When you get a new dog, whether it be a puppy, an adult, or a senior, one of the first things you will need to do is gauge his social skills. Dog socialization is right behind housebreaking for me as one of the most important things you and your dog can master to make both of your lives easier down the road.
I have had the experience of socializing two dogs as adults (about 4-6 years old at the time) and one as a few month old puppy, and let me tell you-it is easier to start young with introductions to lots of people, dogs, cats, smells, noises and places-but it can be done with adult and senior dogs, too! You can teach an old dog new tricks in most cases- we people don’t give our canine companions enough credit. More patience and practice will be required, but it can be done and you and your dog will be better off for it.
Properly socializing your new dog right away will save you a lot of stress and heartache down the road in many circumstances: going with friends to dog parks, having people over for dinner, having children, moving in with a roommate/boyfriend and their pets, or when adding a new dog to your existing pack.
What Is Socialization?
So, what does it mean for your dog to be socialized? It means to teach your dog to be a participant in society, and to interact in a calm, friendly way with humans, other dogs, and in new situations. A well-socialized dog will be much less likely to react with fear or aggression when experiencing new things or meeting new people and dogs. They are able to read the body language and warning signs of humans and other dogs. It also means for an easier, more relaxed, less stressed dog (and human) for the rest of your lives together!
Here is a thorough checklist from the ASPCA of things you should expose your dog to as part of socialization: https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/virtual-pet-behaviorist/dog-behavior/socializing-your-puppy
Tips for Socializing Puppies
Puppies are easier to socialize than older dogs simply because at a young age they are open and ready to learn as much as possible, like human babies. Once they are a little older and have more knowledge about the way the world works, dogs and humans instinctively become more suspicious of new people and things as a way to protect themselves from unknown danger.
My Fitzgerald was socialized from the time he was adopted at about 6 months old. He had early socialization at the Collierville Animal Shelter, and then he immediately started going to work every day with my husband at Hollywood Feed’s corporate office. He met lots of people and dogs daily, and now he is friends with everyone.
Puppies can be thrown into a mob of other puppies, and they should all be able to play and socialize just fine with very few problems. Some puppies will be a little more timid, and some will be overly rambunctious, but there should not be any big issues. You cannot use this same technique with adult dogs, or with a mix of puppies and adult dogs who do not know each other.
Puppies can also be introduced to new people right away and there should be very few problems. Some puppies can be intimidated by big crowds of people or lots of noise. If your puppy seems to be on the cautious side, back away from big crowds or go into a quiet room. Give treats and positive praise using a calm voice to show your puppy that crowds are fun places!
Take your dog on daily walks to get out of the house, smell new smells, and have encounters with new dogs and people. (By the way, leash training your dog is one of those things you can do that will make your life SO MUCH easier in the future.) You can use this time to practice your corrections for unwanted behaviors and give praise and treats for positive behaviors as well. You will probably also get the chance to introduce your dog to cats.
Also take your puppy to new places with you every week or so to have new experiences outside of his comfort zone. You can take him on car trips to drive-thrus or dog-friendly businesses. Take him to your kids’ soccer game and the dog park. Have a party at your house so that your puppy can meet and be handled by all of your friends!
I like to handle new puppies as much as possible. This is really easy at first because you will want to cuddle and hold your new puppy all the time! While you are doing this, play with his feet and mouth so that he becomes used to being touched in these places. This will make nail trims, brushing teeth, and giving medications easier in the future.
Tips for Socializing Adult Dogs
Adult dogs are a little harder to socialize than puppies, but don’t stress out! It’s not as hard as you think, though there may be some tense moments. Your ability to stay cool and calm will be the most important factor in how well your dog will do at any new encounter.
My two older dogs, Skeeter and Annie, did not get properly socialized until they were about 4-6 years old. They stayed home together all day while I was at work and then never went anywhere with me in the evenings or on weekends. They spent their time in my house and my backyard. They did pretty well with new people, but there was always a lot of barking and jumping involved when somebody came to my house. When I met my now-husband, we had to introduce my dogs to his cat so we could all spend time together. My dogs had never met a cat before and wanted to chase and eat Fender. A few very tense days of observation and correction, followed by a couple of slightly tense weeks of more observation and correction-and LOTS of exposure to each other-and now 5 years later, Fender cuddles up right next to Annie and sleeps soundly there.
Physically handling an adult dog to get him used to touch is still something that should be done, but with more caution than with puppies. If you have just adopted an adult dog, you should take your time learning your new friend’s personality and sensitivities before jumping right into squeezing on paws and toenails!
There should also be more caution involved when an adult dog is brought into a situation with new dogs or humans. Try one new dog and one new human at first and gauge your dog’s reactions before bringing more dogs or humans into the situation. Learn more about reading your dog’s body language here: http://www.hollywoodfeed.com/teaching-children-how-to-interact-with-dogs-is-a-must-have-life-lesson/
Adult dogs who need more socialization should be taken out of their comfort zone (your house) regularly and exposed to new things. They can be taken to the same places as puppies-on car rides and neighborhood walks, to dog parks, businesses, etc. but I would recommend recruiting another adult with dog knowledge to go with you, especially at first, until you are comfortable with your dog’s reactions to new things without an extra set of hands available.
If you want to introduce your dog to a specific new dog, choose a neutral place for the first introduction. Go to a dog park where neither dog will feel like his home is being invaded. Exercise the dogs separately beforehand. Let them observe and sniff each other on a loose leash, and then take them for a walk together, side by side.
Separate dogs in conflict quickly and calmly-work to stop the aggressor first. Be very careful about putting your hands in a dog fight-I have been bitten this way before! A quick, firm touch to the dog’s side or a loud controlled noise may distract him enough to break his focus so you can grab him safely. If you don’t think that you can pull the aggressor away safely, then use your feet or water to break up the fight.Then forget the fight ever happened immediately just like the dogs will. Your anxiety will drive the next fight to happen-so relax.
After you have done some socialization outside of the home, then you can try inviting other dogs and humans into your yard to meet your dog, and then into your home. Your dog will feel protective of his home territory and may display some aggression or at least some warning signs of aggression at first. Stay calm and make corrections firmly.
The most important thing you can remember to do is to stay calm and assertive with your dog, no matter what behaviors he displays. Your dog will feed off of your energy and your reactions. Most dog owners do not realize what a big effect they have on their dog’s behavior. Dogs who are aggressive around their owners are often perfectly well behaved if the owner is not around.
Remember to make all introductions and interactions a positive experience for your dog with treats and praise! A well-socialized dog is a well-liked and well-behaved dog in almost every situation. Take the time to work on this skill with your dog today!