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In November, we joined our friend Jessica and her dog Gretel for a 9-day 4,000-mile road trip to join some of our Instagram dog pals and their humans for an epic camping and hiking adventure in Arizona. We had been planning this meetup for months and it kept growing as we neared the date. In the end, we totaled some 21 people and 26 dogs. (!!!)
Prior to our two-year bicycle journey, Sora tended to be unpredictably reactive to other dogs and people. Traveling, however, gave her so many impressions, as she constantly met new people and street dogs, that Dave and I better learned how to read her signals and she grew more trusting of others.
While traveling through Europe and South America, we developed a series of tools we use when introducing Sora to new people and dogs and employed them when introducing Sora to all of her newest besties in Arizona.
This time would be a bit different than our travels however. Most of these dogs already knew one another and hike together regularly. Sora would be a new member of this pack and it left us feeling a bit nervous. Plus 20+ dogs is a lot of dogs. A lot. Additionally, since returning back to the US, Sora hasn’t been meeting as many dogs on a regular basis, so we relied on a few tools and tactics dog socialization with a large pack.
Dog Socialization 101
It’d be great if we could all just let our dogs run loose in an open space and expect them to all just play nice from the beginning. Sometimes, that does work, but most of the time, that’s just asking for a fight. In order to keep the peace, introduce your dog slowly and on their terms.
You know your dog better than anyone and they are relying on you to keep them safe and out of potentially stressful situations. Your job is to read their body language. Some sure signs of trouble include:
- A stiff body stance
- Raised hackles
When you see these warning signals, that’s your dog communicating with you that she’s not comfortable in the situation. Distract with a treat using the “look” command, reward, and remove your dog to an isolated area to reset.
As an introvert, I used to be pretty nervous about communicating Sora’s behaviors, which sometimes led to less than ideal situations. Eventually, however, I had to come out of my shell, as it was essential for the safety of both my dog and me.
Now, I always make sure that any new friends know that Sora can be a little snippy at first introduction. I explain clearly how she prefers to meet new friends (they can sniff her bum, but I won’t let her sniff theirs. No face-to-face greetings, etc.). Then we go on a short walk all together. When we follow this routine, we avoid altercations nearly every time.
So far, all the friends I’ve met from Instagram have been super dog savvy and aware of their dogs’ tendencies. We communicate ahead of time in order to keep the peace and help our dogs feel safe and secure. Remind new friends again upon arrival, as it’s hard to keep track of who’s social and who isn’t, for example:
Katie of @trustyourtrail and mom to Quinci, aka the “Raptor” held Quinci securely in her arms, where she felt safe when we arrived and informed me authoritatively that Quinci needs time with new people. So I stayed away until Quinci let me know that she was ok with our presence.
Debbie of @lifewithmutts kept an eye on her Cattle dog mutt, Ringo who becomes overwhelmed in groups of more than a few new dogs. If he felt stressed, she put him in the car (when it was cool enough) or hung back from the group. Like Sora, movement helps with Ringo, so Debbie took him on a walk with the people and dogs who were at camp as soon as they arrived.
Cheyenne, one of Marilyn’s of @trailswith4tails five rescue mutts is super shy and fearful of new people, dogs, noises, you name it. She’s very sensitive, and Marilyn explained this to everyone upon introduction so we would all know to give Cheyenne space and avoid sudden movements or loud noises around her.
Know your dog’s quirks and don’t be afraid to communicate them with a new group or complete strangers, and be respectful of other dogs with anxiety or fears around large groups and new people and dogs.
Slow and Steady
As soon as we arrived to our camping spot, our car was surrounded by curious pups, eager to find out who the newbies were. Since Sora can react unpredictably with new dogs, I knew that a horde of excited four-legged creatures bounding our direction could result in a scuffle.
So we kept her in the car and opened the door and (attempted) to allow the dogs to meet her one-by-one. We didn’t let anyone get too close, but allowed her to see who was there.
She’s not protective of her space, so this worked for her. She saw them, sniffed the air, and evaluated the scene a little. Other dogs might not be so cool to have dogs swinging by and saying hello like that. Know what works for your dog and create a socialization routine.
Remove Trigger Items
We made sure to feed Sora in the car, away from the other dogs. Not knowing who’s food aggressive or not, we just kept her isolated during food time.
Practically everyone carried treats on the trail. Of course, all the dogs would line up for a snack. If anyone showed signs of aggression, we’d put away the treats immediately have to remember to offer that dog a treat separately from the group for good behavior.
Other trigger items can include sticks, toys, food bowls, bones, or even yourself, if your dog is protective of you.
Part the routine that we have established includes a lot of positive reinforcement for good behavior. We never go anywhere without treats for Sora. She is super food motivated and responds well to high-value treats (which, with her, is pretty much anything that comes from a plastic bag).
When we see Sora reacting positively to a new dog (tail wagging or raised, relaxed body posture), we tell her “good girl!” in a high-pitched voice and reward her with a treat for being accepting of the meeting. The goal is to make introductions fun and rewarding, not scary events. The more practice, the more comfortable your dog will become.
On the trail, we weren’t too worried about Sora. She was always on leash with us and we dispersed enough so that all 26 dogs were not lining the trail conga line style.
Camp was a different story. Most dogs were running around off leash, many were longtime friends and already had set dynamics. Dave and I were also new and therefore distracted talking to so many people that we couldn’t really focus both on the conversation and Sora, so we either kept her in the car (again, when it was cool enough) or found small groups to sit with removed from the larger group. Yes, it felt anti-social at times, but that was the safest option for Sora and us.
Dog socialization can be tricky, especially if your dog is reactive, nervous, fearful, or protective. The primary key is recognizing and accepting these behaviors in your dog. It doesn’t mean that you have a “bad dog,” it just means that you need to work harder than others and be more attentive to their needs. Establish a routine that works for you and your dog and do it the same way, every single time. Always bring along treats and reward your dog for good conduct. Continue practicing regularly in controlled settings to help both you and your dog gain more confidence and create a routine that works.