How To Socialize A Dog – A Comprehensive Guide

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Right up there with good nutrition and regular visits to the vet, teaching our dogs proper socialization is one of the most important responsibilities we have as pet parents (and one of the most important aspects of dog care prospective owners need to be aware of). With a little patience and some time, as a dedicated dog owner you can help your fur child become comfortable in just about any situation and improve your quality of life in the process. Read on to find out why socialization is so important, what you can expect if you don’t socialize your dog, and get some tips on how the socialization process works to improve your dog’s quality of life. We think you’ll find it’s a win-win situation all around!

Why should you socialize your dog?

Socialization is the process by which we help our dogs reach their optimal comfort level when they’re out in the world but it’s far from the only benefit.

For starters, socialization will vastly improve your dog’s mental health and make them more secure both outside and at home. Not only that but it will even improve your mental health because you’ll spend more time playing with your dog and less time scolding them. 

Socialization will also discourage bad behavior or frantic behavior in your dog. People often assume that if a dog is behaving poorly it’s a “bad dog,” when in fact, it’s just never been socialized. When you socialize a dog and instill proper canine behavior, you’re helping to minimize their fear about the world and thus, they’re much more likely to behave well. 

By socializing your dog, you’re also making it much easier for them to have both human and doggie friends. Friendship in dogs works much like it does with humans–the better someone’s social skills are, the more likely it is that people will want to be around them. The more comfortable your dog is around other dogs, the more pals they’ll be able to make. 

Keep in mind that even if you, as a dog parent, spend a lot of time with your dog and they behave well around you, they still have to be socialized to be around other people. Socializing them will help curb panic attacks and temper tantrums around groomers, petsitters, or just people on the street, making their everyday life a lot easier. 

Possibly the best benefit to socialization is that It will help establish and/or strengthen the bond between you and your dog! Snuggling on the couch is great but spending happy, positive, focused time working on socialization together is a great way to instill trust in each other and reinforce your connection. 

Common dog behavioral issues resulting from missed socialization

Just as socializing your dog can lead to good behavior, not socializing your dog can trigger a lot of not-so-great or even dangerous behavior in your dog. Here are just a few of the behavior challenges that can develop in dogs who are unsocialized:

Nervousness and fear – If you think about how you feel when put in a situation that’s out of your comfort zone, chances are the words “nervous” and “scared” will probably come up. Dogs feel the same way when put in new situations and that can be a real problem when they need to go to the vet or the groomers. Instilling what’s known as cooperative care behaviors will make these visits much, much easier. 

Hesitation about going out – If a dog fears what’s on the other side of the door, chances are, they’re going to do everything they can to avoid leaving home. From hiding under the bed to sobbing uncontrollably, they’re going to make a major scene every time you try to leave the house. 

Major separation anxiety – As a dog parent, there is no sadder or more upsetting sound on earth than the sound of a dog crying because you just left for work. When you socialize a dog, you’re giving them coping skills they can draw on when they have to be alone for a few hours. 

Depression – Dogs are very much like people in that a lack of social interaction can quickly lead to depression. The more your dog is able to be a good friend to other dogs, the less likely they’ll be depressed. 

Aggressive behavior and reactivity – Although a number of factors can cause it, in many dogs, aggression is really just a response to fear and dogs who aren’t socialized are much more likely to be fearful of the world. A lack of socialization can cause all kinds of aggression, from baring their teeth to actual biting. A dog that shows that kind of aggressive behavior is usually a pretty unhappy dog. 

Over excitement – We all know that dog — the one who comes to the door and practically knocks you down or can’t get their zoomies under control. Although sometimes overexcitement is about too little (or even too much) exercise, a dog’s excitement level can also be an indication that he or she just doesn’t know how to act around people or other dogs. 

Keep in mind that having an unsocialized dog also affects how you have to live your life. If you can’t depend on your dog to behave it’ll be a lot tougher to have friends over or just schedule appointments like the vet or the groomers without a lot of worry. 

When to socialize your puppy

While it may be a challenge to teach an old dog new tricks, socializing your dog, no matter how old, is usually very doable. Even if you’ve missed that crucial puppy period of socialization, you can still socialize your dog. That said, there are some differences between aspects of puppyhood socialization and socializing an adolescent or older dog. Here’s what you need to know:

It’s much better and easier to socialize a puppy than it is to socialize an adolescent or older dog so start early if you can and be aware of the time frame in which puppies socialize. Up until a puppy is about eight weeks of age, he or she is mostly learning to socialize with its littermates but even at three weeks, a puppy can start looking to humans for socialization. Ideally, puppies should be socialized by the time they’re about 12 – 16 weeks old. 

