Dogs, just like us humans, need social interaction, and knowing how to socialize a dog can be a challenge. Either with other people or with their fellow dogs, social interaction and social skills are vital for all dogs regardless of breed, age, sex or purpose. Before moving on and getting to the nitty-gritty, we must first understand that dogs have their own personalities, and just like us they have their own interests, likes, dislikes and general preferences.
Never assume that all dogs are the same and never follow set patterns. Each and every single dog is different and each and every specimen comes with his or her own personality which dictates the way in which they interact with other dogs and humans.
One last thing to mention here is the fact that it is never a good idea to force a dog to socialize nor should any aspects of socialization be forced upon the dog. If the dog feels comfortable enough he or she will start socializing slowly and safely.
It’s also important that you start the socialization process early. You can find out how to start in this great article about socializing your puppy.
That being said, let us look at a few options that the dog owners have at their disposal in order to facilitate dog interaction and socialization.
The average day-to-day walk
This one is by far the simplest dog socialization method of them all, because the dog owner has to put in next to no effort. It can still be a bit tricky though and there are a few things that the owner must keep an eye on.
Simply choose a slightly longer than average route and take your dog out on a walk. While on that walk be sure to walk up to as many people as you can and encourage the dog to do so as well.
Keep the leash relaxed however be ready to pull if the need arises. At the same time keep an eye on your dog, his or her body language more specifically.
If the dog is nervous or moody there are chances that he or she will act in a negative manner or become defensive, in which case you have to shorten the leash or tug a bit on it in order to calm the dog down.
It is important to remember that you must not force the dog nor push or pull the dog abruptly. Just let the dog get comfortable on his or her own terms.
The dog park
This one is a bit more stressful for both the dog and the owner. The reason for that is the sheer amount of dogs and dog owners that are around as well as the environment and the energy flowing around.
Dogs will eventually walk up to your dog and try to socialize with him or her. Remember that your dog’s comfort level will dictate the chances of success so keep an eye out.
The first contact with other dogs is pretty standard so you can expect the following:
- Your dog gets a bit overwhelmed by the amount of attention
- The tail goes down
- The ears are pulled back
- The dog gravitates around you a lot for safety
- Initial shyness
- Heightened awareness
- Defensive responses
A few things change if your dog is slightly more aggressive by nature, however these will not deter his or her chances at dog socialization:
- Chest extends
- Adopts a defensive stance
- Pushes dogs away if they cross his or her comfort line
- Avoids physical confrontation if more dogs are present but still keeps an eye out for them
- Attacks if backed into a corner or ambushed
If you’d like to know more about dog aggression, check out our article on dog aggression, the signs to look for and what you can do to handle the situation properly.
Again the most important thing here is the dog’s level of comfort. Generally speaking other dogs will walk up to yours to meet him or her and do a little sniffing initially.
Let the dog feel comfortable, don’t force it, make sure the dog knows that he or she can walk away at any time if the dog desires.
This one is a bit more organized and generally safer than other methods. Most trainers recommend this method when you first begin your dog’s socialization.
The dog is the one that benefits the most here. The environment is controlled and the dog will be a lot more relaxed and willing to meet other dogs.
Don’t expect miracles from the very beginning though, it takes a bit of time but the dog will slowly grow more and more comfortable with the other dog as well as the other dog’s owner and will start to socialize with them.
It might be a little boring for the owners at first but then again the main interest is the dog and the amount of social interaction that he or she gets to experience.
This option puts a bit of strain on dog owners because they have to slow down and give some time for the dog to adjust.
Public events are appealing for both sides however each experiences it differently.
You, the dog owner, will be inclined to rush and see everything, experience all the things that the public event has to offer, however the dog will always play it safe, taking his or her time to settle, adjust and grow comfortable.
Usually owners rush the dogs so that they don’t miss anything, and the dogs don’t have the time to grow comfortable and explore, making them anxious and agitated.
If you chose to take your dog to a public event so that he or she gets accustomed to large crowds and activities going on around them, make sure you don’t have a schedule. Keep in mind that your dog can still become afraid of his surroundings, even if you’ve taken him to this place before. Learn the signs to look for in this great article about fear aggression in dogs.
Rushing the dog puts a great amount of strain on the actual dog socialization, making it very hard for the dog to grow accustomed and comfortable with bigger crowds.
