We could go on and on about socialization. There’s a lot to know and a lot of ways to set your dog up for success.
First, what does it mean to be a social dog?
Most of our brains go straight to the dog park, but socialization is far more than just group play. Sociability is the foundation on which everything we teach our dogs is based. Most people want a dog that can be calm outside of the house and listen. Chill on the cafe patio; loose leash walk at the park passing others; ride in a car without barking; walk through the hardware store without cowering at rattling carts.
What about in the house? A social dog welcomes guests without jumping, even squealing children. They don’t guard their territory against visiting dog friends, and they probably tolerate the cat too.
Don’t forget the really important stuff. A social dog doesn’t bite the groomer even though the groomer’s fascination with dog butts is understandably confusing to a dog. At the vet they’re cool, even though vets poke and prod in the most personal places too.
Then there’s group play. It’s nice to have a dog that enjoys playing with others, but this is only part of the process.
There’s plenty of training needed to achieve the goals above, but beneath all that is first and foremost the personality of a social dog. As the dog’s guardian, you have incredible influence on how your dog interprets their world.
What can you do to raise a social dog?
Science tells us we have the most influence on a dog’s social thresholds during the imprinting period. Puppies not yet sixteen weeks of age are in this stage where all good (and bad) things make a more lasting impression. Exposing your puppy to a variety of sounds, textures, smells, people, touches, and places can help set them up for success later in life. Just make sure all of these experiences are pleasant or paired with something good. Treats and lots of play can help. Make them unpleasant and that too can stick for life.
What if you miss the imprinting period?
Nature plays a big role in a dog’s sociability. Even the puppies we adopt are only going to stray so far from their innate temperament. Dogs are sentient beings with their own feelings and personalities, carrying the DNA of their parents. Some dogs are naturally outgoing and curious, while others are shy or fearful. While we can work to build a shy dog’s confidence, we may also have to accept that they will never be the life of the party. Not everyone wants to live with the life of the party though, so it works out.
However, we still have a lot of influence. Mature dogs respond to nurture too, which includes behavior modification and training. Working with mature dogs has it perks too. While they may be battling old habits or emotional scars, they usually have an attention span, which is a lot more than we can say for most puppies. We may not have as big or fast of a social impact as during the imprint period, but social behaviors are learned by mature dogs all the time. If puppies aren’t for you, or your dog missed out on their imprint period for some reason, there’s still plenty you can do to expand their abilities.
What about mature rescues?
If you’re going to rescue a mature dog, select a dog with a personality that matches well with your lifestyle. Don’t let the breed, age, or dog’s appearance fool you. Dog personalities vary greatly, even within purebred dogs. Not all small dogs are lazy, not all Golden Retrievers love kids, not all Pit Bulls are athletes, etc. Pay attention to who the dog is, not what they are, and don’t expect them to be perfect. Puppies and mature dogs all take work, training, and patience. You can at least get a jump on all that by picking a good match for you.
If you aren’t sure how to assess a dog’s personality, get help from an experienced trainer or adoption counselor. Many rescues do matchmaking, and trainers like us will go to the shelter with you.
What if your dog already has social challenges?
Most do! Nobody is perfect. Some bark, some whine, some cower, some lunge, and some are just way too excited. Don’t fret. They can learn new behaviors. You don’t have to accept anti-social or excitable behavior if you’re willing to work on it.
Every dog is different with varying levels of tolerance for new things. The first steps in helping a dog are understanding their behavior and being compassionate about where they’re coming from. With a little work, most dogs can learn to trust again, and with that comes the ability to expand their thresholds.
If your dog has issues with other dogs, strangers, loud noises, anxiety, or irrational fears, we encourage you to seek help. Dogs are incredibly forgiving and intelligent. You may be surprised at how much progress they can make. Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks and overcome old scars.
We created this helpful infographic for a quick and easy guide to socializing your dog. Print it, share it, and enjoy!
Want to know more of the nitty-gritty on socialization? Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to help you with any dog at any stage:
- Go straight to the dog park. Contrary to popular belief, dog parks do not teach loads of social behavior. They burn energy, which can be useful and necessary for some dogs that need some extra run time. But not all dogs enjoy these places, so owners should take care to ease in, slowly building their dog’s abilities before throwing them to the wolves. Puppies are too young for this environment. Mature dogs can be dangerous if their personality is ill-suited. Get to know your dog first, set your rules and boundaries, earn your trust and respect, then make an educated decision on whether or not your dog needs this environment. The right personality for the dog park is a dog who plays gently with others, loves all people, and doesn’t feel threatened in intense situations. They are confident and able to take a light correction from another dog. If your dog is not a good fit for the dog park, don’t worry. For most dogs, socialization has more to do with impulse control than free play. There are a million other things you can do to enjoy your time together.