Also, keep in mind that puppies can’t be socialized with other dogs until they’ve been vaccinated so be sure you’re aware of your puppy’s vaccination schedule. Most dogs receive their vaccinations from the age of eight weeks to twelve weeks and shouldn’t be exposed to other dogs until they’ve had all their shots. Keep in mind that the goals of puppy socialization are really just to get your puppy comfortable in the world–not to have them behaving perfectly. 

If you have another dog in the house, you can also use crate training to create a frame for socialization. Just let them sit in their crates and observe your other dog or dogs from a safe distance. Having crates also lets the puppy retreat for a crate break if they start to get overwhelmed by the other dogs or even people in the house. 

Remember, there’s no reason you can’t start the socialization process at home! Keep in mind that anxiety in puppies is often a result of them not being socialized since they’ve had literally no experience with people, let alone a wide variety of them. When you socialize a puppy and offer exposure to the world, you’re introducing them to more sensory experiences–being touched, the ground beneath them, sounds, smells, etc., as opposed to socializing an older dog. If you’re able to do this at home, have them walk on different textures, have them smell all possible smells, and meet as many people as possible. 

You might even want to teach them just a few basic skills (like name recognition) and some basic obedience skills (like “sit” or “stay”) so they feel more secure going into the process. If you’re not sure how to do this, an AKC-approved trainer can always help!

Since so much is new to puppies, it might also be a good idea to use a checklist for puppies when you socialize them! It will also make the process easier for you!

What about older dogs? 

As a dog owner, it’s important to be aware that adult dogs or older dogs may have a more difficult time with socialization because they may be unlearning behavior from unsuccessful forays into socialization experiences  (or even dealing with trauma). They may have missed the crucial socialization period when they were a puppy. Poor adult behavior can also be the result of not just an unsuccessful socialization experience but a downright bad socialization experience. For that reason, dogs that have been left with a bad socialization legacy may need even more patience when learning remedial socialization. 

Since an older dog will already be familiar with most textures and even smells, it’s important to get them around people and sounds so they become comfortable. Below are some great tips for making that happen!

Tips for helping an unsocialized dog

One of the great things about socialization is that as your dog’s person, it’s something you and your dog can do together–and you don’t need to be a professional dog trainer to conduct a socialization session (although you certainly can always enlist the services of a professional trainer). Here are a few basic steps for socializing your dog: 

  1. Remember that patience is key–for both of you! The period of socialization is different for every dog and you may need to give it a little time before you see perfectly correct behavior. (And cut yourself some slack–you’re not a professional trainer!) Just take baby steps in your socialization sessions and with continued practice, you’ll start to see a big improvement in your dog’s social skills.
  1. On a similar note, start small and slowly in a controlled environment. Try socializing your dog with the dog across the hall or a family member’s dog before you bring them to a dog park, doggie day care, or around big crowds of people so they don’t get discouraged, scared, or experience anxiety. Also, make sure you’re instilling socialization in small time increments (like an hour at a time as opposed to whole days of socialization) so you don’t wear them out. You can always increase their challenge level as your progress!
  1. Walking, exercise, and even play is key in socializing your dog! Not only will taking your dogs on frequent walks allow your dog to release a little energy, it exposes them to an environment with lots of cars, people, other dogs, and all the other stimuli to which you’re trying to get them to acclimate. 

Play not only teaches them how to get along with other dogs, it teaches them how to recognize and adhere to boundaries with both dogs and humans. Even a little fun game of gentle roughhousing with you or another person they trust is a great way for dogs to learn when they’ve gone too far. 

  1. Introduce and have them spend time around other dogs of various breeds and ages. The more time your dog spends around other dogs, the less likely it is that they’ll be intimidated by or aggressive with unfamiliar dogs. When you first start, it’s probably a good idea to do it with a dog that’s around the same size, if not smaller than your dog so as not to intimidate your dog. Then, little by little, bring them around dogs of larger breeds and sizes. 

It’s also a good idea to provide exposure to puppies in particular so they’ll know how to behave around them (just make sure you’re doing it in an appropriate environment for puppies–a big dog park or daycare is not the place just yet. Try to find a nice, calm environment like someone’s home.)

