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What if my dog is TOO Social?

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

This is usually very fixable.


When people say "my dog is TOO social" they are usually describing a dog who does not listen to them around other dogs, pulls the person's arm out of the socket upon seeing another dog, or frustration barks if they can't go see a dog. Once they meet the other dog, it frequently goes badly despite how much the dog wanted it.



The issue actually ISN'T that your dog is too social. It is true that your dog's SOCIABILITY (interest in interaction) is high. And this is neither good nor bad. All dogs run the spectrum and understanding where your dog falls when is key.


A white Great Pyrenees puppy pounces playfully on a blue merle with white and tan Australian Shepard puppy
Social Attunement is the ability to understand and respond to another's feelings

The issue is that your dog is lacking TWO social skills. (Get it? Two Social? Not TOO social?)


The first is SOCIAL ATTUNEMENT. That is the ability to be aware of, and respond to, the feelings of others.


The other is HANDLER FOCUS, or the ability to respond to handler cues when focused on another dog (or anything).


In other words, your dog is not listening to you OR the other dog. And this is making everyone feel frustrated (and possibly embarrassed).


So, your dog isn't too social. They are just lacking social skills. Skills you can help them build.


A blue merle with white and tan Aussie wraps his arm around the shoulder of an apricot toy poodle
Social skills are learned and friendships are built

Building Social Attunement

Your dog's lack of social attunement (reading the room) is why these interactions they want so badly often don't go well. It would be like if, upon meeting you, I lept all over you hugging you. It isn't intent to harm. And it is because I like you and am excited to see you. But it has no consideration for your experience. Only my wants.



Some of you might actually think that was fun. But most would not. And your responses would be avoidance or aggression or just enduring a non conscrntual social interaction uncomfortably.


Similarly, with your dog, sometimes this excited behavior might go over OK. But frequently they may respond with avoidance or aggression. And they may be just enduring some thing that isn't at all comfortable.


And in those moments your dog probably won't respond to any redirection even with high value food, toys, yelling, or pulling the collar or harness. But there is help.


A light golden retriever puppy wrestles happily on the ground with a fluffy black puppy
Well matched, well balanced play builds social attunement

What to do:

This lack of social attunement usually happens in adolescent (7 - 16 mos) dogs who have had low variety in playmates. Usually they have had a house mate or a neighborhood friend or two but not much beyond that.


To build social attunement your dog needs a lot of well balanced, well matched play. They typically need a few highly social, highly socially tolerant playmates and a skilled trainer.

One on one play with the carefully selected playmate and facilitated by the skilled trainer allows your dog to slowly be "immersed" in dog language and learn it similarly to how a child learns verbal language. It progressively comes in through continuous exposure.


Playmate selection is critical, as is the human's skill at understanding the intricacies of play and social behavior. And there are many strategies and interventions that go into this play based training. So the best way to accomplish this is a very knowledgeable daycare program.



Avoid the dog park

At the dog park your dog's obnoxious behavior is likley to get them attacked by some dog with low social tolerance (ability to be graceful with someone else's poor social skills). And there isn't a supervising human that has spent a long time with packs of dogs who is able to understand what is happening with the play, when and what to do about it.


Building HANDLER FOCUS

Handler focus (ability to listen to you in the face of distractions, some might term it "obedience") is obviously a form of social attunement too. But the outcome we want is your dog tuning in to you. So I separate it out as we problem solve.


So, how do we build this handler focus?

Well, behavior change is always a two way street, and this is no exception. For your dog to build handler focus you will have to build some dog focus. You are going to have to put in some time each day doing a variety of exercises.


A large breed back dog with white paws stands with his front paws on a purple table while a small breed white dog is lured by a handler around orange cones.
Luring games like figure 8s around a cone or teaching "2 on" (two paws on something) build handler focus

You need a very low distraction environment so you can get your dogs attention. Starting out where it is too hard is going to cause your dog to fail and you to get frustrated. None of us need that. (Similar to teaching a teenager to drive we are going to start in the parking lot, not the freeway).


Fast paced pattern games, luring games, and teaching behaviors they can offer for treats at any time (the technical term for this is called "manding") are my favorite ways to build handler focus. Just working on general obedience can help too and is never a bad idea. But in my experience it doesn't help as fast or as much.




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