Before we begin talking about the importance of socializing your puppy or adult dog, let’s explore the top myths regarding dog socialization:
- My puppy is too young and inexperienced to socialize.
- My adult dog is too old and set in his ways to socialize.
- I have a particular breed that traditionally doesn’t do well with other dogs.
- My dog has had issues with other people or dogs in the past, so there’s no point to trying again.
What do all of these phrases have in common? They are MYTHS about dog socialization, and can be debunked.
Here at Pawmetto Lifeline, we believe that any and every dog – regardless of age, breed, or temperament – has the possibility (and should have the opportunity) to live a well-balanced and social life. Dogs, after all, are descendants of wolves: this means they, too, are pack animals at heart! Whether their pack is small and family-oriented, or large enough to include the whole dog park, all dogs should have a pack they can socialize with on a regular basis. While socializing an adult dog is much different than socializing a puppy, it is possible for all dogs to be social butterflies.
Let’s debunk these myths one by one:
1) My puppy is too young and inexperienced to socialize.
No puppy is too young to be socialized – some dog trainers even recommend starting puppy socialization as young as three weeks! Up until about 5 months (commonly called their “sensitive period”), most puppies are willing to quickly accept new things in his life, including people, places, and other animals. Teaching them to enjoy these new things is a relatively easy process because of this willingness. The easiest way to make new things enjoyable is to feed your new puppy treats while she is experiencing new things, so that each experience is a happy one! Make sure you continue socializing after the 5-month mark, too – socialization through the first year reinforces the happy experiences from those first few months, and leads to a well-socialized adult dog. Isn’t that every pet owner’s dream?
2) My adult dog is too old and set in his ways to socialize.
It is a different process to socialize an adult dog – please keep this is mind when you’re adopting a rescue dog, especially since that dog’s background is essentially unknown. You don’t know what kind of positive or negative stimuli your new companion has been exposed to in the past, and so you generally have to go a bit slower. While puppies can be let loose with other dogs to learn how to interact, the same cannot be said for adult dogs. Most adult dogs prefer smaller groups (one to three dogs), and in large groups may become very antisocial, or even aggressive, because they feel uncomfortable. Don’t let your dreams of the dog park be dashed, though – all he needs is a little patience. Start small, and work your way up to larger groups of dogs. Use the treat rule puppy owners utilize to great success – give treats in all new situations, which teaches your pet that new situations are good!
*Always remember that there are always exceptions to this rule – your adult dog may naturally be a social creature that enjoys lots of friends, excitement, and activity! Just make sure you know this to be true before exposing him to a large pack he’s not comfortable with.*
3) I have a particular breed that traditionally doesn’t do well with other dogs.
While it is true that some breeds were bred to have aggression towards dogs and/or strangers, we at Pawmetto Lifeline firmly believe that every dog is unique. So many factors go into the character of a dog, and breed is only a small factor in the long run. What matters most is how a dog is treated, what he/she is exposed to, and how he/she is exposed to those things. This is especially important to remember when trying to socialize an adult dog – if you don’t know their past for certain, always go slow and start small. You don’t want to trigger a negative reaction or situation simply because you’re so excited about socializing your new canine companion! Most importantly, though, don’t let personal or societal stigma regarding your breed (whatever it may be) influence or control how you choose to socialize your dog. Every dog deserves both human and canine friends. What’s more, by properly socializing a breed society deems potentially dangerous, you help promote responsible ownership and prove those naysayers wrong!
*Do Remember: Whether it’s fair or not, some dog parks and daycare centers do have breed restrictions for those who wish to use their services. Research before showing up to ensure you are in compliance with a private facility’s rules.*
4) My dog has had issues with other people or dogs in the past, so there’s no point to trying again.
Know the difference in a socialization attempt that was simply a bad fit, or that fell apart due to human error on your end (your dog wasn’t feeling well, or you paired him with too many dogs or dogs that already had behavior problems), and a socialization attempt that fell apart because your dog needs some training or structure only a professional can give. Make sure that you do your best to always set your dog up for success when exposing him to new things, but always be prepared for those situations to go awry. Don’t hesitate to call in a trainer who can help you with socializing your dog – most trainers conduct classes both in group and one-on-one sessions to help you assess the best way to help your new pet be as happy and social as possible. The most important thing to remember is that one bad episode does not mean your puppy or dog can never have human or canine friends – it just might take a little extra work for everyone to be happy.
Best Practices for Socialization
Now that we’ve talked about socialization, we need to consider the best way to socialize your dog and to keep him socialized. Dog parks are always a great start, but you do risk running into problems with other improperly- or un-socialized pets, owners who cannot or will not handle their own dogs, and illness exposure through unvaccinated or sickly pets that are still brought to play with others. Dogs are like children in that way – all it takes is one sick pup and soon enough everyone has it. This is especially important to remember with puppies – no puppies should be socialized in public places until they are at least 4 months old and have had all their vaccines as directed by your veterinarian. Otherwise, their immune systems won’t be able to keep up with the outside world.
The simpler and generally safer alternative is to look into doggie daycare programs, even if it’s just for one day a week. The programs require that every animal be old enough to be fully vaccinated, and have physical proof of all their vaccinations. Moreover, most facilities require an interview period where staff members can get to know the dog, learning of its socialization needs (big or small, people or canine) and triggers for bad behavior (like thunderstorms or sirens). Staff members at these facilities are trained and equipped to help your puppy or dog get socialized in whatever way he needs, while doing their best to prevent unwanted stimuli from entering the experience. Through the interview process, as well as repeated exposure to frequent daycare clients, they create appropriate playgroups and situations where socialization is greatly encouraged and positively reinforced. In terms of problem dogs, staff members at daycare and boarding facilities are trained and equipped to correct bad behavior, or even remove the problem if the behavior warrants it. (If you are interested in Doggie Daycare, please consider the Pawmetto Lifeline program! Not only will your pet have a blast, but 100% of the proceeds will benefit homeless pets in the Midlands!)
Some daycares provide only group playtime, while others focus primarily on people socialization, so you’ll want to do some research to figure out which facility and program is right for you and your dog. If you want to keep socializing your dog on your own through private playgroups or public dogs parks, that’s an excellent idea as well – as long as you know your dog, what he can handle, and how to make the experience enjoyable and beneficial for him. Also be aware of other dogs to ensure that your dog doesn’t have a negative experience due to something out of your hands.
After all, a tired, socialized dog is a happy dog, and isn’t that we dog-lovers want most of all?!