Socializing Your Dog
When I ask new behavioural clients about their dog’s socialization history, they often reply that they did lots of socialization by taking their puppy or dog to the dog park as often as possible. There’s so much more to socialization than dogs meeting dogs!
Socialization is about helping your dog understand what living with you is all about. It means positively, gradually, and repeatedly exposing them to sights, sounds, people (doing many activities), animals, and environments that are part of your life now and in the future. The end goal is to help your dog learn to live comfortably in your everyday life, prepare them for future events like children and discover that novelty isn’t always scary.
A critical aspect of socialization is learning your dog’s body language. You need to understand what your dog is saying and how to respond appropriately. Learn what your dog looks like when they’re happy, scared, worried, excited, calm and in pain or discomfort.
When you expose your dog to something new, let them take the time and the distance they need to investigate and get comfortable. Reward confidence and curious exploration. If they get scared or worried, be as neutral as possible and be supportive, never punitive. Help them find distance away from the “scary thing,” give them time to recover and feel safe.
We can’t control everything and sometimes dogs experience traumatic events. Such events can affect them long term especially when they’re young. If this happens, address it as soon as you can after a day or 2 of recovery from the emotional stress. Begin to re-introduce that same situation in a much easier, lower stress way, in short increments.
One example is a dog who gets attacked by another dog. After a few days of emotional recovery, start to take short walks around other leashed dogs. Ensure you keep enough of a distance that your dog appears comfortable, will eat treats and can maintain a loose leash. Often dogs are very vigilant and even reactive after such a trauma, so finding the right distance is important. Give your dog high value treats each time you pass a dog.
Fear can generalize quickly. It may start with reactivity to dogs that resemble the dog who attacked, then it might escalate to reactivity to all dogs. Soon after the traumatic event, if you can “counter-condition” that fear of seeing other dogs – by giving high value treats and maintaining a safe distance - you can help them get over trauma quickly with less emotional side effects.
Socialization efforts should continue consistently until your dog is about three years of age for the average dog. This is when they are close to social and emotional maturity. Even then socialization doesn’t end. Every change in your life is a change in your dog’s life and another socialization process: moving homes, having children, getting another pet, new neighbours, a new car, changing roommates, changing exercise routines, etc.
Socialization is a lifetime process, so learning how to do it well, is important. Remember to always keep it positive! Some good resources on puppy socialization can be found here: puppysocialization.com.