Explaining Socialization: The Basics
Socialization is essentially learning about different experiences, situations, people and animals. When you socialize your dog, you are preparing him to feel safe and have positive experiences in different environments and social settings.
It is important to socialize your pet, whether it is a puppy, an adult or an older dog. Dogs with poor social skills are more prone to anxiety and aggression, while properly socialized dogs tend to be more well-adjusted; they are more approachable, happier and less stressed.
With each new positive experience, your dog will gain more and more confidence as he explores his surroundings, people and animals. By introducing your dog to different sights, sounds and scenarios, it is especially helpful to keep him calm and happy, and even associate a potentially frightening experience with something positive, such as treats or toys.
A few different settings to try:
- Surfaces and textures (grass, foliage, carpet, concrete, earth, wood, etc.)
- Other dogs (neighbors’ dogs, dogs from the dog park or other household animals).
- Other people (family members, letter carriers, friends and relatives, strangers you meet on your walks).
- Noises (e.g., doorbells, ringing telephones, vacuum cleaners, car horns, other dogs barking, thunderstorms)
Ideally, your dog should be socialized between eight weeks and four months of age. Fortunately, you can teach your older dog new tricks at any age, including these helpful tips.
Don’t Set Expectations Too High
Depending on your dog’s background, health or general behavior, you may have to accept that your four-legged friend may not be the most popular pup in the dog park, happily greeting any interaction.
Instead, try to make your dog reasonably comfortable and relaxed around new people, pets and experiences. The less stressed and anxious your dog is in his daily life, the better.
Too many experiences in a short time can be overwhelming. Instead, focus on one new experience at a time, and even then, start small.
For example, if you want your puppy to meet other people, start by introducing him to one or two new people at a time, and then increase the number. If your dog feels attacked by a large group of people and has no way to escape, his fear may turn into aggression as a form of self-defense.
Instead of going straight to the dog park, start with daily walks, just you and your pet. Once your dog has become accustomed to walking among strangers and other animals, you can try playing with a friend or neighbor’s dog. Once Fido feels safe and calm around other people, you can take him to the dog park or daycare for one last socialization.
When you find yourself in a social situation and tension starts to rise, it is important to remain calm and in control. Dogs sense our emotions. So if you are tense, your dog may think your fear is justified, which will only make the situation worse.
If you notice your dog is uncomfortable, calmly remove yourself from the situation until he calms down. Some dogs find it therapeutic to follow familiar commands that are rewarded with treats.
Be sure to follow all leash rules for your safety, especially if your puppy is unpredictable due to nerves.
Expand Your Pet’s World
The more comfortable your dog is in his environment, the more comfortable he will be with other animals and people. We know that dogs like routines, but it is also important to change them from time to time to keep your dog open to new experiences.
Take daily walks, visit dog-friendly restaurants and outdoor cafes, try different outdoor activities such as hiking and biking, or take your dog for a walk while you run quick errands so you can experience new sights, smells and sounds.
Encourage Positive Behavior And Provide Feedback
Use treats to create positive associations with new people and experiences. After all, a dog who knows he is going to get a treat is much more likely to cooperate and feel pleasure when meeting a new person.
Let your dog know you appreciate his successes by praising his good behavior after every positive encounter. You are his best friend, so naturally your approval will be a strong motivator.
Alone Time Is Good
It may seem counterproductive, but teaching your dog to feel comfortable alone is an important aspect of socialization. If your dog feels safe, wherever he is and with whomever he is with, he will suffer much less separation anxiety.
Consider incorporating crate training into your dog’s routine. Not only will this teach your dog to be independent, but it will also create a safe place to retreat to when he becomes too overwhelmed.
If your dog suffers from chronic stress, anxiety or behavioral problems, you should consult your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions. It may also be a good idea to consult a professional trainer to treat serious behavioral problems.