Be a Lifeguard in a Sea of Dogs: Dog/Dog Socialization Mistakes

Have you ever watched footage of a lifeguard in action, diving off of their stand into a crowded pool of people to save someone? A few months ago, I watched about 20 videos on YouTube of these rescues -- a lifeguard overseeing a crowded pool full of people and notices the one person/child who quietly started to struggle in the water, immediately diving in and saving them within seconds. It was simply amazing! I would have to rewatch each video to see where the distress happened, becuase the signs of drowning are so's typically not someone screaming for help and flailing their arms around, it is actually a very fast, silent, and frantic thing that could go unseen if you weren't watching close enough. These heros are trained to save people, enforce the rules, and prevent problems while everyone else is simply there to have fun. If a lifeguard was too busy chatting up the guests or flirting with the cuties in their bathing suits, they could miss something that could be the difference between life and death.

The same thing goes for dog socialization (between other dogs or between people and dogs). There are a lot of subtle signs when dogs are interacting with each other (and people) that can be missed and conflict can arise. When I am out in a social group of dogs, you will very rarely see me stopping to kneel down and give lots of affection, pets, and belly rubs to the dogs. In fact, I don't often do much petting at all - the only direct interacting the dogs get from me are some obedience commands to add a level of voice control to the activity in the yard. Our#Saturplay posts are some of the most popular videos because people love to see the dogs in action running and playing, but if you look closely, you will also see me on the move - watching, regulating, enforcing the rules - being a lifeguard in a sea of dogs.

A common mistake people make when they are around multiple dogs is that they stand still and start to share alot of affection. I totally get it - being in a yard full of playing dogs is any dog lover's dream! However, what most people don't realize is that while most human friendly dogs would gladly be pet and want your attention (and in a one on one setting it wouldn't be an issues, besides being jumped on), in a group setting sharing attention often creates a bottleneck of dogs crowding you for some petting/affection. All of a sudden, you and your attention become a valuable resource, which can create a guarding/ownership situation and you have multiple dogs with excited/aroused energy bumping into each other creating tension, conflict, and completion: all which can be the perfect storm for a dog fight.

During socialization, I am always walking around - keeping the dogs in motion, using my body language, or a dressage whip as an extension of my body, to help make space and avoid conflict. I rarely share affection with dogs in the yard, and if I have one crowding me and asking for it, I will own my space by making the dog move away via my body language/spacial pressure or moving into or walking away from the dog. If you don't become something a dog can be possesive over (by sharing soft, only affection based energy) and instead are someone to be respected and listened too, you won't be unintentionally encouraging competition to develop in the dogs. 

I watch closely for each dog's proximity to the others - moving into them, away, having them follow me - I am always moving through the sea of dogs, dispersing them like I am trying to keep the water "cloudy" - when the water settles, that means dogs are being still, and unless the whole groups is tired and resting, stillness can mean crowding, which means tension could be developing about dogs being in each other's personal space. Crowding happens when people are not moving (like all the dogs greeting someone sitting in a chair) or where things bottle neck (like doorways or entering/exiting a gate). Most dog park fights happen right at the entrance to the park, when dogs enter the gate, if play gets too rowdy/too fast, or a dog is overwhelming another who isn't interested in playing/being bothered. Most house fights happen when someone is stationary and sharing affection, or dogs are in close proxomity to share space and compete for something they want (like the best view out the window, who goes out the door first, sharing the water bowl, interest in the same toy/food/bone). If the dogs are at all excited, hyper, or aroused during any of this (which 99% of the time they are) you have the perfect storm for bad things to go down, and dogs/people to get hurt...all because the dogs were "happy and having fun." (There's a reason there is no running or horseplay allowed on the pool deck, right lifeguards?!)

Keeping the arousal levels low (not letting play get too high energy, interrupting dogs getting into belligerent excitement, avoiding high impact dog/dog play or adding a toy/food into an active group of dogs) and making sure all dogs are respecting each other's personal space is VITAL to keeping multiple dogs safe around each other in a social setting. This goes for 2 dogs or 20 dogs sharing the same space - the more chaotic and uncontrolled the group is, how little they listen to the human in charge (if there is one!), and how much they respect that human and their personal space plays a huge role in how things will pan out. (If a dog is constantly jumping on your, crowding you, pawing you, or barking at you they don't have much respect for your personal space bubble, which means they won't have much respect for what you have to say in a social setting. They likely won't "move out of the way" when you walk through, because they are so used to moving in on you whenever they way! This is a relationship issue you must work on outside of social time and establish boundaries privately first!) Tension, conflict, and crowding don't just happen around people who are petting dogs/standing still - it can happen at the water bowl, if two dogs are sniffing the same area, if someone has a toy and the others want it, or if a dog is pressuring another too much and not reading body cues that say "I am done being sniffed by you, I don't want to play, I don't want to share, etc." 

As the lifeguard to your sea of dogs, you're not just out there to "be with all the puppies" - you are enforcing the rules and watching for trouble in a group full of predators 😈 (cute, fluffy, complex, dynamic, perceptive, and emotional creatures with teeth for tearing flesh)! I CAN NOT stress enough that when multiple dogs are together, especially when they are not that familar with each other (like a newly adopted pet or just somewith a history of tension/competition with each other or other dogs in general), that is NOT the time to share affection and have a soft, coddling presence. Keep moving, keep the dogs moving, keep arousal down, and don't allow crowding of space or bullying of other dogs. Don't be someone for dogs to be possessive over, be someone that is listened to. It's time to be a lifeguard and keep your eyes and ears on your "pool" to keep everyone safe. Don't flirt with the cuties, or you could miss the subtle signs of trouble brewing!

🏊If you're curious, here is the channel of the Lifeguard Rescues! It is amazing to watch:

Dog Socialization