Socialization is an essential part of every puppy’s cognitive development. From approximately 2-20 weeks of age, puppies experience a critical period of development during which they are neurologically primed to experience new things and develop important social behaviors. Isolating puppies or depriving them of socialization during this critical period can lead to fear, avoidance, and behavior problems as an adult. Unfortunately, many breeders and pet owners miss this critical period of development.
Even if your dog is already an adult, exposing him to new experiences can still be beneficial. The key to good socialization is ensuring that each new experience is positive and rewarding for your dog. Introduce each new experience slowly, and stop if your dog shows any signs of discomfort or anxiety. Offer positive rewards – such as tasty treats – throughout the introduction to help your dog see these new experiences as something fun and exciting.
To get started, try introducing your dog to these 10 common social situations:
1. New People
We’ve all met dogs that are afraid of unfamiliar people, and this is largely due to poor socialization or negative experiences in the past. You can help your dog learn to love new people by keeping introductions brief and calm. When approaching a new person, have them stay quiet and avoid reaching for your dog. Once he’s had a chance to approach and sniff, they can offer your dog a treat. Introduce your dog to people of different genders, body types, and ethnicities to help him become comfortable. Make sure he also gets used to unfamiliar accessories, such as hats, sunglasses, and long flapping coats.
In addition to meeting new people, your dog should also be exposed specifically to children of various ages. Children can be especially frightening for dogs – they are noisy, grabby, and often unpredictable. This is a great time to have your dog “sit and watch” from a distance, allowing him to learn without the pressure of interacting with the kids directly. Never hold your dog still or force him to allow children to pet him – this is terrifying for your dog! Instead, if your dog seems uncomfortable, tell the kids he’s feeling a little shy and needs some space. If necessary, lead him away to a quiet area so he can relax. You will not only be protecting your dog, but you will also be teaching the kids a valuable lesson about respecting a dog’s boundaries.
#3. New Dogs
Your dog should learn to interact with other dogs of all sizes and breeds. Ideally, this process should start as a puppy. It is particularly helpful to have an older dog show your puppy the ropes – one who will be able to put your puppy in his place if he is being rude! As an adult, introductions to other dogs should happen more slowly. If both dogs are comfortable, you can allow your dog to sniff and greet a new dog for a few seconds, and then lead him away. Over time you can gradually build up the length of time the dogs are allowed to interact. If at any point either dog seems uncomfortable, discontinue the interaction before things escalate.
4. Other Animals
Cats, horses, and rabbits, oh my! Whatever other species your dog may encounter, his introductions to them should happen gradually. This is another great opportunity to use a “sit and watch” command with your dog, allowing him observe from a safe distance. Reward your dog frequently for calm behavior, and only allow him to approach if the interaction can be controlled and both animals seem eager and interested.
5. Guests at Home
Your dog may be comfortable with unfamiliar people while out on a walk, but is he okay with them entering his home? For many dogs, it is best to keep them in a crate or separate room while guests are arriving, as the commotion can be over-stimulating. Once everyone has arrived and is seated, you can bring your dog out on a leash to meet them. Keep interactions brief and calm. Your guests can offer treats to your dog, but have them avoid staring at him or reaching for him unless he approaches them himself. After a few minutes of interaction, return your dog to his crate so he can relax while you enjoy time with your guests.
6. Veterinary Clinics
The veterinary clinic is a scary place for many dogs, filled with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. It is also a place where negative experiences – such as illnesses or scary procedures - can happen. Most veterinarians welcome and encourage you to bring your dog for “happy visits”. These are quick, unscheduled drop-ins where your dog will come into the clinic for just a few minutes to receive treats and positive attention from the staff. Happy visits allow your dog to see the veterinary clinic as a fun and exciting place, rather than just the place he goes to get poked with needles! This is also a great time to have him hop on the scale so you can monitor his weight, or to pick up any supplies you may need.
Similar to exposure to the veterinary clinic, your dog should also be exposed to a variety of different handling methods. These should include things such as restraint, nail trims, being picked up and carried, having his mouth examined, and having his ears cleaned. As with all socialization, the more you can do this from a young age, the easier it will be to complete these tasks when your dog is an adult. Working on handling at home in a calm environment with lots of rewards will make the experience much less stressful for your dog when he visits the vet!
8. Car Rides
Unfortunately, not every dog loves riding in the car. For some, the noises and unfamiliar motion can be scary. If your dog is anxious in the car, start the process while the car is simply sitting in the driveway. Have your dog get in and lie down, and reward him for staying down and calm. Once he has gotten used to this, you can start with a short trip to the end of the street, and then around the block, and so on. Over time you can gradually build up to longer and longer periods in the car, always offering positive rewards for calm behavior. If your dog drools copiously or vomits while in the car, he is likely nauseous due to the motion. Talk to your veterinarian about your options for anti-nausea medications. Many dogs are less anxious in the car once they are no longer getting carsick.
Cars, trucks, and buses whizzing past can be a scary experience for your dog. Keep your dog at a “sit” or “heel” and reward him for keeping his focus on you. If he seems anxious or distracted, lead him to a quieter area and give him a chance to calm down. Working near traffic can be dangerous, so always keep your dog on leash and have his Fi smart collar charged during these exercises to ensure that he stays safe.
Most people know how scary a thunderstorm can be for dogs. Other common noise phobias include fireworks, crying babies, and vacuum cleaners, to name a few. Exposing your dog to these sounds in a calm environment along with some positive rewards can help him learn that there is nothing to be afraid of. If your dog is particularly sensitive, you can download or purchase recordings of these sounds and play them at low volume in the background. This will help him learn to disregard the noise.
Proper socialization reduces fear and prevents behavior problems. While starting from a young age is best, any dog can benefit from socialization. Remember to make each new experience a positive one, and stop the interaction if your dog seems nervous. For more tips on socialization, check out Dr. Sophia Yin’s Checklist for Socialization, available here.