For dogs to be happy and comfortable in the world of humans, socialization is so important. Many dogs lack basic social skills, either because of limited exposure to other dogs and people, or a lack of positive experiences. Dogs who were raised without sufficient experience with new people, places, sounds and objects often show fear of many commonplace situations, such as meeting new people. These dogs are uncomfortable near new people because they look, smell and sound different from their families.
Exposure to new experiences is especially important when dogs are puppies. Between 3 and 20 weeks of age is the critical socialization period in puppy development. During that period of time, if puppies do not experience a considerable variety of new things (see checklists below) in a way that allows them to feel safe and happy, they may likely become fearful adults. One of the best ways to leverage this opportunity is to take a puppy to a socialization class with a relationship-based behavior consultant. We can help fearful adult dogs, but socialization of adult dogs can take much longer than it does for puppies.
If a dog has had limited experience with the outside world, any change, such as a move to a new house or city, can be quite a challenge. When dogs like these end up in shelters, they often have a very hard time adjusting to their new environment. They may have been great with their people, even with a few family friends, but when everything in their lives has been turned upside down, they become fearful and antisocial. Unless someone works with them to improve their social skills, they are often deemed to be unsuitable for the role of family pet.
We can help these dogs by teaching them that the world isn’t as scary as it seems. To do this, we must help them experience a variety of things in ways that they feel safe and happy:
- To help a dog feel safe: Always work at an intensity at which the dog is completely comfortable. You can reduce the intensity of a trigger (whatever new thing you’re introducing the dog to) in different ways, including increasing the distance, duration, size and volume. Watch the dog’s body language to tell if he’s comfortable. If he looks even a little uncomfortable, reduce the intensity of the trigger.
- To help a dog feel happy: Have the trigger predict something that the dog loves, such as a special food treat. Every time the dog experiences the trigger, give him a special treat. With repetition, the dog will start to understand that the presence of the scary thing means that a treat is coming, and he will start to feel better about it.
Below is a list of things to practice with a puppy or dog to get him up to speed on his social skills and more comfortable with all types of situations. I like to create a worksheet with a check box next to each item on the list, so I can check off each item as I work with the dog on it. I use a fresh copy of the worksheet each month. If a dog develops positive associations with meeting new challenges, he will soon be comfortable and relaxed, ready to go places and do many fun things.
Handle all of the dog’s body parts on a daily basis, giving praise and small food rewards for relaxing. As the dog becomes more comfortable, have other people start to handle the dog, too.
Introduce the dog to people.
|People of various ages:||Differences in people:|
|___ Newborn to three months||___ Loud man|
|___ Three months to six months||___ Loud woman|
|___ Six months to nine months||___ Ethnic differences|
|___ Newly walking toddlers||___ Using oxygen|
|___ One year old||___ Using a cane|
|___ Two years old||___ Using a walker|
|___ More than one toddler at a time||___ Using a wheelchair|
|___ Three to four years old||___ Other______________________|
|___ Groups of children playing|
|___ Teenagers – boys and girls|
|___ Adults – many different ones|
|___ Seniors – many different ones|
|People doing different things:||People wearing different things:|
|___ Singing||___ Hats|
|___ Dancing||___ Glasses|
|___ Clapping||___ Sunglasses|
|___ Jumping||___ A helmet|
|___ Hopping||___ Coats with hood up|
|___ Skipping||___ Capes with hood up|
|___ Whistling||___ Gloves|
|___ Jogging||___ Masks|
|___ Other_____________________||___ Big boots|
Introduce the dog to other animals. To keep all pets safe, supervise at all times.
|___ Cats||___ Kittens|
|___ Dogs||___ Puppies|
|___ Horses||___ Small pet animals|
Introduce the dog to household activities.
If the dog was an outdoor pet, everything will be new, so don’t do too much at once.
|___ Vacuum||___ Dog nail clippers|
|___ Broom||___ Dog brush and comb|
|___ Mop||___ Sound of electric hair clippers|
|___ Alarm clock||___ Sound of electric fan|
|___ TV||___ Plastic bags flapping|
|___ Radio||___ A balloon with air escaping|
|___ Noise-making children’s toys||___ A recording of storm sounds|
|___ Children’s pull toys||___ A kite|
|___ Umbrella (open and close it)||___ Things being dropped|
Introduce the dog to the big, wide world.
Take the dog on many different types of outings.
|___ Ride in cars||___ See people on bicycles|
|___ Walk on different flooring||___ See people on skates|
|___ Use stairs with and without backs||___ See people using shopping carts|
|___ Walk on bridges||___ Meet new friends|
|___ Visit other people’s homes||___ Practice visiting the vet's office (just for fun, and give plenty of treats)|
|___ Take the dog to be groomed|
|___ See and smell parks|
|___ Sit at coffee shop with you|
|___ Use elevators|
|___ Use automatic doors at stores|