Socializing Your New Dog To Prevent Behavior Problems

Many new dog owners spend a good bit of time, money and effort to train their dog how to behave in the house as well as around other people and animals. These same owners are then shocked when their pup lashes out at another person or animal. The owners assume the training has failed when, in reality, the problem is the dog has not been properly socialized.
 
Why Socialization?
 
How do we, as humans, grow to understand our environment as children? Our parents expose us to situations and we learn from them. After all, it was author Terry Pratchett who wrote:
 
"The willful innocence of man. It is the seat and soul of that force which, down the millennia, had caused mankind to stick its fingers in the electric light socket of the Universe and play with the switch to see what happened - and then be very surprised when it did.”
 
The same is true for dogs. They cannot be protected. This is true whether you have a clumsy Great Dane puppy or a tiny Cockapoo pup. They must be allowed to get out and experience new things so they can learn how to react to certain situations. Biting a Rottweiler on its hind leg? Not such a good idea. Lick the hand of a small child – good times. 
 
Socialization is not training a dog with commands. It is the process of exposing your dog to the world around it in a controlled manner. This allows your pup to learn what type of behavior is appropriate conduct in certain situations and what is not. This keeps your dog from fearing the world around them. When a dog is fearful, it becomes very tense and often will lash out to protect itself from a perceived threat, regardless of whether that threat is legitimate or not. 
 
The American Vet Medical Association has put together an excellent video on the topic of socialization:
 


 
My Dog Will Grow Out Of It
 
In most cases, dogs do not grow out of their poor behavioral traits. If a dog is terrified of meeting new kids, it will growl and snap at them as a puppy and continue to do so as adult. The fear remains throughout their life and so will their behavior. Do not rely on the "maturing process" to handle behavioral issues with your dog. Be proactive with socialization and you can usually solve the problem fairly quickly. 
 
But My Dog is Small
 
Another area of confusion when it comes to socialization is the size of the dog. Owners of small breeds often seem to believe socialization is not necessary because their dogs are small and couldn't hurt a fly. 
 
In truth, dogs under 25 pounds account for the largest number of reported bite incidents. The biggest culprit? The Dachsund. Not only is biting another person unacceptable, but it can result in your being sued or even criminally prosecuted.
 
This can be such a problem that trainers even have a name for it - "small dog syndrome." Small dog syndrome is a serious behavioral problem because a small dog not only can lash out in fear of other animals or people, but these dogs tend to be a bit more hyper to start with given the higher energy levels typically seen in small dogs. Socialization is the best way to deal with small dog syndrome so learn the lesson:
 
Every dog needs socialization regardless of their size.
 
Getting Started
 
When does socialization begin? The good news is your new dog has already undergone a bit of it. The pup learned to deal with other puppies while in the litter and should be used to being touched by humans as the breeder will have picked up the fur ball on multiple occasions to check it for health issues. Still, this is a very minor amount of socialization, so you need to take the baton and run with it. 
 
If your pup is 8 weeks old or older, you can start socializing it. Some people will suggest pups as young as 3 weeks old can learn socialization as well, but we've found they really don't seem to retain the lessons. You can start before the 8 week period if you wish, but prepare to be a bit frustrated.
 
The first step is to expose your puppy to others in your household. To do this, first make sure your kids are not excessively hyper. Imagine an animal five times your size giving off a massive energy signal when reaching for you. How would you feel? That's what a puppy can experience with hyper kids. 
 
Gather the family around the puppy, sit on the floor and just let the puppy roam around each of you. Do not coddle the dog. The puppy must learn to be independent when experiencing new things and this is the first lesson. As the pup roams around, it will start to become comfortable not only with the family members and room, but the act of exploring. 
 
Once the puppy is comfortable with everyone in the house, it is time to start taking it with you outside. Many "gurus" will suggest now is the time to teach it to walk on a leash. We disagree. Now is the time to introduce the dog to the world without leashing it. To do this, sit in your backyard and let the pup roam. Don't play with the dog. Just let it stroll around the yard sniffing like mad and marking the area with its scent. Let him or her become the master of their domain so being outside is something they are comfortable with instead of a stressful situation. 
 
Pets You Already Have
 
If you already have another pet in your home, you need to be very careful when introducing your new dog to the location. Remember, your current pets were in the home first and are used to things working a certain way. Introducing a new dog, particularly a puppy, into the home constitutes a major change so work to socialize all the animals together at the same time to minimize problems.
 
