Back to Basics Dog Socialization 101
By Michael J. Soler
“Socialization is teaching your dog how to be a part of our social life.”– Michael J. Soler, Master Dog Trainer
The daily rhythm of life has changed for most people, and it has for most dogs, too. These changes really caused the need to revisit the fundamentals of canine socialization in many dog households.
It is important to remember that a dog’s behavior may be different when they are outside of their home. Some dogs may be shocked and confused to see the new conditions like people in masks, less people around and other dogs also acting unique. Other dogs may show unwanted or even uncomfortable behaviors in these same situations.
Revisiting socialization skills can easily be addressed by owners, trainers, vets, groomers, and boarding and daycare staff members working together. This means that the pet professionals will need to rise to meet the unique and changing needs of their canine patrons as they also try to navigate a new way of living. Getting back to the fundamentals of socialization can make a big difference in the comfort and ease of common interactions between dogs and the public.
Socialization is more than simply adding a dog to a giant group of other dogs and hoping they all get along. It’s more than a dog being willing to “play” with doggie friends. While there is value in having dogs together, getting properly acquainted and safely interacting has far more value to improve the daily interactions of dogs and humans. A great example of proper socialization is the ability for a dog to partake in daily life comfortably, free of fear and anxiety.
Dogs need to be socialized for the life they are going to live with their owners and the people they will be interacting with. Whether that includes family visits, local shopping, seeing delivery people, long-distance travel, visiting parks and recreational places or attending doggie day care, socialization plays a major role. Socialization starts early with common things like visitors, the mail carrier, garbage trucks, delivery drivers and trips to the vet and groomer.
Great socialization starts with frequent, short encounters with the things the dog will be exposed to regularly. Take travel for example; if a dog’s owner travels frequently and plans to include their dog, it’s best to take the dog on car rides to different places that are often visited. By giving a dog the opportunity to be familiarized with those situations and offering many chances to practice navigating them, the owner helps lower stress levels and sets the dog up for success.
Some common scenarios to consider for re-socialization:
- Vet visits
- Dog park
- Public areas (e.g., parks and stores)
- Greeting mail / delivery person
- Grooming salons
- Visiting or staying at boarding and daycare facilities
When a dog is facing a new situation, in the beginning, take things slow. Make the first step very simple and build on each success until the dog is participating appropriately for the social setting they are in. Some things may take many experiences to get a dog to become comfortable in certain situations. The best thing any owner or pet professional can do is go slow and work within the dog’s strengths.
Watch the dog’s body language; if the dog is showing undeniable changes and they receive a reward without noticing it, the wrong behavior can be reinforced and can cause more problematic behaviors later. This happens often with jumping. Owners don’t mind being greeted by their dog jumping on them, but expect them to not jump on others. Consistency is important in dog training and in socialization.
Dangers to avoid:
- Doing too much too fast
- Not rewarding wanted behavior
- Rewarding undesired behavior
- Not listening to a dog’s body language
- Not being consistent with your choices
- Forcing a dog to “push through” fears
Communication is Key
It is always important for owners and pet professionals to communicate about a pet before an interaction and even during it. With such a shift in norms for everyone, that communication will be vital for the success of the humans involved and especially for the dog.
As restrictions get lifted and we return to our daily routines, many dogs will need refreshers in their expectations and the socialization that comes with it. Advising owners to be proactive will make life better for them and their dogs. A proactive approach will also help to make interactions with pet professionals easier for everyone involved as well.
As a pet professional, a simple phone call, email or text can make the difference between a positive or not so positive experience. Contact owners before appointments and ask how the dog is doing when interacting with others, or if any anxiety is present. This is especially important for dogs that professionals may already be acquainted with.
Slow Steps for Re-socializing
Take things slow if needed. If an owner expresses that their dog hasn’t left the house for a long time and that they have been home with their dog most of the time, encourage them to make a few short trial-run visits to begin re-socializing the dog.
If possible during the visit, ask owners to communicate any troubling body language they notice from their dogs. Remember that these changes have been hard on humans as we understand what is happening, dogs do not understand; they only know what we teach them.
Encourage owners to:
- Start taking their dog on car rides
- Visit the vet, groomer, daycare and overnight boarding facilities
- Visit the pet store or the park
Car rides help get dogs used to many new situations and emotions. They help with teaching control over excitement and anxiety, as well as adjusting to the world moving around the dog. If the only car ride a dog ever goes on is to the vet for shots, this may scare them, causing fear and avoidance of the car. If owners take regular car rides to drive around and let the dog out to walk and earn a treat, then car rides mean fun one-on-one time rather than an upcoming frightening experience. This method can also be achieved through canine taxis or field trips during doggie daycare.
Stopping by the vet’s office or groomer’s salon for a friendly visit where the dog gets a treat helps establish those places as friendly and welcoming, instead of something to be avoided. Advising clientele to practice these stops once a month and to take weekly car rides will help set a consistent pattern for the dog to rely on.
Another good place for owners to practice socialization is the park. The first few visits to a park should be brief. A successful first visit would include letting the dog sniff around and explore, then giving them a treat. If the dog appears nervous, let that be it and come back again in a week or two. Gradually lengthen the visits based on their reactions.
In any case of socialization, pay strict attention to the dog’s body language. Body language and what they are saying with it will communicate when they’ve had enough. Remember, socialization is getting desensitized to everyday stressors and it should not be rushed.
If a dog is going to be in any place where there is to be a large gathering in the future, advising visits to the venues while they are not crowded to acquaint the dog with the area will prevent the dog from feeling overwhelmed later. This applies to anywhere the dog may visit, even on a smaller scale such as a new boarding facility or exam room. Introduce a dog to a new room or instrument slowly, allowing the dog to sniff and explore freely and earn a treat.
When there is opportunity to become familiar with the environment before having extra environmental stressors, take it. The ability to produce a positive memory of a location ahead of time will create a more reliable framework for a solid foundation in socializing a dog.
What are Your 2021 Plans?
Dog owners and pet professionals should be thinking ahead to how they can help dogs transition from their current environment to one that will return to a quicker pace, involving more people and outings. As people return to their daily routines, what will that look like in your facility? How can you establish and maintain a level of consistency during a dog’s visit? The more consistency that is preserved in each visit, the easier it will be for a dog to adjust to any necessary changes.
It is not only wise, but important to remain diligent and not get careless—even if many dogs seem alright with a less stressful environment now with less people around, that does not mean their reactions will remain the same when more stressors return to their daily environments. Consistent practice will lead to continued success for owners and pet professionals alike!
Michael J Soler is the owner and Master Dog Trainer of Blue Line K-9, Inc. located in Harford County Maryland. His own experiences and challenges as a Marine Corps Veteran, Police Officer, Police K9 Officer, Father, and Husband have driven Michael to learn, apply and share his experiences with others. He has impacted the lives of thousands of individuals as well as their canine companions through both Blue Line K-9 and his police service to his community. Michael has now begun to expand Blue Line K-9, Inc. helping more people achieve their dreams of owning a dog training or pet business.