- Force your dog or puppy to do anything scary. Do everything in your power with treats and toys to make entering new places and experiencing new things fun for your dog. Force does no favors for sociability. It just makes things scarier and makes your dog feel helpless. Confidence is learned through positive experiences and practice. Make it your dog’s idea to go forward whenever possible and reap the benefits of a dog with confidence.
- Avoid dogs with social issues. Avoid the barking dogs behind the fence, stop the fence running with neighbor dogs, and when it comes to play time, avoid dogs that play too rough or bully. They can teach your pup bad habits and fight with older dogs. Go for a walk together first and get a feel for that other dog. Take the time to ask about a dog’s history before you let your dog play with them. Has the dog bitten any other dogs before? Do they guard their toys, food, or people? Do they have any training? These questions can help you choose better role models and playmates for your dog. Trust your instincts. If the neighbor’s Labrador doesn’t seem as friendly as they say he is, don’t risk it. Our love for our dogs often clouds our judgment, and just because a dog hasn’t fought yet, doesn’t mean they never will.
- Walk your dog. Get outside, enjoy your time together, and bring treats or toy rewards so that you are prepared to make all the new experiences fun.
- Teach obedience. This allows you to tell your dog exactly what you want from them in every situation. Whether it’s a sit/stay on a dining patio, or walking nicely on leash, your dog won’t know how to do it unless you teach them first. You may notice it doesn’t exactly come naturally in public places at first.
- Practice handling your dog. Pretend to be the vet, the groomer, the trainer. Prepare your dog for these experiences by teaching them that being handled is normal. Recruit friends and family to do it too. If your dog is older, start gently. If you’re afraid they may bite you, consult a professional to help you expand their thresholds and build trust safely.
- Expose your dog to new sounds and textures. If your house is carpeted, the polished concrete floor at the pet store may be scary and slippery. Practice gently and reward the small steps if your dog is sensitive. If your house is quiet, loud trucks, playing kids, and barking dogs may freak them out. Play these sounds on a computer or tv on low first and combine with rewards when your dog ignores them or responds well. Gradually make the sounds louder and introduce the real thing from a 30-40 foot distance to start. Praise and reward good reactions.
- Give your dog space when needed. Barking, reacting fearfully, and generally losing their dog mind is no fun to manage. But the key to overcoming this may surprise you. Move away, give your dog space to cope from a safe distance, and then practice closing that gap over time.
- Be calm, confident, and positive. Your dog will challenge you, but they will also learn to mirror your attitude. Your response to loud noises, new people, and your dog’s own fears can make a huge difference. Lead by example and stay calm and confident. Don’t feel calm? Fake it ’til ya make it!
- Choose your dog friends wisely. Older social dogs are the best teachers. They can teach a young exuberant pup the gentle art of chilling out. Younger dogs may also help teach bite inhibition and be better matches for burning a little energy. Strike a balance between the two so your dog learns when it’s time to party, and when it’s time to chill.
- Notice the little things. I can’t stress this enough. When your dog elects sitting quietly over barking or laying down on a patio instead of pacing. Praise and reward in the moment. Puppies and dogs can be experts at getting themselves into trouble, causing us to get stuck in a corrective loop. Break out of the loop by noticing the good and rewarding it. Your dog will repeat behaviors that are rewarding. Those behaviors replace the bad.
- Stick with it. Sociability can expire in dogs. Frontloading social experiences in puppyhood, then allowing them to drop off in adulthood, is a common mistake. Maintain your dog’s sociability by getting them out somewhere exciting at least once a week for a half hour or so. Yes, that’s in addition to walks.
- Research. There’s a lot to know about dogs and a million things you can do to set your best friend up for success. We can’t even begin to list them all here, so we’ve included a few of our favorite resources.
- Early neurological stimulation for puppies: Kikopup video for tiny pups to improve sociability.
- The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell book that looks at the psychology of having a dog.
- Maran Illustrated Dog Training: Clear and concise, all the hand signals and puppy basics you could want in one reference book.
- Dog Body Language: Nerd out on this book filled with real photos to help you interpret dog body language. It may be more complex than expected, and it’s incredibly useful if you want to know what your dog is thinking.