Many people understand the importance of socializing a puppy. They make sure puppies get to experience a wide variety of people, places, and situations. What many people don't realize is that it's just as important to continue socializing dogs well into adulthood. It's true that all dogs can be socialized.
Dog socialization involves making your dog comfortable with a variety of people and circumstances. It has long been pointed out by dog trainers and animal behaviorists that puppies under 4 months of age benefit from having positive interactions with a variety of people and encountering as many new objects and situations as possible. This includes things such as meeting people in uniform, encountering people carrying umbrellas, being pet by a child, having their feet handled, and as many other things you think of that your dog might encounter in its life. More recently, it has been realized that dog socialization should not end with puppyhood. Rather it is a process that should continue throughout the life of a dog.
How to Socialize a Puppy
Most vets will recommend socializing a puppy pretty quickly. Between 3 and 12 weeks is a great time to start socializing your new dog. Consider this a crucial window of time and try to create a checklist of experiences and places your puppy should interact with. Early socialization can include, but is not limited to:
- New people, including a range of ages, gender, etc.
- Different flooring and ground (brick, sidewalk, grass, asphalt, etc.)
- Neighborhood objects (kids on bikes, skateboards, strollers, etc.)
- Cats and other dogs
- Various environments (woods, fields, urban areas, bodies of water, etc.)
How to Socialize an Adult Dog
The good news is that it is fairly easy to socialize an adult dog. Here are some ideas for making sure your dog gets plenty of socialization throughout its life:
Taking Cues from Your Dog
It's important that all of your dog's interactions with other people and animals be kept as positive as possible. Stay calm and positive during the dog's interactions. Your dog will feed off of your energy, so even if they are skittish, they will rely on your calm presence to stay grounded. Use praise and treats to tell your dog that having other people and animals around is a good thing. Have new people keep their hands on the dog's chest or chin; the dog will feel more comfortable with strangers if their hands can be seen. If the dog is having a tough time, focus on the positives and practice some training behavior. If they can succeed at that, the dog will feel more confident in the new environment.
Problems and Proofing Behavior
If your dog suddenly begins to show fear or aggression when it is around new people or in a new environment, lack of socialization may be a factor. The best way to handle it is to find a dog trainer or animal behaviorist experienced working with fearful or aggressive dogs. This expert will be able to help identify the exact cause of your dog's behavior and create a behavior modification program to help manage or end the problem.
Socializing a Rescue Dog
Besides puppies, rescue dogs are often most in need of proper socialization. The techniques you take are often dictated by the dog's history and abilities. If the shelter or previous caregiver cannot provide much information, don't worry too much. You can glean a lot of information from the dog's body language and response to environmental triggers (including places, people, or other elements). Let your rescue dog set the pace of the socialization.
Look for signs of fear including:
- Tucked tail
- Flattened ears
If you see these signs in a new environment, don't push your dog. Take note of what causes these responses and how they vary. For example, one environment could cause slight fear while another could cause major fear. You'll want your dog to successfully move on from less challenging experiences first and then move to the more challenging experiences. If your dog is displaying defensive or aggressive behaviors, you'll likely need to combine the socialization with a more formal behavioral training program. Speak with your vet or a trusted canine trainer who specializes in rescue dog training.
Don't push your dog too far, too fast. If the dog is uncomfortable, stay calm and try to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible. Scolding the dog will only make it worse. Soothe the dog and stay calm and confident. Yelling at a scared dog will only exacerbate the situation.