Having a well-socialized dog usually means you can take your dog just about anywhere and you know he’ll be friendly towards other people and dogs.
Owners of poorly- or under-socialized dogs do not enjoy this luxury. The dog may be ok as long as he doesn’t see _________________ (big dog, little dog, black and white dog, someone on a motorcycle, someone in an oversized coat, a garbage truck, a leaf, his shadow—you fill in the blank).
Since most people don’t have a crystal ball to consult, owners of fearful or poorly-socialized dogs are less likely to take their dogs on walks or errands because of the stress and trauma they both might experience if they encounter a “scary” you-know-what while out and about.
This leads to even less socialization and perpetuation of the cycle. How can a dog become more socialized if he’s truly happier just staying at home? Here are four tips for socializing your adult dog in a positive and beneficial way.
1. Make an effort – Sweet, older sheltie
It’s too tempting for many dog owners to let their companion become a homebody. The yard is fenced, visitors are infrequent, and who has the time for lifelong socialization, anyway? The truth is, it’s a disservice to your dog to not make an effort to socialize him regularly. Dogs are social creatures. Getting out of that fenced yard for a walk around the block provides much needed mental stimulation and keeps his communication skills from getting too rusty. And what about those times when you do have visitors? Putting your dog in a boarding kennel just so he doesn’t have to be stressed by other people in the home is rather counter-productive on the stress scale, and it’s selfish. By making regular efforts to help your dog have positive experiences in the “outside” world, other breaches into his world of comfort will have less of a stressful impact.
2. Revisit training basics
Dogs actually like to be told what to do, as long as they understand what’s expected of them. Review the basics like sit, lie down, get off the sofa, go to your kennel/bed, etc. Practice these cues regularly, every day. Ask him to “do” something he knows (like sit, shake) while out on a walk and you spot something in the distance that might upset him. It gets his attention on you and distracts him from whatever stress trigger you’ve identified.
3. Provide irresistible motivation
Treats, toys, praise—make sure it’s really enjoyable for your dog. We’re all willing to work a little harder at something outside of our comfort zone if there’s a worthy reward involved. Don’t be afraid to use treats heavily—just keep the pieces small and truly yummy. A positive experience associated with something “scary” can work wonders in changing a pet’s emotional response for the better.
4. Insist on fear-free veterinary visits
It’s bad enough to step outside of a hermit dog’s comfort zone, but going into a veterinary clinic, where truly BAD things happen (right?) can be so stressful for both dog and owner that it’s skipped altogether. How can you maintain a partnership with your veterinarian and work together for a long, healthy life of your pet when the only times you bring him in are when he’s legitimately sick or worse? At Mariposa Veterinary Wellness Center, our goal is cooperation, not control. We are more than willing to take things slow and help a fearful dog learn to have his blood drawn without struggle or restraint. This take-it-slow approach has helped many of our patients achieve a level of medical care other veterinarians would not have been able to achieve without sedation.
An example of one one of these “success stories” is Jada, the mastiff. Jada was big (170 lbs!), strong, and fearful of anyoneJada the giant mastiff other than her immediate family members. If you reached for her, she would snap—a scary experience for humans and Jada alike! Her previous veterinarian gave her acepromazine (a sedative which knocked her out for a full day) just so he could perform an exam, draw blood and give vaccines. Dr. Burcham recommended having the owners order a custom muzzle (her snout was too large for even the largest muzzle) and come visit our hospital twice/week for socialization visits. Over the course of many months, Dr. Burcham was able to perform a full exam and draw blood with no restraint or sedation. Working cooperatively with Jada allowed us to get to a point where we could anesthetize her to clean and radiograph her teeth. This procedure identified an extremely painful tooth that required extraction. Had it not been for her dedicated owners and our take-it-slow approach, this lesion might never have been found and her tooth would have continued to cause unnecessary pain. After the painful tooth was extracted, she appeared happier and less reactive when hands reached towards her!