In an ideal world, every dog would be thoroughly socialized as a puppy. But that isn’t the case. Say you decided to adopt an older dog who wasn’t properly socialized as a pup or you weren’t able to socialize your puppy for a number of reasons. Are you doomed? In short, no. Although it does become more difficult to socialize a dog with age, it’s never too late. Learn how to socialize a dog at any age and get started today.
What Is Dog Socialization?
When you socialize your dog, you are essentially teaching them how to exist among others in the world. You do this by calmly introducing new people, animals, environments, and situations. Your goal is to create a positive experience around these interactions.1
Two of the best ways to socialize your pup are to:
- Calmly introduce your dog to new experiences.
- Using positive reinforcement to help your dog form positive associations with these experiences.
Why Socialize Your Dog?
When your dog feels safe, they can calmly engage with the world. A socialized puppy will grow into a confident dog. A socialized dog can handle new interactions and experiences without growing overly anxious, fearful, or aggressive.
Socialization can help your pet:
- Learn how to get along with other pets
- Calmly meet new people without fear
- Get used to being handled and touched
- Learn to cope with excitement without getting overly aroused
- Feel safe in the world, which can reduce fearful and aggressive dog behavior2
- Prevent fear of things like children, riding in the car, or visiting the vet’s office3
Socialization can also support your dog’s health. A well-socialized pup will likely mean less stress on both you and them, easier vet visits, and better overall behavior.4
When To Socialize Your Dog
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, it is critical to socialize your dog as early as possible.5 Animal behavior experts have identified the window from 4-14 weeks as the most important for early socialization.
In your puppy’s first three months of life, they are naturally curious and outgoing. They haven’t learned to be fearful yet. It’s the perfect time to introduce them to new things.6,7After the age of about 18 weeks, socialization becomes more difficult.8 By this age, puppies who have not had positive experiences with a variety of people, animals, and environments may become fearful.9
If you missed this narrow window, or you’ve adopted an older dog, don’t fret. Socialization can (and should) continue for the rest of your dog’s life. While it might be slightly more challenging to socialize an older pet, it can certainly be done.
Signs Your Adult Dog Needs To Be Socialized
Maybe you’ve recently adopted an adult dog and you’re wondering if they were properly socialized as a puppy. Or maybe you adopted your dog as a puppy, but aren’t sure if you socialized them properly. Here are some telling signs of an unsocialized dog:
- Fearful or aggressive around people or animals
- Timid when you approach
- Visibly nervous around different sights or sounds while on leash
- Shy around other dogs or people
- Behavioral problems, like excessive barking
- Anxious behavior10
If your dog shows these traits, put a socialization plan in place.
So, How Do You Socialize Your Dog?
For young puppies, socialization is all about showing them the world they will live in. You will be there with them the first time they ever do things like feel grass, meet another dog, or hear a siren. It’s your job to make sure your puppy gets used to the world, feels safe, and has positive interactions at a young age.
Older dogs may have already had many of these experiences. But it’s never too late to work with your dog and make them feel safe. Adult dog socialization will focus on re-introducing things that may cause fear in a more positive light.
Watch Your Dog’s Body Language
No matter how old your dog is, you never want to force them into new experiences that they may be uncomfortable with. Any time you work on socialization, check in with your dog’s body language to see how they are feeling.
Happy, relaxed dogs will have:
- A relaxed or slowly swaying tail
- A slightly open mouth
- Head high
Fearful, stressed, or potentially soon-to-be aggressive dogs will have their:
- Body lowered
- Tail down or tucked
- Ears back
- Hackles raised11
They might also try to run and hide or make fearful sounds like whining or excessive barking.
Create Positive Experiences
It’s important to take things slow. Never force your pet to do anything when they are in a state of fear or panic. This will only heighten the fear.
Positive reinforcement is the best way to help your dog make positive associations with the world. When you introduce your dog to something new, be generous with food treats and praise. This helps them learn that seeing something new is a fun thing.12
How To Socialize A Puppy
Introduce Your Puppy To New People, Dogs, And Other Animals
Before you pick up your puppy, make a list of all of the humans you know who have children, dogs, or other animals. Who has a large, well-behaved dog? Who has a small dog? Who has a calm dog and cat? Add them all to your list. Now invite friends over and schedule a playdate.
But don’t stop there. Professional trainer and animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends that your puppy meet at least 100 other people in their first month at home.13 These should include a diverse group of people like:
- Different heights, ages, and ethnicities
- People in wheelchairs
- People with canes or walkers
- People in large hats
You’ll also want your puppy to meet as many well-behaved, healthy dogs as possible in the first few months.
