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Dog Tip: Socializing Adult Dogs and the Importance of Maintaining Socialization

By Robin Tierney

NOTE: The content on this website cannot be used in connection with any profit-seeking activity due to agreements with the writers, editors and sources contributing to the content. These articles may NOT be reproduced in any form without author permission. To contact the author, email Robin at Tierneydog@yahoo.com.

* Introduction
* Article: Socialization: It Isn't Just for Puppies by Daniel Estep, Ph.D. and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D.
* Article: Dog-Friendly Dog Training - Socialization Techniques by Andrea Arden
* More information about socializing puppies and dogs of all ages

In a perfect world, we could protect our dogs from negative, anxious and frightening situations. In the real world, we must help our dogs learn how to cope and respond, in a healthy and acceptable manner, to the spectrum of people, animals, places and things they might encounter along the road of life.

By exposing our dogs to different kinds of people, animals and environments, which involves everything from dog obedience classes to vet visits to walks to the park, we can help them develop confidence and ease. This goes a long way in helping them become resilient in the face of unsettling situations.

So often, the way a dog responds to environmental stimuli is a product of owner training and management, or lack thereof. No matter when you adopt your dog, you can apply canine socialization principles to help him or her be a more stable, happy, trustworthy companion.

Socialization does not end at puppyhood. While the foundation for good behavior is laid during the first few months, good owners encourage and reinforce social skills and responsiveness to commands throughout the dog's life.

Socialization: It Isn't Just for Puppies
by Daniel Estep, Ph.D. and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D.

If you are a dog owner, you are probably aware of the importance of socializing your puppy. Dogs have a sensitive period for socialization between the ages of 3 and 12 weeks. This means that pleasant exposures to people, other dogs and other animals during this time will have long-lasting influences on the sociability of your dog. Well socialized dogs tend to be friendlier and less fearful of the kinds of individuals they were socialized to.

Veterinarians, dog trainers and other dog professionals urge new puppy owners to take their dogs to puppy classes and to provide other socializing experiences. Although this is excellent advice, a puppy class by 4 months of age or a basic training class at 6 months shouldn't be the end of a dog's social training.

Don't underestimate how important it is to continue to socialize your dog well into adulthood. We've seen quite a few dogs that seem to have been well socialized early in life, were friendly and accepting of people and other dogs and then began to react with threats or aggression during social encounters. These dogs had no traumatic or frightening experiences but became fearful and/or aggressive later, usually beginning around 8 months to 2 years of age.

For example, Wendy recently called us about a problem developing with her St. Bernard, Eddie. Wendy took Eddie to puppy class and made sure he had frequent contact with other people and dogs during puppyhood and later. He always seemed to like people and was very friendly.

Soon after Eddie turned a year and a half old, Wendy and her husband moved from the city to the country, and Eddie saw very few people or animals in his new home. Now Eddie is almost two and he has been growling and lunging at people who come to the house or he sees from the car. This is new behavior for the previously friendly Eddie.

What's going on here? We can't know for sure why Eddie has become more aggressive, but we see quite a few dogs whose behavior changes after a change in the frequency of their social contacts. After the family's move, Eddie had almost no experiences with unfamiliar people. It is possible that this lack of continued social experience has contributed to Eddie's aggressiveness.

Another recent case involved a very friendly 3 year old mixed breed dog whose behavior gradually changed after the birth of two children and a move to a new home. Lucky received fewer and fewer walks as mom and dad became more involved in child rearing. She spent more time watching and barking at people and dogs who would frequently appear in an open space right across the street from her new home.

In her book "The Other End of the Leash", applied animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell talks about "juvenile-onset shyness", a period in adolescence when dogs become more cautious and perhaps aggressive towards people and animals who are unfamiliar to them. If this aggression is due to a lack of experiences in adolescence or early adulthood, one way to prevent it would be to continue socialization well into adulthood.

These activities might include taking your dog out frequently to meet other people. Regular play dates with other dogs and/or trips to the park can help continue socialization. Dogs also need to meet and have pleasant experiences with people who come to the home. In Lucky's case, one technique we recommended was to have every visitor toss treats on the floor for her immediately upon entering.

So remember, that your work isn't done once you've done all the right socialization activities during puppy hood. Dogs need continued socialization throughout their lives.

To learn more about your dog's behavior and how to have a behaviorally healthy dog, take Drs. Hetts and Estep's Just Behave telecourse. Contact them via www.AnimalBehaviorAssociates.com or 303-932-9095 (Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Co.).

Reprinted with permission by Daniel Estep, Ph.D. and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. Copyright Animal Behavior Associates/ABA, Inc.

Dog-Friendly Dog Training - Socialization Techniques
by Andrea Arden
Author, Dog-Friendly Dog Training and Train Your Dog the Lazy Way
Named "Top Dog Trainer in New York" by New York Magazine

Adult Dog Socialization

If you're bringing a new adult dog into your home, your major concern is to check out how well socialized the dog is and to strengthen any weak spots. For example, if you find that this dog is a bit uncomfortable with men in hats, then you must make a concerted effort to help your new dog to learn to love men wearing hats.

Invite over one or two friends at a time to meet your new dog. Ask them to bring hats, but not wear them. Have your dog on a leash and have everyone take a seat. Have one friend (without his hat on) hand-feed the dog his dinner. When your dog is comfortable, have your friend show the hat and feed the dog. Then ask him to casually put on the hat and feed the dog.

