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Dog socialization isn't what you think. Here's how to do it right

Dog Socialization 101 (You’re Probably Doing it Wrong)

You got a new dog! Woo hoo! How very exciting. Dog socialization is probably pretty high on your to do list for this new pup.

In fact, it’s on my list of things to do after you get a new dog.

Maybe you’re thinking that you need to take your dog to the dog park daily, invite all your friends friends and family over to meet your dog, and allow your dog to meet every new dog and person they encounter.

At least, this is what we’re taught to believe about dog socialization.

What we hear couldn’t be further from the truth about how to properly socialize a dog. Read on to learn how to socialize your dog in a way that sets them up for success.

Ok, So What is Dog Socialization?

Dog socialization means exposing your dog to new experiences in a safe and controlled manner.

What you want to do is slowly expose them to a variety of new sounds, people, dogs, textures, surfaces, and environments, so that they learn that this big world isn’t so scary, after all.

Some common objects and scenarios that cause fear-based reactions in dogs include:

  • Stairs
  • Slippery surfaces
  • Other dogs
  • People wearing hats, hoods, or sunglasses
  • Doorbell/knock on the door
  • Fireworks
  • Bicycles and skateboards
  • Delivery trucks
  • People in general
  • Driving in the car
  • Water (bath, hose)
  • Grooming

Many new dog owners focus heavily on dog-on-dog socialization when the real goal is to bond with your dog. You want to teach your dog that you are more valuable than any other dog, person, or squirrel they may encounter.

If you allow your dog to play freely with other dogs and let them meet every new person who crosses your path, then you are telling them that those things are more valuable than you are. They won’t see you as a leader.

Before allowing them to play freely, you must first establish a bond and work on basic obedience. You want your dog to listen to you first and then you can use play as a reward.

Further, improper dog socialization can lead to leash reactivity, aggression, and fear.

A common dog socialization mistake is taking your dog to the dog park to meet other random dogs.

How Not to Socialize Your Dog

Here’s a big secret they don’t tell us about dogs.

Dog don’t need dog friends.

What I mean by this is that dogs don’t require friendships with other dogs to survive. They need food and sleep, but they don’t need pals.

Now, that doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t have dog friends, they just don’t need to be friends with all.the.dogs.

There’s an art to dog introductions and we’ll get to that below. First, let’s talk about how not to go about socializing your dog.

Avoid the Dog Park and Doggy Day Care

Dog parks are notoriously dangerous places to take dogs. Why?

  • Dog owners take their dogs here to burn energy, so you have a lot of dogs who have been inside all day with pent up energy
  • Dogs learn poor behaviors from the other dogs at the park
  • They are hotbeds for diseases like parvo, canine distemper, and kennel cough, among others
  • Larger dogs can bully smaller dogs, teaching dogs to be fearful of dogs
  • Your dog may bully other dogs
  • Dog owners tend to be more hands-off, meaning they’re not paying attention or cognizant of their dog’s cues
  • Your dog learns to value play over you, thus damaging your bond

Don’t Allow Your Dog to Meet Every Single New Person and Dog they See

Consider how you would feel if you were forced to shake hands with every single person you encountered, without being asked if you actually wanted to do so.

You’d probably start to protest as well.

What is the problem with meeting all the people and dogs?

  • Again, you’re teaching your dog that you are a worthless leader, that other dogs and people are of more value than you are
  • You don’t know how that dog might react to new dogs
  • That person could be working on training with their dog
  • It is just plain rude to do so without permission
  • People will excite your dog and may reinforce behaviors you don’t want like barking and jumping
  • You may build leash reactivity, aggression, or fear by allowing your dog to interact with new strange dogs and people in uncontrolled situations
  • Your dog will protest by barking when they don’t get what they want

Don’t Coddle Your Dog

Many dog owners tend to coddle their dogs when they are displaying signs of aggression or anxiety.

Examples include pick up little dogs when they start to bark, petting their dogs while they’re flipping out. or cooing to them softly that “it’s ok.”

I know they mean well, but what’s really happening is that the dog is being rewarded for the very behavior that you deem inappropriate!

They learn to throw a tantrum and get their way.

Coddling your dog reinforces their fears and diminishes their confidence. What your dog needs is a leader, someone to show them what to realistically fear and what not to fear.

Instead, learn their triggers, and beat them to their reaction. Turn directions and tell them “this way!”

Working on exposing Sitka to distractions like bikes as part of his socialization training.

Socialize Your Dog This Way Instead

Now that I’ve shared how now to socialize your dog, it’s only fair that I tell you how you can be most successful with your dog.

Remember, the goal is to create safe and fun exposure to new experiences while building your bond, establishing your leadership, and boosting your dog’s confidence.

Controlled Introductions to New Dogs

Create safe and positive experiences with new dogs by carefully hand-selecting the dogs your dog interacts with.

Ask a friend with a dog whose personality matches yours. If you have a chill pup, then look for a friend with a chill dog. If you pick a dog who bullies other dogs, then you risk breaking your dog’s confidence.

Meet in an open space where there are few other distractions and walk around on leash together for several minutes until the dogs are calm.

Don’t let the dogs meet on leash. You can walk single file and let one dog sniff the other’s butt for a few moments, and switch positions. Just keep moving!

