How Sociable is Your Dog?

It’s fairly standard to assume that not all people will get along with each other. Some people clash, perhaps because they have different personalities, different interests, different moral standards, or different motivations, but that’s part of human life. Yet when our dogs don’t get along with every single dog, we suddenly think there’s something wrong with them, or worse, we quickly label them as ‘aggressive’. We can be so quick to assume the worst with our dogs, one negative reaction can tip us straight into thinking our dog has an issue.

If we were to picture ourselves in some of the situations we put our dogs in, we would soon have a better appreciation of why they behave in the way they do. If you were put into a room with 20 other people and expected to greet them all, make polite conversation and interact happily for several hours, would you really enjoy it? If you had to do this every day, would you snap at some point?

For dogs in daycare or busy walking locations, this can be a daily occurrence. Even if you were having to meet-and-greet several new people every time you left the house, at some point you’d meet a few who you didn’t get along with or some who you would rather not say hello to.

Thinking how you would feel in some of these situations might give you a better idea of why not all dogs get along. Just like people, some love to meet loads of new friends, they thrive off busy social situations, while others find this stressful and tiring, or would rather stick with known friends.

It’s more widely accepted now that dogs will range on a scale between being ‘super dog social’ to ‘aggressive’, with very few dogs being on either end of the extremes. Most dogs will sit somewhere in between the extremes,

Puppies do tend to start life on the ‘super dog social’ end of the spectrum, but this changes as they mature and it can be hard for us to understand why our puppy who once loved absolutely everyone, is now less keen to meet all the other dogs. People often start to worry when their puppy stops showing so much interest in dogs, thinking it’s almost rude and offensive if they don’t engage in play with another dog. But actually, this is perfectly normal and often very polite dog behaviour.

Dog tolerance levels will change with age and experience, but there will also be genetic influences which no amount of socialisation, training or experience will be able to make a significant impact on. This is why not every dog will necessarily be friendly with all dogs or display perfect social skills.

Dog Social

  • This is where most puppies start. They enjoy other dogs and seek out interactions. They will tolerate, or even encourage, rude behaviours from other dogs (like humping, being barged around or barked at to provoke play)
  • With maturity, most dogs will move towards the ‘Dog Tolerant’ side of the scale, but some dogs will remain highly ‘Dog Social’, this is a rarity though despite it being a trait we tend to expect from our dogs
  • They will need more help to understand appropriate social signals and to reduce their expectation that all other dogs will be equally sociable

Dog Tolerant

  • These dogs tend to get along with most other dogs, they may be relatively neutral or more playful. They often have good tolerance of other dogs and good communication skills. They can cope with more rudeness from other dogs but are unlikely to encourage it
  • They still benefit from supervision and some direction from their humans but they can likely handle a lot by themselves
  • Many puppies will also start around this area of sociability, but as they mature they may move further towards being ‘Dog Selective’

Dog Selective

  • These dogs are just as common as ‘Dog Tolerant’ adults and it’s very normal for many adult dogs to end up in this area of sociability
  • They typically have a circle of dogs who they get on well with, or certain types of dogs who they enjoy being with. They are less tolerant so may snap quicker than the more tolerant individuals
  • They are likely to take a dislike to certain play styles or the behaviour of other dogs, for example, dogs who approach confrontationally, those who use a lot of eye contact, or who don’t respect social signals
  • These dogs can appear as ‘fun police’, they are more likely to control play or give out warnings if it’s not within their terms
  • They benefit from more supervision and direction from their humans, they will also benefit from much more support in situations where they may be uncomfortable

Dog Aggressive

  • This is very rare in puppies, and relatively uncommon in adult dogs
  • Truly ‘Dog Aggressive’ dogs will have a very small circle of dogs who they get along with, or none at all. They will have poor social skills and will be quick to react to other dogs
  • These dogs really need all the support and guidance from their humans. They may never enjoy dog-dog interactions but may be able to tolerant to some extent if it’s a safe and controlled situation

It’s really important to remember that dog sociability is not a fixed trait. It will change through maturity and with experience, it can be improved with good experiences or made worse by negative ones. What we often see is that dogs move towards the ‘dog tolerant’ side of the spectrum, but if they find themselves in more interactions which they don’t enjoy then they will be slowly pushed towards being more ‘dog selective’, in some case they may end up being pushed into ‘dog aggressive’ but likely there will either be some really significantly negative interactions to cause this or there will be underlying genetics which impact sociability.

While many dogs do shift to the right of the scale as they mature and age, it is possible to shift them left too. Perhaps not into the highly dog social category, but certainly to maintain a good dog tolerance level or reduce their selectivity.

Things like daycare and dog parks can be prime places where dog tolerance is reduced, many dogs aren’t keen on the idea of free-for-all play or the constant pressure of social environments. Many people will have had their dogs removed from daycare for behaviours which suggest the dog is stressed, over-aroused or struggling to cope with the intensity of the environment. This is where dog sociability can be hugely impacted, either because an individual learns to ‘bully’ other dogs or because they are the one being ‘bullied’, but it’s not just daycare where this can happen. The same things occur in dog walking groups and on daily walks for many dogs too, it may be less intense than daycare but it doesn’t mean your dog isn’t being impacted in some way by the behaviour of other dogs.

