Socialization is a crucial part of your dog’s life.
By Andrew Horan
All dogs need training. They aren’t born with the boundaries we’d like them to have when it comes to being obedient in public, meeting new people, or greeting other dogs. They can be taught these things through a process called socialization. By following some specific steps, you can begin to prevent feelings of anxiety or aggression in your dog, and head off the resulting nuisance behaviors such as leash pulling and jumping up.
Fear not — progress in proper socialization is possible for your dog. He or she can grow to handle changes to their environment with minimal stress, whether it be going to a new park, or meeting new people and dogs, or just learning to be able to walk from point A to point B without dragging their owner to the ground. A well-socialized dog is indifferent to these types of stimuli, and will not feel overly stressed, panicked, or act out towards people or other animals.
Ideally, all puppies would begin the socialization process shortly after birth. There is a small window of time in their early development for socialization. Between 3 and 12 weeks of age they are very impressionable, and any experiences they have, good or bad, will have an effect on them for the rest of their lives. A little later I’ll address socialization beyond 12 weeks, but this early age is still the best time to start.
A good way to start would be introducing the dog to a variety of new situations and people. We want our dogs to be confident. We want them to trust us as owners, and know that when we give a command in any situation that it is in their best interest to follow it. The best way to go about this is to use a lot of positive reinforcement while having them experience new things.
Positive reinforcement involves giving a dog a treat or reward during a new experience so that he will have a positive feeling about that situation in the future. It creates a good association in a dog’s mind between an event and a reward. For this to work, you need to know what reward motivates your dog to work; it could be food, praise, a toy, or head scratching and belly rubs.
Because dogs live in the moment, they must be rewarded exactly while they are experiencing the new event in order for them to make a connection. You have about a two second window to ensure you are capturing the moment you intended. By giving the treat too soon or too late, you may end up inadvertently rewarding them for another behavior.
One of the biggest mistakes pet owners make when socializing is thinking they need to allow their dog to greet every single person or dog they come across. While it is important to teach on-leash greetings in various locations, what you need to avoid is having your dog drag you from person to person.
Everyone loves a cute puppy, and lots of people will try to get to your dog to say hello. You need to be able to say “no” when the situation warrants. Consistently demonstrating to your dog that you are the one to decide when, where, and how he will interact with stimuli will provide much needed clarity for him in those social situations.
You have to be the advocate for your dog. Don’t be afraid to be stern with people who don’t want to listen to your request to not pet the dog. You are the one who is investing time and energy in training, not to mention you are also the one who will have to deal with the consequences if training is not done correctly.
A dog that is adopted past their prime socialization time is another story. Not all rescue dogs show their true colors on day one. A lot of dogs give new owners a honeymoon period, when they may be on their best behavior for a month or two, but eventually they get comfortable and start pushing limits.
Most dogs that come from reputable shelters and rescue organizations are great; they can assimilate with minimal intervention. However, for those dogs that come with certain quirks, we have to be smart, and realistic, about how we try to turn their behaviors around.
Dogs that are wildly energetic, the ones that jump all over people and drag you down the street, probably just need a good training foundation and an owner who has a plan to give him an outlet to expel that excess energy. Chances are it was those behaviors that landed him in the shelter in the first place. Unless you are a very experienced dog handler, consulting with a professional is a great way to start building a relationship. A good trainer can help you develop a plan of action to start setting boundaries and rules within the house, and get you on track for a solid foundation in obedience.
The tough dogs are the ones that come to us extremely fearful and/or aggressive. Unfortunately, proper socialization is not possible for every dog. True aggression, meaning the dog has the intent to harm or kill, is never “fixed,” it can only be managed.
There are many other forms of aggression though: food/toy aggression (resource guarding), leash reactivity, and stranger reactivity, just to name a few. These types of aggression can be turned around in most cases because the behavior stems from a dog’s preconceived notion that a stimulus or event is going to be a negative experience. For instance, a dog that was starved and had to fight for each meal he received is going feel that he needs to defend his food bowl so no one can take it away. We can counter-condition the dog to understand that an approaching human is not a threat, but a positive experience. By developing a solid foundation in obedience, we can also show a leash-reactive dog that we, the humans, are in charge of the walk, and we do not need their help to ward off every cyclist or jogger that comes in our vicinity.
Socialization is just one aspect of raising a well balanced dog. Whether you are bringing home an 8-week old puppy or adopting a dog from a shelter, having a training plan in place before the dog comes home is crucial. Ensure you have the knowledge, time, energy, and patience to train and socialize right the first time so you will have a happy and healthy dog.
About the author: Andrew Horan is the owner of Citizen K9 located in Gainesville, VA. Certified in Canine Training and Behavior Modification through the Triple Crown Academy, he has been training dogs professionally since 2010. He lives in Gainesville with his wife Diane, two children, Olivia and Owen, and two dogs, Capone and Lilo.