Why You Need to Socialize Your Dog
In a perfect world, our beloved companion dogs would be able to accompany us just about anywhere without having the slightest display of anxiety, aggression, overly excited-ness or any other type of “naughty dog” act. As dog owners, we all know how impossible that can sound. Not all hope is lost though! A well socialized dog can keep his cool and keep you company or excel on his own in many situations. The question is, are you doing the right things to socialize your dog, and are you aware of how important socialization is?
What is Socialization?
Socializing your dog is offering them the opportunity to explore the world on a regular basis so that they become accustomed to the sights, smells, and sounds around us. The more positive experiences and encounters we provide them with other animals, people or environmental elements, the more we as owners can predict their responses and therefore teach them the safest, most appropriate ways to behave.
Why is Socialization so Important?
When my adult dog Mia, an 8 lb Yorkshire Terrier, full of attitude and pizzaz, was a puppy she was not often exposed to larger breed dogs. This is a common small-dog owner mistake. A couple years ago, we were filled with regret and sadness when she bared teeth and lunged at a large dog who instantly bit her. At the time, she was not being properly socialized and her quick tempered attitude almost earned her a fatal conclusion. This incident led to many veterinarian procedures, operations, follow-up visits and finally, physical rehabilitation. Since then, we have not only learned the importance of socializing ALL dogs, small or big, young or old, but we have implemented socialization for her and our other Yorkie into everything we do. She’s not only trustworthy around dogs of all sizes now, but what used to be a stressed out little dog is now a well rounded, confident and a more calm!
When you have an under socialized dog, you have a dog who has to be put away when guests visit, who act shy and co-dependent in new situations, who are difficult to walk, can’t be trusted around children or strangers, show fear, anxiety, aggression and/or a lack of confidence. Dogs who are under-socialized are more likely to be disruptive, create problems in the home, and to be given away or dropped off at the shelter.
Most, if not all, behavioral issues can be avoided with proper and regular socialization. Socializing is easy to put into practice and can be a fun activity for your entire family. And, like learning a new subject, should always be fun and positive!
Socialization, is it too late?
Socialization for puppies is only natural. Expose them to situations often and repeatedly. Reward them with treats and affection for acting calm, friendly and confident! As they age, you’ll be thankful you did all the legwork early. Socialization can’t stop just because your puppy has matured.
There is an important “window of opportunity” between weeks 3 and 12, when puppies absorb everything they see, smell, hear and do. Try to make each encounter enjoyable while making sure they behave safely and appropriately. Interactions directly with other puppies are also crucial since puppy play replicates what they should be learning with their litter-mates.
Training at this stage is also highly beneficial and will have the most long term results. Trainers will also teach you, as their guardian, what your reactions and interactions should be like.
Once your puppy becomes an adolescent and adult – the socialization must go on! It is very likely possible that your dog may regress without frequent exposure to visitors and the outside world.
Older dogs, especially under-socialized ones, rescues and dogs with behavioral issues benefit from intensive and then maintained socialization the most. However, you can do more harm than good if you haven’t done enough research or lack in practice. Don’t be afraid to meet with a professional to gain a better understanding of how to help your dog.
Trying out Socialization
If you are caring for a dog who has never been socialized or is out of practice, treat socialization as a therapist would treat a phobia. Start with light exposure, and while keeping the situations lighthearted and positive, gradually increase the exposure to whatever the new element might be. Use small and healthy treats generously during these exercises to create a positive association. The focus should not be on the new “scary” element, but on the positive experiences around the new element. If your dog shows signs of fear or aggression take a few steps backwards and try again. Over the course of several days or weeks as your dog makes progress, he or she will be feeling more confident in all areas of life! Use this time to introduce another element to your dog. Before you know it, you’ll be strolling with your dog down shoppers lane, greeting other dogs and strangers, without a care in the world.
Taking it Easy!
Like training, socialization should always have a focus on the positive aspect of the experience. The last thing you want to happen is to traumatize your dog in a situation they are already uncomfortable with. If your dog is afraid of fireworks – your first step towards socialization should not be on 4th of July! Never force your dog to confront something they are not ready for, this can turn a small fear into a huge a problem.
Understanding body language is crucial when socializing your dog. Do you know what ears back and averted eye contact means? Or what about an erect tail and low head posture?
If you do, then you know when your dog is feeling shy and shouldn’t be approached abruptly, or that your dog may be about to bite another dog. Panting (when it’s not hot) can mean that your dog is very stressed out! These are easy cues to understand – and watching for them will give you a better understanding of how to help your dog avoid issues and be a more confident and outgoing pet. The ASPCA provides photos and explanations of common body language cues here.
Help! My Dog Needs to be Socialized.
Dog trainers and behaviorists can offer invaluable advice. Sign up for a class or private sessions. An evaluation by an expert will help you determine where you should start. For most types of issues, simply providing longer walks and exposures to more people and dogs in a safe setting can do the trick!
If you need assistance providing plenty of exercise and socialization for your dog, contact Stefanie Villalobos, owner of Itchy Paws, Inc. in Long Beach, CA.
In addition to dog walks, dog training, and pet sitting, Itchy Paws, Inc. provides monitored socialization field trips as an alternative to indoor doggie daycare!
Stefanie Villalobos, Dog Behaviorist and Dog Trainer
Itchy Paws, Long Beach, CA