In dogs, the ability to cope with new situations is both learned and inherited. Introducing and familiarizing your dog to new experiences – including people, places, and other animals – is called socialization. Positive socialization teaches your dog to respond and interact appropriately to new and unfamiliar experiences. Socialization is just as important to your dog’s overall health and well-being as a nutritious diet, exercise, and good veterinary care. Just like children, stress is reduced when dogs develop the skills they need to cope with new experiences in a positive way. This makes for a calmer, more confident, and friendlier dog….and a happier owner!
The puppy brain is most inclined to absorb and accept new experiences between 4 and 12 weeks of age. This is one reason that puppies ideally stay with their mother and littermates until at least 8 weeks of age, as during this time they learn core behaviors such as proper social play and bite inhibition. With a new family, this time is perfect for introducing new social experiences. After this initial imprinting stage, a dog can still learn appropriate social behaviors, but it can be more difficult. This is largely due to the need to now unlearn inappropriate responses. So if you can work within the critical learning window the payoffs will be more immediate.
How to socialize? Take your dog to a wide variety of places with multiple characteristics. Examples are a plaza at lunchtime when there are lots of people around, downtown in the evening when there are lots of dogs being walked, and a park in the winter when there is snow on the ground and children on sleds. Look for places that expand your dog’s horizons. Don’t always go to the dog park. Your dog needs to know how to act when you meet an unfamiliar dog on the street or at the store as well.
Try to see things from your dog’s perspective. Notice what your dog notices and always keep your dog under your control. Keep it positive and pleasant. Take lots of treats and then reward appropriate behavior. Don’t force your dog into anything! If your dog appears overly anxious or overwhelmed, cut it short. Until you have confidence in your dog’s appropriate response, avoid situations where they may be encouraged to misbehave. Set up your outings for success. You can even set up socialization “dates” where you plan to meet a dog-friendly acquaintance in a new and unfamiliar place.
Some dogs who missed out on early socialization can come around just fine with training. But if your dog shows severe anxiety or fear-aggression, it can be time to call in the experts. At Animal Care Clinic, we believe your pet’s mental and emotional health is important. Please contact us if you have questions about your dog’s behavior. Or call us if you need assistance in contacting a behavioral specialist who can help you work with your pet. We’d love to help!