While you’re at it, try to set up some time where they can interact with other kinds of animals like cats. You never know when you’ll need to ask a cat-loving friend to dog sit. When that happens, they’ll be totally fine. 

  1. Expose them to a variety of people of different ages, sexes, etc. with close-up interactions. One great way to do that is to carry around some treats to give to unfamiliar people and even children when they meet your dog (modifying a dog’s behavior with treats and food is probably one of the faster ways to get them to behave!). It not only makes people more likely to interact with your pup, it acts as a reward and encourages positive feelings towards people. 

When you do this, feel free to tell people your dog comes in contact with that the dog is just learning and ask them to be mindful of that (i.e. make sure they don’t start playing with the dog in a rough way, tease them, or even pet them too vigorously). 

If you have friends with children, try to arrange a few playdates so they can have some one-on-one interaction! You want to expose them to as many different kinds of people as possible. 

  1. Expose them to different environments. The more you bring your dog to different environments the more likely they are to feel safe anywhere. A few different dog park rentals would be a great way to do this as it will get them used to different smells, noises, textures and other stimuli. This kind of controlled practice is also a great way for a dog who’s especially sensitive to triggers like other dogs or certain noises to learn how to socialize on their own terms, away from the pressure of a dog park or day care. 
  1. Slowly acquaint them with unfamiliar noises and other stimuli. From car horns to the sound of an ambulance, the world can seem like a very loud and noisy place to your dog. (As most dog parents know, anxiety during fireworks in particular is very common among both puppies and older dogs!) Get them used to those sounds and they’ll be less likely to panic when they hear them. You can even start off playing soft noises on your computer or phone and then gradually raise the intensity level. 
  1. Have a dog sitter or trainer watch them occasionally. It’s great to have your dog meet people in the wild, but it’s also a good idea to have a sitter or trainer look after them every now and then. Using this kind of positive interaction allows them to learn not to be afraid of someone other than their parent taking care of them. Once they’re comfortable with this, you can try out a day of doggie daycare, have them board with people for a day or two, or book a private session with a trainer.
  2. Approach them when they’re at their food bowl – It may seem odd to approach a dog when they’re at their food bowl but it’s a good way to teach them that no one is after their food. This doesn’t just go for food bowls but other feeding tools like bowls that hide their food in order to slow down their eating. In the future, if other dogs try to approach their food bowl or other eating device, they’ll be less likely to exhibit food aggression.
  3. Reward them when they do something right. Like humans, dogs lap up praise so have some food rewards on hand as well as a positive tone of voice when they do something right or exhibit calm behavior. If you do, they’ll be much more likely to repeat the behavior in the future. Remember you can use food in training, too, by offering treats when they’ve done something well or even just reward their behavior with petting!
  1. Be consistent and positive! It’s hard to learn from an inconsistent, negative teacher. The more you stay the course, exude a confident energy and make socialization a positive experience with only positive interactions, the faster they’ll learn. Also, make sure to use a calm-assertive energy so your fur child knows that you’re empathetic, but in control. The idea is to create positive feelings towards people, not instill fear. 
  1. Keep an eye on body language. If your dog is showing on-going signs of aggressive canine behavior or even fear like snarling, showing their teeth, or exhibiting stiff body posture, contact a certified trainer, especially if the intensity level of this behavior seems to increase. You don’t want to cause more harm by stressing the dog out or cause further anxiety.
  2. Manage your own expectations. Not every dog will get to the point where they’ll be a shining example of the epitome of socialization or a social butterfly, but if your dogs are happier and calmer after socialization and leading more enriched lives, you’ve done your job. Happy lives and proper behavior–not perfect dogs–is what you should aim for.
  3. Keep it up! Socializing your dog isn’t a “one and done” process and you may need to provide some remedial socialization every now and then with a few extra “good boys” or rewarding their behavior with treats. For example, if your dog is a country dog and you’re taking a visit to a city, it’s a good idea to get them around sounds associated with urban life. And remember, as we said, if your dog doesn’t seem to be improving within a certain time frame, there’s no shame in using the services of an AKC-approved dog trainer. It’s a great idea to book an evaluation session with one who can assess your dog’s current skill level and then work with them in a private session until your dog is ready for exposure to new people and dogs. 

As you can see, socializing your dog will result in a much happier, mentally healthy dog with a much calmer disposition. It’s a surefire way to allow them (and you) to live their fullest life!

Trainer that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Rayanne Spence CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT
Professional Dog Trainer – Animal Medical Center of Hattiesburg

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