The best thing to do is to take it slow. Let the dog explore and allow him or her to retreat to your presence for safety if needed.
Do be careful and keep an eye on the leash because if can and it will provide a safety line that the dog will appreciate.
Professional group sessions
This one is slightly misunderstood by the vast majority of dog owners, however it can be very beneficial if done right.
Most owners think that by signing up for such a session they will give the dog the socialization that he or she needs, however that is not usually the case.
The trainer that organizes these group sessions knows that things are not exactly easy when dealing with multiple dogs at the same time, so the first step is actually a private sessions in which the trainer evaluates the dog and trains him or her to behave around others.
It comes as no surprise that most dog owners want to skip this step and simply plot the dog into the group, and the vast majority of trainers refuse to even consider this option.
You need to walk before you can run and the same goes for dog socialization. The dog needs to trust the trained and receive that initial training before being introduced into a group, however after that is all said and done, the dog will have a wonderful time.
It is a controlled environment, the dogs and owners will be there, they will feel safe and more inclined to explore and meet other dogs, and the trainer will keep a close eye on them, making sure that everything goes well.
What not to do
There are a few things that you, as a dog owner, should refrain from doing in order to make sure that your dog develops proper social skills.
Sometimes we as dog owners feel the urge to protect our dogs at all cost, however most of the time we end up smothering the poor things and involuntarily depriving them of the steps and scenarios necessary for them to develop certain skills.
Dog socialization is no different and even though we want to protect our dogs at all costs, there are a few mistakes that all dog owners do involuntarily.
Keeping a tight leash
Keeping a tight leash when other people and / or dogs are around is not exactly a good idea.
Remember that you are trying to promote dog socialization, pulling the leash and keeping it tight sends the opposite message.
A tight leash alerts the dog and promotes aggressive behavior. The dog will tense up, become increasingly stressed and aggression will be the end result.
Do not take the leash off completely until you feel that the dog is confident and comfortable enough for you to do that, however keep it lose while it is on and other dogs and people are around.
This will relax your dog and give him a lot more freedom to explore at his or her own leisure.
Forcing the dog to socialize
Dogs and humans have a lot of things in common, and just like us dogs hate being forced to do things.
Forcing a dog to socialize often has adverse effects and the dog will most likely grow with a power complex, feeling compelled to dominate and become the alpha male at all costs when around other dogs or people.
Forcing has another adverse effect on dog socialization, mostly due to the fact that the dog is not at all comfortable nor secure when forced to socialize. He or she will accept the presence of another dog or person as a compromise when forced to however getting to know, play and socialize with said dog or person is out of the question.
Make sure that the dog is not forced to interact under any circumstances.
Luring with treats
It might seem easier to lure your dog with treats and use treats as a reward for approaching other dogs and people however this sends the wrong message across.
There are quite a lot of dog owners that use treats as a reward for dog socialization, however this ends up disorienting the dog more than anything, making him or her associate socialization with hunger rather than the joy of exploration and meeting new people and dogs.
If you want your canine companion to learn the proper socialization skills that he or she needs to learn, don’t use food or treats as a shortcut. Let the dog take his or her time, sniff all that can be sniffed and build his or her own comfort and securities.
Cutting the challenges
Dog socialization, just like everything else in this world, comes with its own set of challenges. This is where our need to protect our dogs makes things worse, and most dog owners will step in and cut the challenges thinking that they facilitate things for their pet.
That is in fact a mistake. By cutting the challenges and problems that dogs face while socializing with other dogs or people, the dog does not learn and does adapt accordingly.
Some owners argue that they interfere to make sure that the dog is safe. The only reason a dog owner should ever interfere in their dog’s interaction with other dogs is when a full out fight breaks out.
Even if your dog gets into a minor scuffle or starts displaying signs of aggression, don’t step in yet. Let them work it out and settle it like dogs.
If a full on fight breaks out and you see that the dogs are actually biting each other, that’s when you step in.
Social interaction is a bit tricky when it comes to our canine companions, however with enough patience and the willingness to learn from both the dog and the dog owner, it can be achieved.
It is important for our dogs to develop strong social skills and actually learn how to coexist with other people and dogs.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive at times and even though it might require a bit of flexibility on both sides, you can help your dog to socialize and meet other dogs and people in a safe, controlled and enjoyable way.