Cats
 
If you have a cat, it is important to sit down and introduce the dog carefully. The pup is going to be naturally curious about the cat. Sit down with the cat in their carrier on one side of you. Hold the dog on your other side by the collar. Allow the dog to sniff the cat through the carrier. The cat will be wary, but know it is safe behind the carrier wall. 
 
After a few moments, your dog's curiosity will be satiated. Put the pup back to your side and get the cat out of the carrier. Now slowly ease the dog towards the cat so they can smell each other. The dog may strain against you. This is normal. Let it happen, but don't let the dog get to close to the cat at first. Just slowly move the pup closer. Eventually, the dog's curiosity will be overcome and the cat will not longer be considered something new and unique. This should minimize problems between the two. 
 
All and all, you do not need to worry excessively about socializing your dog with a cat. The cat will often take care of the issue itself. A few swats on the nose will teach the pup what is allowed and what is not when it comes to interacting!
 
Older dogs
 
Older dogs are usually not that excited about new puppies being introduced to the home. The puppies have boundless energy and it is not uncommon for a fed up adult dog to nip at the puppy to establish a boundary with the new dog. You definitely want to introduce the dogs to each other under controlled circumstances, but they will eventually just have to work it out between themselves. 
 
In the following video, you can see an adult dog and puppy socializing. At first glance, it may look like the adult dog is a bit aggressive, but watch closely. The big dog never bites the puppy. It just pushes and nuzzles it a bit while standing in the dominant position. 
 
The puppy, in turn, learns to be comfortable with the older dog acting as the dominant one of the pair. This is something you, as the dog owner, could never establish and something the puppy needs to learn since most of its early life interactions with other dogs will be with bigger, older pups. 
 


 
Other Dogs
 
Interacting with other dogs outside of the household is a critical part of socialization for your dog. Consider the following:
 
  • There are over 83 million dogs in the United States, and
  • 47 percent of homes have a dog.
[Humane Society -  2013–2014 APPA National Pet Owners Survey Compilation
 
This figures suggest there are plenty of other dogs in your area, so socializing your pup on the art of meeting other dogs is critial. Fortunately, all you have to do is go for a walk or visit the local dog park. If you have a young puppy, it should handle the process itself as it bumps into other dogs and learns the art of derriere sniffing. With an adult dog, you need to stand next to them and keep them on a short leash when meeting new pups. Be confident. Your confidence should act as a comforting anchor for your pup. Once they've met a few dogs, let them play with those pups. This will reinforce the idea that meeting new dogs is a positive, fun event and not something to be feared. 
 
Your Attitude
 
When socializing a dog, it is important to consider your own attitude. If you are fearful of a situation, such as meeting larger dogs, your puppy will sense the fear and also be afraid. Avoid this problem by being positive, friendly and confident. If a situation causes you concern, skip it or have someone else in the family introduce the dog to it. 
 
Socialization – Puppy vs. Adult Dog
 
Socialization is best done with a new puppy. They have plenty of energy and a high curiosity level – the perfect mix for socialization. The best period to train a puppy is from the age of 8 to 16 weeks. After this, the pup begins to act more as an adult in all areas. 
 
Adult dogs are a bit trickier to socialize. The problem, of course, is the dog is already set in their ways. Many dog trainers will suggest teaching the adult dog to not be afraid through socialization is impossible. They are wrong. You can do it, but it definitely takes time and patience.
 
A classic example is a dog named Maggie one of our employees adopted. The dog was four years old and a lab mutt. It was also terrified of…well, everything. When the dog was first introduced to its new home, it made a beeline for the gap between the back of the couch and the wall it was positioned against. Not a pretty scene. 
 
To say it took Maggie a long time to get comfortable with new situations is a minor understatement, but it did happen. Within a month, she would come up to her new owner when her name was called. Within three months, she would sleep in the same room as him. Within six months, she was socialized enough to actually wag her tail with excitement when meeting new dogs instead of tucking it between her legs and whimpering. 
 
And new people? She's still working on that one, but is getting better.
 
We are not suggesting you should not adopt an adult dog. They actually make great pets because they tend to be past the "puppy power!" days and are calmer. Just understand an adult dog needing socialization is a pup that will also require patient support on your part. 
 
Closing Thoughts
 
Don't view socialization as a task or burden. It is an important step for the mental growth of any dog.  Whether young or old, all dogs benefit from socialization. It gives them the ability to interact with their environment happily instead of in fear. 
 
Socialize your dog!

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