Dog parks can be good places for adolescent and adult dogs to socialize, but they are terrible for puppy socialization. One bullying experience at a dog park (e.g., several dogs gang up on your puppy) can cause your puppy to be fearful toward other dogs for years, or even for life. Fearful puppies often grow up to be aggressive dogs.
While some dog parks are designed well and attended by people who supervise their dogs and only bring appropriate dogs to the park, this is not the case with every park. Some people bring reactive dogs to dog parks. Others are busy on their cell phones and don’t even notice when their dogs bully other dogs. Others are not educated in canine behavior, so if their dog is a bully, they just say that it’s how he “plays.” You can’t control the environment at a dog park, so don’t expose your puppy and risk a bad experience. When your puppy grows up to be a teenager, do your research. If there is a quality dog park nearby, then you can visit without a socialization risk.
Getting your puppy socialized is going to be hard work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! Socialization games will keep the task enjoyable for you, your puppy, and your friends. Here are some games to try.
You can ask people to participate in the handling training exercise—the same one that you will be doing with your puppy. Choose people who are comfortable with puppies and can handle yours appropriately. No grabbing! Only gentle touches. It’s good for your puppy to learn to be handled by others because your veterinarian and perhaps a groomer will need to handle him. The game will go better if you tire your puppy out a bit beforehand. Play with him, let him run in your yard or do another activity to settle him down a bit before your friends help you with this game.
Take one meal’s worth of your puppy’s kibble and divide it into separate baggies, one for each person who will participate. To each bag, add a few extra tasty treats. As each person touches the puppy in various places—his paws, ears, mouth, and tail—he or she will give the puppy a treat.
Come up with a scavenger hunt to complete your socialization exercises. Your puppy will get lots of treats during the hunt, but you should also reward yourself for completing it! For example, on one weekend outing, plan to:
- Meet a stranger wearing a hat or hoodie.
- Meet a small group of children.
- Meet a man with a beard.
- Meet two people wearing sunglasses.
- Meet a person using a cane or crutches.
- Meet a child on a skateboard.
- See a balloon.
- Experience a sudden noise.
- Watch a sprinkler when it is turned on.
- See a big truck drive by.
Bring your clicker and treats.
Click and treat for brave, confident behavior. If you are actually greeting a person, he or she can give your puppy treats. If you are just watching the person go by, you can give the treats to your puppy.
Note what your puppy likes and what things concern him. For the things that make him worried or afraid, try them again on your next scavenger hunt so you can make them more positive associations for your puppy. Circle of Friends This game also involves other people, preferably enough to form a large circle when sitting on the ground.
Divide up your puppy’s kibble into a baggie for each person. Add some tasty treats to each bag. Each person should also have a clicker. Each person should take turns calling the puppy’s name in a friendly voice, encouraging the puppy to come to him or her. When the puppy arrives, click and treat. Take turns randomly going around the circle.
This game builds positive associations for the action of approaching people. Vary the people in the circle each time you play it so that your puppy learns to happily approach a variety of people.