Winter Work: Socialization

One thing I see a lot every year without fail, is that by Spring, I’m going to get a lot of phone calls because of aggression.  Even though I live in the South where temperatures are moderate in the Winter, most folks just stay inside where it’s warm.  That means that their dogs stay inside or in the back yard, because humans don’t like to walk dogs when it’s cold.

giphy (17)For puppies or adolescent dogs, this can be a huge mistake!!  Puppies must be socialized on a very frequent and consistent basis until they are well established adult dogs.  The actual length of time will vary based upon the individual dog and breed.  Larger dogs mature more slowly than smaller dogs, so concerted efforts to socialize will need to continue longer.  In most cases, think 2-3 years.

Now, before you panic, socializing a dog is far easier than you think!  It simply means exposing your dog to everything that you regularly see and do in your life.  However, for folks who are more sedentary or are “homebodies,” it does mean that you must make a conscious choice to get your dog out and about….exposing them to the world, even if you don’t tend to experience a lot of it yourself.

I see more “stranger danger” reactions from dogs who live in homes that get few visitors, and who don’t really see new humans on a regular basis.  That generally results in lots of wild, excited…even aggressive barking, lunging on a leash and sometimes nipping from fear or excitement.  If you don’t generally have many guests to your home, be sure to make exceptions, and invite neighbors, friends, co-workers, and family to come for short visits to help your puppy learn to relax when strangers are at the door and invited into your home.

Socialization includes exposure to both animate and inanimate objects.  Most people think it refers only to dogs, people, cats, other pets, etc. but that’s only a start.  Socialization means a whole lot more.  Yard flags that blow in the breeze, rumbly garbage cans being pushed out to the curb, garage doors going up or down while a puppy is on a walk, bikes, joggers, skateboards, strollers, drive up windows, shopping carts, people with canes, walkers or wheelchairs, stairs, various walking surfaces, traffic, etc.  And that’s a short list!!

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Think of all of the sounds in the world!  Dogs who live their lives behind privacy fences never really learn the source of many of the sounds that they hear.  Take your dogs to playgrounds, shopping centers, gas stations, and stores that allow dogs.  They’ll get a chance to see, hear and smell all kinds of new things that will help them make sense of their world.

For many of us with high needs or difficult dogs, the biggest reason we have dogs with social issues is because they were either never socialized, or it was done improperly.  Sometimes, the behavior can be genetic, because temperament qualities do carry through from one generation to the next.  But by and large, correct socialization helps dogs learn to make sense of a human world, and they learn to stay calm in the midst of new things….because they understand how things work.

How our sensitive puppies and dogs get socialized is very important!  We want to give them opportunities to experience the world without completely overwhelming them.  Overly shy or fearful dogs will need a very careful approach to socialization, because going to quickly or improperly can cause dogs like this to shut down which means anything positive from the experience is lost on them.  Going slow is the key, and it’s especially important because you don’t want your dog to feel overwhelmed and scared.  Over time, that can erode his trust in you, and trust is everything to a dog.

For my readers with overly shy or fearful dogs, I highly recommend the use of a professional trainer, because they know how to help boost your dog’s confidence while also helping you appropriately stretch that dog a bit out of his comfort zone so that he can gradually improve and come along with you.  For puppies, there is a closing window of time to accomplish things, so it’s important to start early and stay with it until your dog is well into adulthood.

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When you leave the house today, stop and ask yourself, “Can Sparky come with me to run this errand?”  If you’re home today, ask yourself, “Can I spare 20 minutes to take Sparky up to the grocery store to watch shopping carts come and go from the store?”  You really have to be deliberate in your thinking, and proactive to make this happen!!  But when you stop and consider that your dog will be a part of your family for 12-14 years on average….socialization can really make those years wonderful and give your dog a big world to live in!

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