Thousands of years ago the members of your dog’s pack taught him the important social skills he needed in order to survive and thrive. Today, the task of socializing your dog falls to you, and the process is crucial for the well-being of your dog and his new family. As with any behavior training you undertake with your dog, patience and consistency are key. Training your dog is always a long-term endeavor, especially if you are socializing an adult dog who may need time to unlearn negative social behaviors. But once you’ve taught your dog to socialize peaceably, the rewards are manifold. Your best friend will be confident and well-adjusted and, most importantly, the both of you will be far happier as you enjoy the good company of people and other dogs without worry.
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DOG SOCIALIZATION TRAINING BEGINS WITH YOU
Before you undertake any socialization exercise with your dog, be advised that your own behavior and reactions to situations and encounters influences the outcome. If you routinely tighten your dog’s leash at the first signs of an approaching dog, your dog will sense your anxiety and associate it with the other dog. Now he wants the other dog to stay away and achieves this by growling and barking and straining against the leash.
Tightening the leash also robs your dog of his “flight” option, which in turn serves only to intensify his “fight” option. Keep him leashed certainly, but control him with a loose leash and calm demeanor, never yelling: he may surprise you and imitate your own calm. Keeping a loose leash, except when a situation arises that requires tighter control for his safety and the safety of others, gives your dog the opportunity to exercise self-control.
HEALTHY SOCIALIZATION FOR YOUR DOG
Socializing a dog essentially boils down to controlled exposure and desensitization. Here are some fun outings to expose your dog to various situations:
- Walk your dog every day and introduce her to other dogs. The exercise is beneficial for you both, and she is more likely to remain calm and submissive when she is tired. If you have a negative encounter: First, don’t yell or pull back on the leash. Second, try to use a training sound she knows, a quick sideways tug with the leash, or a touch. Third, if none of these strategies works, walk away.
- Go to the dog park but don’t go inside. Instead walk the outside perimeter with your dog and allow her to observe the happy play going on inside. If a dog approaches you from inside the fence, give your own dog a treat to reinforce this as a positive. If she behaves aggressively, back away and slowly approach the fence again when she has shown she will remain quiet.
- Visit the pet store; doggie visitors are sanctioned in most of them. This is an excellent opportunity for brief encounters with other dogs and people.
- Safely expose your dog to different social activities. Try one new activity each week. Use a leash, and muzzle her if necessary.
- Invite over one new person each week. Keep your dog leashed, but don’t force an interaction with the new person. Ask the person to keep an unexcited, even tone, and to offer your dog a treat; if you don’t yet trust your dog to take the treat gently, your visitor can toss it on the floor.
- Invite a friend over with her dog. Use a muzzle; first and foremost, this will prevent a bite. Second, it helps both dogs stay calmer and therefore more receptive of meeting, a positive association being the outcome. And third, it can help you stay calmer, remembering your dog senses your own anxiety.
IF POSSIBLE, BEGIN SOCIALIZING YOUR DOG YOUNG
Puppies begin learning social skills from birth within the fold of the litter. Thereafter a period of time from roughly eight to twelve weeks of age presents the best opportunity for socializing a puppy. At this age the process is fairly straightforward. Keeping in mind that your puppy takes her cues from you, expose her to all kinds of sights and sounds, people, objects, and experiences.
At home, calmly expose your puppy to the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner, and the lawn mower. Don’t turn on a noisy appliance when she’s nearby and distracted, lest you establish an irrational fear that is difficult to reverse. Train her to remain unfazed when people come near her food and water bowls.
Don’t avoid unusual and unexpected environments and situations. Now is the time to teach her that crying babies, unpredictable children big and small, bearded men in hats, and short women brandishing umbrellas are nothing to fear. It’s also a good time to introduce your dog to crowds and noisy gatherings, so she learns to handle them with grace.
And most importantly, schedule play dates at the local park, dog run or a furry friend’s backyard so she has ample opportunities to spend time with other puppies and learn acceptable behavior from well-socialized adult dogs. Begin by keeping playdates one-on-one with other dogs, expanding to try socializing exercises with groups of dogs and more people when your dog has demonstrated competence with basic obedience skills and manners. Always keep a watchful eye to correct play that edges toward aggression.
KNOW YOUR DOG’S LIMITS
It is always important to watch your dog for signal’s she’s had enough of socialization training, but it’s of utmost importance when you are socializing an adopted adult dog. Your biggest challenge when training an adult dog is identifying and correcting pre-existing problems. Throwing a needy adult dog willy-nilly into a difficult social situation is tantamount to diving into the deep end of the pool when you’ve never had a swimming lesson. An adult dog can’t be “let loose” to somehow figure out socialization with unfamiliar dogs. She may react by avoidance, standing close to her human, and even growling and snapping at energetic dogs who come too near. And though this is often identified as abnormal behavior, it is not. The mistakes you make trying to socialize your dog, even with honest, good intentions, can backfire and produce an overly shy or aggressive dog.
With your adopted adult dog, it’s best to tackle basic obedience one-on-one. Then continue this training in the presence of another dog or a person, slowly expanding the size of the group. During this time, try to recognize the signs that your dog is over or under “threshold.”
KNOW YOUR DOG’S THRESHOLD
Dog trainers use the word “threshold” to describe when a dog crosses from one emotional state to another. “Over threshold” means a dog is too challenged by a situation. “Under threshold” means she is within her comfort zone. If you’ve ever witnessed a dog transition from a state of relative calm to aroused beyond control, you’ve seen her going “over threshold.” When you are in a training or socializing exercise with your adult dog, test her with food to determine whether she is in her comfort zone: if you offer her a treat and she will not take it, she is likely over threshold. Alternately, choose a challenge you believe is firmly beneath her threshold: are you willing to bet money she can do it? If not, your challenge is probably pushing her past her threshold. Your first exercises with your unsocialized adult dog should keep her within her comfort zone, and may even require one-on-one basic obedience training with a private instructor, before you attempt to introduce her to other dogs and people in a group setting.
DESENSITIZING YOUR DOG
When your dog has a specific problem—shows fear of tall men in hats or skateboarders—you can design exercises to desensitize him to the thing that frightens him. Choose a goal: relax at a safe distance from the skateboarders. Once you’ve arrived at the anxiety-inducing scene, ask your dog to execute a task—down/stay, for example—and generously reward him with food if he succeeds, taking care not to “bait” him with the food. Then quit while you’re ahead; don’t allow the situation to escalate. Call him back to you, and take your leave. If he has poor recall, use treats to reel him in.
DOG SOCIALIZATION NEVER STOPS
If you don’t use it, you lose it: socialization exercises must continue past puppy school to keep the social “muscle” exercised, with continued social enrichment and the reinforcement of basic obedience skills. It is possible for a dog between 8 months and 2 years of age to develop aggression during social encounters if the socialization he obtained as a puppy is not maintained; this phenomenon is known as “juvenile-onset shyness,” where an adolescent dog becomes cautious and sometimes aggressive towards unfamiliar people and animals.
You can do plenty to keep your dog socialized throughout his life:
- Take him out frequently to meet other people and dogs in varied settings and venues.
- Walk him every day; take different routes when you go so you’ll meet unfamiliar people and dogs.
- Engage in regular playdates with other dogs.
- Invite people over to engage in social interaction with your dog; encourage visitors to give him treats on arrival.
The degree to which you and your dog enjoy success with socialization depends on his own temperament and the amount of time and energy you are willing to commit to the process. Whatever your dog’s age, you can practice socialization with him to modify his behavior and help him overcome his anxieties, making him a more stable, trustworthy, and happier canine companion in the end.