A new puppy parent does their due diligence by going to puppy classes and playgroups. Puppy grows up, and a new behavior emerges: they bark, growl, lunge and make a scene when they see another dog on leash. Their parent sees this and thinks, “I let him play with so many dogs as a puppy, I over-socialized him. Now all he wants is other dogs! He’s too magnetized to them.”
When a dog sees another dog on a walk and wants to play, investigate, or just say “hi,” the leash restricts their ability to do so. This is very frustrating for the dog. When it’s been months since they’ve had an opportunity to socialize with their own species, it feels downright maddening. The resulting display is called barrier frustration, otherwise known as leash reactivity.
The concept of over-socialization is gaining popularity, and it does sound like it makes sense, but this one falls firmly in the fad category. It is unfortunate because this myth makes things worse for dog parents: leash reactivity is exacerbated by lack of access to other dogs. The way to fix it is to address the deprivation along with training.
All that will happen if a play-happy dog has too much dog play is that other dogs will become boring. This is why many qualified trainers recommend increasing play as a remedy for leash frustration. Like eating your favorite meal for dinner every day, you will eventually become sick of it, and not feel an ounce of frustration if after months of this you were told you couldn’t have it.
Or think of it this way: take two kids, one who lives in Anaheim and goes to Disneyland every weekend, and another who lives across the country and has been only once. Park them both outside the Disneyland entrance and tell them, “You can’t go inside.” Who is going to throw the bigger tantrum? You aren’t going to fix it by allowing the child to go inside, but for only one ride, because they are “too magnetized to Disneyland.”
That is to say, if your dog enjoys it, you really can’t have too much play. In technical terms, this is what we call abolishing operations: Take what is motivating the dog, or winning their attention, and give them enough of it to become boring. “Over-socialized” or “magnetized” are not technical terms.
As an added bonus to reduced frustration on walks, your dog will expend energy. A tired dog is a well-behaved dog! There is an anti-play bias circling the internet, but this is in violation of Freedom #4 of the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare: freedom to express normal behavior, with the company of the animal’s own kind.
If your dog’s reactive behavior is new, but they continue to enjoy off leash dog play, consider increasing it to ease their frustration and relieve yourself of the doggy tantrum.