puppy social interaction

Puppy Diaries #8: Mastering the Perfect Puppy Social Interaction

Dear Diary,

Now that we’ve made it through the first seven months and are into Sommer’s eighth month, I find that most of my time and training is focused around refining her behavior. And by “refining,” I mean “trying to make her behavior palatable to other humans … and dogs.” I don’t add “dogs” lightly. One of the main challenges we face is that while she loves people, she’s not so sure about her fellow canines. I get it. She’s smaller than most dogs, and as we all know, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Still, part of growing up is facing your fears and gaining confidence in the process, right? This month, I decided to work on puppy social interactions, so that Sommer and I could feel free to go out and explore the world. As an eight-month-old pup, Sommer needs exercise, so I was excited to put the off-leash dog park, puppy play dates and nice long walks around our neighborhood on my agenda. Boy, was I ever surprised when the events I looked forward to ever since she was a tiny pup turned out to be some of the most challenging I’d ever needed to manage!

When friends told me about our local off-leash dog park, I thought we’d found nirvana. I’ve never visited any other dog parks, so I’m not in a place to compare, but as I researched it online, I found it was fully fenced and 18 acres in size, with hiking trails circling a grove of tall oak trees. The day we first visited, I pulled up in the parking lot and counted four extended-cab pickup trucks parked nearby, which gave me the feeling that this was the place for athletic and sporty pups who regularly flush out pheasants. But I was excited to check it out, and I was prepared with my leash and poop bags at the ready. More than that, I had prepped myself to toe the line between being a neurotic helicopter dog parent and keeping a close eye on Sommer.

Unfortunately, what I had prepared for wasn’t what I encountered. At about 15 pounds, Sommer is a small dog, and to larger, sporting dogs, she must have looked like something fun to chase. In her first encounter, a large Goldendoodle sniffed her, which made her frightened and start running in terrified circles, barking in higher and higher pitches. The Goldendoodle took off in hot pursuit. The faster Sommer ran and the more she barked, the more the dog chased her. The dog was definitely not getting her “stand back, I don’t like this” message. No, what kicked in was the dog’s prey drive. I finally was able to scoop her up and take her back to the car.

The next time we visited, I noticed that she was shaking visibly, but that was par for the course: She shook with nerves when we went to the vet, doggy daycare of the groomer, and even the pet store. On our second visit, we had some fun, but she always seemed on edge. I liked it though, because she got lots of fresh air and exercise, and so did I. On our third visit, she had another run-in with a larger dog, and I started to question the wisdom of our exercise routine. I consulted a trainer, who shocked me by saying that under no circumstances should we return to the dog park. She warned that small dogs can become aggressive by being put into traumatizing situations when they are pups. “Have you ever passed by a Chihuahua sitting on its owner’s lap, and it automatically bares its teeth and growls at you, even though you’ve done nothing, not even approached it?” she asked me. I nodded. “That’s what can happen if you keep going to the dog park.” Needless to say, we never returned.

Puppy playdates were another activity that seemed like they should have been fun but turned into a challenging puppy parenthood adventure. We have a very kind and patient neighbor who has two mini golden doodles who are about a year and a half older than Sommer. Although they are smaller than Sommer, Sommer’s typical behavior upon meeting them was excited nonstop barking and chasing. It was as if she was doing unto them what had been done to her at the dog park. It was tiresome, as I wanted to catch up with my neighbor while the dogs played, but we could hardly hear each other over the din of Sommer’s incessant barking.

Enter what we like to call “the beep collar.” We were introduced to it by a friend and found its effects immediate and lasting. When Sommer’s puppy friends came to play, I put the collar on her, and she was instantly on notice that bad behavior would not be tolerated. A few initial barks of happiness? No problem. Incessant, irritating high-pitched barking? We’d hit the remote, the collar would beep and the barking would stop. It was like a miracle.

While our training methods might not be perfect, I’m also acutely aware that Sommer is of the age when dogs are at the highest risk of being surrendered, between six months and two years of age. It’s the time when they have the most energy and require a lot of attention, correction, and activity. So if a collar helps me to manage Sommer’s overly energetic ways, then so be it, I told myself. If I thought there was a reason for Sommer’s barking – if in fact she needed to defend herself – I would not have used the collar. And maybe there is a better way to stop barking, but that’s what worked fastest for us. For breaking a bad habit that seemed to come from overexcitement, I would recommend it. Now, when our neighbor stops by while walking her dogs, Sommer can come out and play with them in our yard, while the neighbor and I enjoy a leisurely chat.

Going for walks was another activity that seemed like it should have been a relaxing and bonding time but which in reality proved to be treacherous when Sommer would encounter another dog. Our walks with Sommer at eight months seemed to alternate between long stretches of happy sniffing, punctuated by moments of sheer terror when a dog in its yard would charge at us, barking enthusiastically. More than once, Sommer came to an abrupt halt right in front of me, and I’d nearly fall flat on my face – although, to date, I’ve managed to catch myself. After screeching to a halt, she would start barking and then lunge at the dog, nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process. Making the situation more challenging was the fact that it was impossible to determine whether the dog charging at us from their yard would actually stop before reaching us. Where we live, it’s hilly and the lots are too large for a fence, so no one has an actual physical fence. You just say a silent prayer that the dog charging you has his invisible fence collar on, or that if he doesn’t have it, he’s well trained enough to know his property line. I can see why Sommer doesn’t find that comforting! If dogs weren’t charging us from their yards, they were inside their homes and rushing toward the screen door or picture window and barking when we passed by. This also apparently required Sommer’s full attention. Walks really were a gauntlet! This time, I used “the beep collar” again during a single walk, and beeped her when she began barking and lunging at a neighbor dog. She stopped immediately. Since then, she hasn’t been perfect, but she has been much improved.

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About Puppy Diaries

Puppy Diaries is an ongoing series that explores the journey of pet parenthood, from making the decision to get a puppy, to bringing a puppy home, to the joys and struggles of training, and beyond. Laura Tiebert, our resident Pup Mom, is an experienced nonfiction writer and first-time puppy parent who lives in Minnesota with her husband, two sons and a new puppy.