As a dog owner, you automatically assume that socializing should come easily for your four legged friends. For the most part that is the case, but what happens when that adorable brown eyed pooch starts behaving aggressively as soon as you hit the park or reacts completely the other way and becomes a cowering anxious mess. It’s only then that you realize that your dog has a problem and that you both have some work to do on their social skills, but be assured that all is not lost!
The best time to get your dog used to socializing is when they are a puppy, preferably any time between 4 and 16 weeks. It is recommended that puppies should be exposed to a number of different experiences including meeting different people, especially anyone who might be wearing unfamiliar clothing such as a hoodie, jackets, hats, and sunglasses. Puppies should also be taken on walks to the park where they can meet other dogs, as well as being exposed to different types of terrain if possible. It is important that they learn to walk on different surfaces as well as getting used to different environments. A dog that has never walked on a city pavement before could become very anxious by the sounds of the people, cars, motorbikes, and not to mention a skateboard whizzing past. Experts also agree that getting your dog used to having its ears, paws, and tail touched will help to build confidence. One way to do this would be to take them for a session with a dog groomer. A lot of pet owners might want to wait until their puppy has had all of their vaccinations before going out and if that is the case, you can still encourage socialization within your home environment. It is a good time to teach them what is acceptable behavior.
If you have recently adopted a rescue dog who perhaps hasn’t had the best start in life, you might need to take things slow. Start by letting them become familiar with what is around them at home and establish a routine that will help your dog feel secure. Once they are feeling confident at home, they can gradually be introduced to the bigger world. Whilst at home, set up a kennel or bed for them in the backyard as this will immediately make them feel secure. At the same time, they can become accustomed to outside sounds such as cars, motorbikes, barking dogs, anything which might alarm them whilst on a walk. Once they are happy in the backyard you can let them venture into your front yard but always with you at their side. Once this has been conquered, you can look at going for a walk around the neighborhood to get them used to the sights and sounds. At this stage do not encourage interaction with other dogs who you might meet along the way unless your dog is showing signs of wanting to interact and you have checked with the other dog’s owner that their dog is friendly. You can usually tell from the body language how both dogs are feeling. Remember to reward your dog with their favorite treat every time they hit another milestone in their social development.
Once you see your dog gaining confidence you can start to offer them more experiences such as a walk to the park, a trip to the beach, or perhaps a play date with a friend who has a gentle natured dog. If your dog isn’t just anxious but is responding in an aggressive way it would be worth using a muzzle and a lead which gives you good control of your dog.
Whatever happens, do not punish your dog for behaving badly or for being very anxious. It will not help the situation if you try to force an anxious dog to interact with people or other dogs he has never met before and it could make the situation worse. Maybe start by inviting a friend over to your house (preferably one who loves dogs just as much as you). This is the time to have plenty of your dog’s favorite treats and get your friend to stand some distance away from you and your dog. Next ask your friend to quietly offer your dog the treat and place it down, close by. Your dog will be able to smell this treat and will naturally want to go and check it out. Repeat this process a number of times, until your dog becomes used to your friend being there. Once your dog has mastered this, you can offer positive reinforcement with another treat and lots of praise for your dog. Continue to repeat this process with different people who come to visit, until your dog shows that they are happy to have new people come to your home. If your dog associates having visitors with a rewarding experience, you are halfway there.
When visiting your local park where you know there will be a lot of dogs, do keep your dog on the lead. If your dog is remaining calm without showing signs of anxiety or aggression, give your dog a treat. If your dog starts to act aggressively or fearfully when they encounter other dogs, ignore the behavior until they start to calm themselves and then offer a treat as a reward. It could take several attempts until you feel like you are making headway.
Consider engaging the services of a professional trainer, if you are finding it all somewhat overwhelming, as your dog might need help from an expert. On selecting a trainer do make sure that they work on a “rewards basis” and that they are on the same page as you. No one wants a domineering type of person who is going to spark fear in your dog, only adding to their anxiety. You need someone who uses a “force-free” style of training to make everyone happier.
There could be minor setbacks in your dog’s progress, depending on their different encounters but don’t give up on them. Continue to look at the long term goal for you and your dog as you ultimately want your new-found friend to be happy and ultimately enjoy life, because that’s what you both deserve. Persistence and patience are key here and in time you will eventually succeed!