Seek out large breeds, like a German Shepherd, and smaller breeds, like a Chihuahua. Start by holding your pet or keeping them on a leash to make sure that the two pets are going to get along. If they seem fine, let them play freely together. Just keep an eye on your pup.
Don’t Forget Sights, Sounds, And Environments
Along with new people and animals, make sure you introduce sights, sounds, textures, and environments. Seek out a socialization checklist on the internet, and go through it like a scavenger hunt. Here are some ideas:
- Loud noises like vacuum cleaners
- A social environment, like a dog park
- People places, like an outdoor cafe
- Other people’s houses14
Remember, your first priority is to make your puppy feel safe, so you don’t want to throw them off the deep end. Think of ways to make the initial encounter less intense for your puppy. Let them sit on your lap and watch the other puppies play at a dog park, for example. Or turn on a vacuum cleaner across the room, but not right next to them.
Sign Up For Puppy Classes
Puppy classes can offer a great socialization experience. In class, your puppy will encounter other puppies, floor surfaces, people, and likely children. Studies show that puppies who attend early socialization classes are less likely to be nervous, fearful, and anxious later in life.15
Most puppy classes are structured around basic puppy training lessons. This can help you get started with obedience training at a young age.
Part of your socialization plan should be to help your puppy get used to being handled. Practice holding a bone for your puppy (a positive experience) while you touch their paws, tail, ears, teeth, and underbelly. This will help when it comes time to go to the vet or groomer.
Practice taking a bone or a food bowl away from your puppy while they are enjoying it. You can simply take the object away and offer a treat at the same time. Then give it back to them. You want your puppy to get used to the idea that good things can come, go, and come back again. This may make it less likely that they will guard their food or a bone later in life.
Adolescent Dog Socialization
Continue Introducing New People, Dogs, Sights, And Sounds
Socialization shouldn’t stop once your pup gets a little bit older. Make sure you continue to create positive experiences with animals, like the new neighbor’s dog or cat, people, and places. Change up your pup’s environment regularly so they feel comfortable in different places.
Vary Your Walks
One easy way to change up your adolescent dog’s environment is to change up your walks. Next time you clip on a leash, go a different direction. This allows you and your pup to encounter different dogs, smells, and sights.
Adult Dog Socialization
Socializing an adult dog can be a slightly more challenging experience than socializing a puppy. You aren’t starting with a blank slate. Your older dog may be more hesitant to accept all of the new experiences you try to throw their way. However, there is hope.
While it’s tough to change the way your dog feels about other dogs, socializing an older dog can change the way your dog acts.16 Your strategy here will be to introduce potential triggers and then reward calm behavior with a mix of treats and praise. While you can do this yourself, it may be wise to consult a professional dog trainer. If your dog is showing signs of aggression, call a professional.
First, Review A Few Basic Obedience Commands
When socializing an adult dog, it’s helpful if they first learn a few basic commands. Review your training or teach your dog:
- Watch Me
These commands are helpful because they all bring your dog’s attention back to you. If your dog tends to get anxious around other dogs, it’s helpful to have a few commands down so you can get your dog’s attention. This takes their attention off of whatever is stressful.
Take It Slowly, And Watch Your Dog’s Body Language
Your goal with socialization is the create a calm experience, not to add more stress. Meet your dog where they are for this. If your dog barks their head off when they see another dog, don’t go straight to the dog park. Start at the easiest possible place.
For example, you could take your dog to a park on a leash, sit on a bench, and watch strange dogs from afar. Give your dog treats for remaining calm, even at that distance.
Keep an eye on your dog’s body language. If your dog is showing signs of stress of potential aggressive behavior, remove them from the situation immediately.
Introducing Adult Dogs To Each Other
- Leave your house and go to a neutral environment so your dog isn’t tempted to protect their “territory.”
- Let your dog observe the other dog from afar.
- If your dog looks at the dog, and remains calm, give your dog a treat.
- If the experience seems to be going well, encourage short interactions. Give plenty of treats.
- Try walking with the other dog, leaving at least 10 feet of space at first. The distraction of walking can be helpful.17,18
Introducing Adult Dogs To Humans
- Whenever someone comes over, give your dog treats.
- Ask the person to ignore your dog at first.
- Have the person throw treats on the ground to make a positive connection.
- If all goes well, have the person ask your dog to sit and give them a treat.19
Continue To Socialize Your Dog
To truly encourage your pup to live their best life, dog socializing should continue from puppyhood to their senior dog days. It’s never over.
If you have an adult dog who is fearful of other dogs or people, don’t give up. Socializing your dog is totally possible at any stage of life. You may have to be patient as you slowly help your dog form positive associations. Ask a trainer for help. The results of a calm, socialized dog are worth it.
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