Make an effort to invite over as many as possible of your male friends, one or two at a time, to follow this procedure. Pretty soon your dog will be searching out men wearing hats because he has learned they are a pretty generous bunch.

Maintaining Socialization

Socialization is ongoing for the rest of your dog's life. Your dog may have gone to a puppy class (yippee!), and a lucky dog is walked to the park each day. But, while this dog has met a number of people and a number of dogs, it is also likely that he will meet those same familiar faces each and every day. To keep your dog socialized, he must continue to meet new dogs and new people. The two best ways to do this are walking a different route each day and having parties in your home. Problems Caused by Failure to Socialize

Socializing your dog is so easy and so much fun that a lot of people fail to take it seriously. However, without adequate socialization, your dog may become fearful and is likely to develop two of the most serious and hard-to-resolve problems, biting and fighting.

Fear or Aggression with People

Reward-based techniques are the method of choice when dealing with fearful or aggressive dogs. If you have a dog who's a little afraid of or doesn't like people, you need to find a way to get the message to the dog, "Hey buddy, I like you. If you just come close, I'll give you a bit of kibble."

Obviously, using the food as a lure is an effective way to communicate when the dog is afraid of your voice or physical contact (in which case you cannot praise or pat). But it is easy to toss a piece of kibble to the ground. Eventually the dog will come closer, lured by the kibble first on the ground and then in your hand.

Try the following technique: Sit in an armchair and scatter food around you (or your friend). Your dog can approach and retreat as he likes. As he comes closer, he gets the food and as he runs off he gets nothing. Once he is more interested in the lure, you can now take the food and talk to the dog in the language that he has learned: come here, sit, and down. This in itself is like a behavioral pacifier and will accelerate the bonding process.

If you think your dog is fearful, stressed or worried, for dog's sake please work on this problem. It's no fun being anxious. If you think your dog has any kind of aggression problem, seek help immediately from a professional trainer. For referrals, call 1-800-PET-DOGS.

Canine Squabbles

If your dog is unfriendly with lots of other dogs, it means he is not adequately socialized to dogs. (But don't expect your dog to be best friends with every dog; after all, we aren't with every person!)

A well-socialized dog may still chase, hump and argue. However, socialization ensures your dog has the requisite social savvy to enjoyably and confidently interact with unfamiliar dogs that he may meet and to resolve arguments with other dogs without doing damage. It is easiest to socialize your dog when he is young, but it is never too late to make him more dog friendly.

Don't Make Matters Worse

Dog to dog aggression is most often inadvertently trained in by owners. When an owner sees another dog and tightens the leash, the owner's tension is often relayed to their dog. The dog growls, the owner tightens the leash more and maybe yells at the dog. Over time, the dog becomes conditioned to get tense, as he makes the association between other dogs approaching and his owner's anxiety. So now the dog wants the other dog to stay away, and one of the ways he tries to accomplish this is by growling and barking.

Furthermore, if your dog is uncomfortable with another dog, tightening the leash excludes flight from his possible options and leaves him with fight as the major option. Tightening the leash also distorts your dog's body language and all but forces him to lean forward on his front feet - a posture that the other dog may perceive as somewhat threatening.

Obviously, keep your dog on leash for safety, but you've got to learn to control your dog without tightening the leash. By keeping the leash lose and acting calm, you may convince your dog to do the same! Think about using a head halter - this is one time when it could be very handy.

Don't punish your dog for barking or growling at other dogs. The punishment may teach your dog "I don't like being around other dogs because I am punished whenever they show up, so I'll bark to keep them away."

Instead, try to focus on making your dog enjoy the presence of other dogs by associating them with things he likes. For dog-to-dog aggression, the method of choice is reward training, and the best feedback is kibble and praise. Start by hand-feeding your dog and getting him fixated on an object (like a Kong toy or white sterilized bone). This way, you can expose him to one dog (or person) at a time, at a safe distance and give him something to do, such as chewing a toy or eating his kibble. It will give him something to focus on and associate the presence of dogs with things he likes.

The technique here is to go outside and sit on a park bench. Whenever you see another dog, you say, "Oh, look, here comes a cookie dog." And as soon as your dog sees the other dog, you give him a treat. Even if your dog is tense and growling and one might say that you are rewarding the dog for growling and acting badly around other dogs, things will improve quickly. The dog cannot help but make the positive association between the approaching dog and the cookie, and soon he will look forward to other dogs approaching.

Any time your dog acts appropriately when a dog approaches, offer a reward. Be sure you give your dog enough space from the other dog to feel safe and comfortable. And watch for early signs of discomfort, such as yawning, and excessive panting or activity. You don't want to push your dog too far too fast.

A variation of this would be to get very happy whenever another dog passes by. Your dog cannot fail to make the association between the appearance of another dog and your positive change of mood. This is important because it is the owner's (negative) change in mood that has caused most of the problem. if the dogs were left to their own devices, they would probably resolve the problem amicably.

Copyright 1999 by Andrea Arden
From her book Dog-Friendly Dog Training (Howell Publishing)
Presented here with author's permission for nonprofit purposes only

More information about socializing puppies and dogs of all ages



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Last Updated: April 23, 2018 (LET) PawSupport