Contrary to popular belief, socialisation does not mean throwing the dog in the deep end, trying to take him to lots of busy places then introducing him to every new person and dog that approaches.
‘Socialisation’ is the process of familiarising a dog or puppy to all the things that will be a normal part of his everyday life. Think about the role your dog is to play: companion, team mate, sports dog or holiday partner; for all of these, he will need to be comfortable around different things and in different places. For example, if you intend to travel with your dog, make sure staying in unfamiliar places is a regular part of his puppyhood.
Good and appropriate socialisation means setting up experiences and taking him to places where he can calmly take in information about the world without being overwhelmed or forced into interactions he is not ready to make. For a bold puppy that might be taking him to a café, hardware shop or a popular park. For the more reluctant pup it might mean starting by sitting in the back of the car watching a quiet place for a few minutes.
Socialising a puppy
Start easy and keep trips short. Puppy and adolescent brains get tired quickly. If you are out for too long, the trip that started with a confident and outgoing, calm pup might just end with a fried and overly emotional one.
Keep experiences positive but calm.
The best response to something new (human, dog or just plain weird) is a neutral ‘whatever’ sort of non-emotional response. Note that dogs who are hyper greeters are often actually anxious about meeting new people or dogs. Take things slow and let your pup set the pace (Although I suggest not letting hyper greeters rush into social situations. A calm and considered approach is more beneficial.) Your pup doesn’t need to approach every person or dog he sees. Let him learn that not every Being is there for his entertainment and enjoyment. Rushing to greet everyone will not be appropriate when he is an adult so don’t lead him to believe that it is ok as a puppy.
DO NOT let strangers and other dogs rush into his space – ever!
He is not a petting zoo and not every approaching dog is friendly or well mannered. It is your job to keep him safe. We want the experiences he has to be positive; you have NO idea what that stranger is going to do to your pup in the name of ‘being friendly’. Prime example is the over familiar person wearing shades who decides your dog needs to be kissed on the nose – and rushes straight into his face, scaring him silly. Believe me, things like this happen more times that you’d credit.
If it is appropriate for him to say “Hi” to someone, let him approach in his own time. Have the person squat down a couple of feet away and extend their hand slightly (not into his face!). Let him approach, or not, as he sees fit. DO NOT use food to lure him up to someone! He is likely to grab the food and then possibly panic if they try to touch him (and all strangers do! It’s why they stopped in the first place – to pat the puppy).
Let your pup gather information.
Let him stop to look, sniff and generally explore where it is safe. Too often we just want to get from A to B but this prevents our dogs really learning about the world they live in. Be prepared to just wander, or even sit for a while and watch the world go by.
Leave a situation if your pup looks distressed or refuses food.
There is nothing to be gained by ‘forcing him to face his fears’. All you will achieve is a dog who doesn’t trust you or the world around him. Retreat to a safe distance and let him watch and information gather IF it is safe to do so and he has calmed down.
Socialising the older dog
For older dogs that have not been appropriately socialised the approach is the same but slower and more considered, especially if they are already anxious.
Introduce new places gently to avoid triggering existing fears
Drive to somewhere very quiet (supermarket carparks early on a Sunday are often a good bet) and sit in the car with your dog while he watches the world go by. Feed him something delicious whenever ‘something’ happens – car goes past, person appears in the distance, gull lands nearby etc.
Go out with an older, very confident dog as an escort.
Often the younger, timid dog will take confidence in the unflappability of the older dog. If he is scared of strangers interacting with him, having him wear a coat that says something like “ignore me, in training” can be very helpful. Here are a couple of examples:
Pair environmental ‘surprises’ of ANY kind with delicious treats.
The more times “surprise!! = good stuff for dogs!” the more comfortable he will become. Keep it up but don’t try to cram too much into a short space of time. Slow, successful exposure is much more beneficial than trying to take your dog to 3 new places a day and having him experience repeated emotional meltdowns because he can’t cope. There is no rush, the damage is already done. Your task now is to slowly and carefully build confidence by giving short, positive exposures with plenty of down time for recovery in between.
In summary, socialisation success depends on:
- Taking it as slow as your dog needs
- Being responsive to how he feels
- Keeping him safe
- Keeping experiences short and sweet
- Allowing the dog to take in information about the world around him
- Having realistic expectations
If you would like to find out more about socialising your puppy or dog, please get in touch here.