The thing is, some dogs just aren’t good at reading signs from other dogs, or they may not always respond to signals appropriately. Young dogs who are ‘highly dog social’ may not fully understand signals from adult dogs or they may find reinforcement in provoking reactions from other dogs, some dogs may respond with play while others respond by giving a warning or telling off, but it can still reinforce the rude behaviour. This is where you can’t think only of your own dog, many people will say ‘oh he needs a good telling off’ or ‘that will teach him a lesson’, but that completely disregards how the other dog is also feeling. It’s too selfish to assume your dog has learnt a valuable lesson when he gets told off by another dog, because actually the dog who has done the telling off has been pushed to the point of having to give a warning, meaning they were put into an uncomfortable situation and potentially pushed towards being more selective about their interactions with other dogs.

Having an understanding of the signals between dogs will not only help your dog, but it will also help you understand how other dogs may be feeling too. Just because your dog may come out of a negative interaction completely unscathed, it doesn’t mean the other dog will too. While it is part of life that not all dogs will get along and sometimes things turn negative quickly or we miss the signs and it’s too late, but the more you can step in and watch for any warning signs, the more positive interactions should remain. You can set your dog up to succeed in interactions by supporting them and always taking note of their body language.

What to watch for depends on your dog:

Dog Social Dogs

  • If you have a dog who LOVES other dogs, you need to be aware that not all other dogs will feel the same way. Just because yours is friendly, he does not have the right to go and harass other dogs
  • Don’t blame other dogs for taking a dislike to yours if yours is the one bouncing all over and being a pest
  • Control his interactions more closely so he’s not causing other dogs to feel uncomfortable or stressed. You can maintain his friendly, social side while also keeping control
  • Watch for signs your dog is pestering other dogs, if you find an equal match who loves to play then GREAT, but don’t allow him to jump all over another dog who has clearly chosen to move on
  • Remember if you don’t manage his interactions, he’s likely to get into trouble and this could push him away from being dog social and further towards being selective in his interactions

Dog Tolerant Dogs

  • This is a pretty good place to be so try to reinforce your dog accordingly to maintain his healthy dog tolerance
  • Accept that he may not want to play with everyone and enjoy the fact that he may choose to meet some dogs but happily ignore others… this is the dream for many people so ENJOY IT
  • Watch for signs that he’s pestering other dogs, dog tolerant dogs may still miss some signals and get into trouble so call him away from other dogs if they’re not interested
  • Move him away from other dogs if they aren’t respecting his signals, dog tolerant dogs can quickly be pushed to being more selective if they’re frequently bullied or pestered, so help him out if his signals are being ignored

Dog Selective Dogs

  • Don’t feel bad if your dog is the one who only wants to be ‘friends’ with certain dogs … it’s very normal!
  • Take the time to understand who your dog likes and dislikes, you will probably see pattens in the dogs who he chooses to engage with and those who he warns away or tries to avoid
  • Many dog-selective dogs will be less tolerant of the super social ones with bad manners, so if you see an out-of-control young dog, try to get yours under close control and help him out
  • Be aware of situations which make him uncomfortable, it might be big groups of dogs, bouncy big dogs, dogs who stare a lot, dogs who approach fast … every dog will have different worries or dislikes, this could be from past experience or linked into the breed
  • The more aware you are of what your dog can tolerate, the more you can help move him towards being more tolerant, or at least avoid his selectivity getting any worse!
  • If your dog tends to use barking, growling, snapping or chasing to warn other dogs away, you can help them by looking for earlier signals which suggest your dog is feeling uncomfortable. Some dogs who have a history of having their early warning signals ignored, will go straight to clearer signals and they will need more help to learn to use other signals and feel confident in trusting you to help. Watching for earlier signals before they escalate will avoid problems developing further

Dog Aggressive Dogs

  • These will probably have moved from being ‘tolerant’ or ‘selective’ into a more extreme ‘aggressive’ category
  • Past experience will probably have had a big impact on your dog so you need to be extra aware of what his triggers are and what aspects of social interactions he struggles with
  • This may mean life-long management, perhaps keeping distance from dogs, walking on-lead or going to places where you won’t meet other dogs
  • Some ‘aggressive’ dogs may be able to move towards being ‘selective’ but they will always need a lot of support and guidance
  • Management will be your key. Keep your dog away from situations he can’t cope with and work through training to help him feel relaxed around dogs

Dog sociability is a very flexible and variable trait, your dog might even go through phases of feeling less sociable before returning to his ‘normal’ level, but most importantly you should always be aware of how your dog is interacting and be ready to step in if needed. Sometimes it’s good to let dogs get on with it and give them freedom, but if this is detrimental to any of the individuals involved then you should always intervene. If you notice sudden changes in your dogs sociability then it’s wise to have a thorough vet check done to ensure there aren’t underlying medical reasons, and then look at his recent interactions and work out what may have changed. Ignoring things to see if they improve is rarely a good idea and it’s far better to take action straight away before any little problems become much bigger.

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