You can eventually try dropping the leashes or letting both off leash, provided both have solid recall. Watch carefully for signs of distress in either dog, such as:

  • Panting
  • Lip licking
  • Tail between legs
  • Stiff posture
  • Raised tail
  • Growling
  • Avoidance

If you note any of these displays of discomfort, be ready to step in or call your dog away at a moment’s notice.

Other Ways to Socialize Your Dog with other Dogs

Aside from one-on-one controlled introductions with carefully-selected dogs, there are a number of other ways to socialize your dog around other dogs:

  • Go on structured walks
  • Train your dog around other dogs (in a safe space where the other dogs won’t intrude)
  • Find leash-only trails nearby to practice ignoring other dogs
  • Find a local pack walk
  • Meet a friend and their pup for beer at a brewery and just have the dogs sit near each other without meeting

Meeting new People

When new friends come over, keep your dog either on leash or in their crate.

Explain to your friends, before they come over. that you are working on socializing your dog and that you need them to stay calm and ignore your dog at first. This is very difficult for humans, so be very clear.

Sit down with your friends and let your dog go up to them, while your friend pretends like there is no dog. Keep them on leash so they don’t revert to jumping behaviors.

If your dog is calm, you can allow them to offer a few pets, and soft words.

Great Places to Work on Dog Socialization

Once your dog has become comfortable at home and in low-stimulation settings, you can start exposing them to more distracting places. Fortunately there are a ton of places you can take your dog for socialization training.

Start with the least distracting places, and gradually head to busier locations. This is a very similar process to loose leash walking.

At Home

Start socializing your new dog at the place they’ll spend the most amount of time. Home! Keep them on a leash over the first week or so inside and let them explore the home in a safe way.

Introduce them to other family members and the yard in a calm way. Ask your family to refrain from squealing, over petting, or roughhousing with the new family member. Remember, you are still strangers to your dog and need to build trust.

Take the time to see what sort of noises and textures your dog fears. See where they do and don’t like to be touched. Start desensitizing them to the nail clippers and grooming techniques.

Touch your dogs face, gums, ears, and paws so that they are used to being handled.

Large, Open Fields

Select spots that don’t have a nearby playground or a lot of dogs running around. You’ll go here to increase distractions with smells and critters like squirrels. Bring a long line and work on recall and basic obedience.

Find a grassy area that’s close to a road to see how your dog responds to road noise. Depending on the dog, it may be too much for them and you’ll have to find a different, less busy spot.

Playgrounds, Parks or Elementary Schools

Expose your dog to the erratic movements and shrill sounds of children by hanging out where the kids play. Keep a safe distance to start and just watch to see how your dog reacts.

Do they growl at the sound or moment of kids? Then increase the distance. Work on obedience skills like place while the kids play in the background.

Empty playgrounds are also great places to get your dog used to strange surfaces. I take Sitka from time to time and ask him to go slowly up stairs, walk across bridges, and even slide down the slide!

Hardware stores/Pet Stores

Dog-friendly stores like Home Depot, Lowes, and your local pet store store are fantastic spots to bring your dog. These stores allow dogs and offer a lot of distractions for your pup.

For your first few visits, try to go during the week or when it’s not likely to be so busy. People will stare and gawk at you, they’ll talk to you about what you’re doing, which can be very stimulating for a pup.

The Dog Park

I know what you’re thinking. “Jen, you said no dog parks.” Hear me out.

Hanging out nearby the dog park is a wonderful way to expose your dog to highly excited dogs without forcing them to be in a contained space with strange dogs and no escape route.

Simply work on place or loose leash walking or other obedience skills near the dog park. Remember, your goal is to keep your dog’s focus on you, not the barking dogs. Teaching your dog to focus on you around high distractions will proof your leadership.

Socializing Adult Dogs

Don’t fret if you’ve adopted an older dog and have missed the window to socialize. All is not lost, I promise.

You just probably have a bit more work ahead of you.

Go slowly – Take the time to really get to know your dog before exposing them to the world. Create a list of their fears and tackle them one or two at a time, at their pace.

Go on lots of walks – Regular walks will expose your dog to new sights and sounds. Movement is a great way to calm nervous energy in dogs.

If you encounter something that makes your dog react, take note, and work on that trigger every day.

Use a muzzle – Muzzles are great tools to use for dogs who react aggressively toward other dogs and people. They keep both your dog and others safe while you work on training.

Keep the goal in mind – Before heading out for a dog socialization session, set one or two goals. Is your goal to work on training around other dogs and keep your dog’s focus on you? Great.

If you see that it’s not working, then readjust. Create more distance. Leave the park and find a different one. Scrap the session and try again later.

Hire a professional – Working with a professional trainer was one of the best decisions I have ever made for my dogs. I can read books and watch videos, and learn some, but working with someone who has worked with thousands of dogs makes a huge difference.

What tips do you have for successful dog socialization?

What is your favorite way to socialize your dog?

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Jen Sotolongo

Hello! I'm Jen. I'm a writer, photographer, dog mom, and outdoor enthusiast. When I'm not writing about awesome ways to get outside with your dog, I'm probably out for a long trail run. I also fancy myself a pretty decent vegan cook, and am always happy to whip up a batch of cookies for friends. I am based in the Pacific Northwest and I never leave home without my dogs.

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