Socialization – the Myth

One of my clients reached out to me with a very upsetting experience this week, asking me what I think of “socialization”. Hmmm…

What had happened was that she and her husband had driven to a drop-off point, meeting their dog food distributor, and happened to have brought along their NewFoundland. While they had parked in a place that had been previously far enough away from other cars, for whatever reason other people began parking nearby. Their dog doesn’t spend lots of time riding in the car, but had accompanied his carers to food deliveries before but what occurred was completely frightening to the poor boy.

My client related that at first someone took their dog out of their car for bathroom break, and walked near to my client’s car. Her Newfie barked (appropriately) and was answered by my client, although she could then see he had been a bit ruffled and was now a bit more on alert. More cars began arriving. More concerned barking ensued.

Shortly after this little incident, a person approached my client’s truck, having heard him barking and began sticking their hand into my client’s car, while at the same time asking, “Can I pet him?Is he friendly?” The dog began to growl, while also trying to back away from the person’s hand. My client answered, “Yes, he is, but he doesn’t know you.” She also politely requested that they ignore the dog, and to not put their hand into the truck, because it’s the dog’s space. The person then began to instruct my client on socialization (apparently this individual has lived with Newfies, so of course believe they knew about the breed), how important it is for this type of dog to be “socialized”, etc., etc.

Then, shortly after, another person approached the truck and began to put their hand in through the open window to pet the dog, while the dog growled and backed up. My client’s husband asked the woman not to do this, that although he is a friendly dog, there is too much stimulation for him currently and he needed to calm down.


To put this scenario in a human perspective, suppose you’re sitting in your car, awaiting a delivery, as these folks were. Suddenly, someone you don’t know approaches your car and proceeds to put their hands in your face, your hair, and on your body. Think you would pull away? Perhaps even shout at the person, push away their hands and tell them off? I know I would!

Or suppose your children are sitting in their car seats in the back seat of your car and a stranger walks up and puts their hands on your children? In my mind, they would draw back a stump!

What is this bizarre notion that a dog is supposed to tolerate everyone’s hands on them? That somehow we should “make” them be instant friends with all they meet?  Maybe train them to just put up with every person who wants to touch them, to get into their face and space. They are animals, concentrated on their survival every day. They cannot know who is kind and who isn’t by smell alone! And honestly, we share this same “stranger = danger” instinct with them. If a stranger comes to my door, I’m very cautious and keep the outer door closed to them until I learn what their presence means. If an unfamiliar person approaches my car, my window gets raised so I can feel safer. Imagine that you’re sitting at a stoplight and some random person jumps into your car with you. Are you going give him a big smile and ask where he needs a ride to? If he shows up in your living room unannounced, are you going invite him to tea?

Of course not!

It’s absolutely absurd for people to assume they can handle every dog they meet at that the dog “should” be thrilled about it. Dogs don’t have the language necessary to tell these kinds of pushy people to back off. They don’t have hands to push away those hands that are in their face. And often they are leashed so their ability to flee has been taken away or, in this case, they are in an enclosed space and have no means of escape.

They have teeth. That’s it.

The real crime is that if they should feel the need to use those teeth, after having given fair warning with a growl and demonstrated their wish to take flight by backing up as my client’s dog did as the intruder insisted they should be able to touch the dog, the one bitten would immediately cry foul, try to shame the dog’s carers by claiming they haven’t appropriately socialized their dog, and maybe even report the dog for a bite, saying there is something wrong with the dog and it’s vicious.

It happens every day.

It doesn’t have to. If people would learn about the true nature of their dogs, their dog’s perspective and survival needs, putting aside their own egos and investment as being seen as “dog people”, even take the time and interest necessary to learn what dog’s signals mean, then dogs would be given a choice, just as we given one another a choice about interaction, just as we give our children a choice about interaction.

It’s called empathy. It’s called compassion.


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