of all shapes and sizes, potentially new equipment and environmental objects (tents, signs blowing, inflatable flailing arm things, etc). In theory, it could be a great place for socialization because there is just so much stuff going on.
Unfortunately, it is also a place that can be ridiculously overwhelming to dogs. Last weekend there were no easy ‘escape routes’ and it was pretty much a hard edge between the “inside” of the event and the outside. It didn’t have a buffer zone where a dog could sort of be in the action but have easy escape or be in a less overwhelming zone. It was all or nothing so it was really easy for dogs to go over threshold since there was very little distance between “out” of the event and “in” the event. When they were “in” the event, dogs were in close quarters to so many different triggers that it’s really easy for there to be “trigger stacking” because there are just so many little concerns that lead up to the dog going over threshold.
I was so very excited to see that a few of my students attended the event without their dogs. They were able to make a really good decision on behalf of their dog because they knew their dog would likely be over threshold or overwhelmed. Making a dog go into an overwhelming situation is not quality socialization. There is a pretty good chance that the socialization opportunity can backfire, particularly if there is no training being done to help with the dog feel comfortable. It can be frustrating not bringing Fido to a canine friendly event but sometimes it’s the best choice for the dog.
There were a few dogs that I saw at the event that probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They were scared, they were overwhelmed, and/or they were completely shut down. Some were probably not even safe to be in that environment. While I don’t know of any bites, I did see one dog on a few occasions go after little dogs, another dog snark at a few people, and another dog muzzle punch two or three people who walked passed (this was not friendly jumping up at all). For these dogs, this was not a good experience–this socialization was setting them up to fail and allowing them to practice dangerous and undesirable behaviors. What they learned during this ‘socialization’ time was that their handlers would not help them and that it was up to them to protect themselves by scaring off people or dogs who got too close. This type of ‘socialization’ does not help the dogs feel safe in their environment or feel safe with their handlers. They guardians were not doing any ‘training’ during this exposure to help their dogs feel better about these types of environments. Their idea of socialization was not wrong, the execution of that plan was not so good.
At this point, for Shayne and Rio, these types of events are really great opportunities for continued work and socialization. That wasn’t always the case. It was only a few years ago when I would bring Rio to those types of events but not Shayne because I knew that there would be a really good chance of having issues with her going over threshold. It’s hard not to bring Fido along to dog friendly events but we, as dog guardians, must make the best decisions for our dogs. It’s okay to bring Fido to an event and then leave if it’s too much for Fido. We all make mistakes and underestimate how concerned our dogs will be in a situation and that’s okay, we just have to realize that mistake and get our dogs out of there if we cannot help them feel comfortable.
So remember, when socializing your pup/dogs, it’s not just about the quantity of things you expose them to but the quality of those experiences that will determine how well socialized the dog becomes.