The Water Bowl
Breed & Health Resources

How to Socialize a Dog

By Lea Maxwell

two spaniels meeting on leash

There are many types of dog socialization, including with people, children, fellow dogs, or other animals. Whether it’s because of lack of exposure during formative puppy weeks, or a negative experience in their past, you’ll be surprised how much a dog is willing to learn to become more social if given the proper support. Socialization comes easiest for puppies, but adult dogs can always benefit from working on their social skills. Here are a few tips for you to help set your dog up for success.

Adult Dog Socialization with Humans

Helping your adult dog become socialized with people is not only doable, it’s very rewarding in the long run. Our dog had been a stray until he was about six months old before we adopted him, so he missed the optimal puppy socialization window. He was so afraid that I couldn’t take his picture because the sight of a cell phone would send him running. But with time and gentle exposure, he’s become a rock star and role model for how a dog should interact with new people.

Let Your Dog Set The Pace

Don’t drag or force your dog to interact with someone or something that makes them uncomfortable. Whey they show interest in something, let them. But if their body language expresses discomfort, be sure to listen.

I socialized my dog at my pet-friendly office, and he hid under my desk for hours for the first few months. We started at home with confidence boosting activities first, and then with patient, dog-friendly people around us. He wasn’t ready to meet every coworker right away, but with every positive experience he had, his confidence and socialization increased.

Opportunities for Dog Socialization

Take every opportunity you can to have positive social interactions when you have your dog with you so they can learn that different people, places, and things aren’t so scary.

  • Small, quiet parks or trails
  • Go for walks in new places
  • Let them meet the person at the drive-through
  • Bring a dog-loving friend along on your evening walk
  • Set up meetings in controlled situations

Always Keep Treats on Hand

Figure out what your dog’s must-have treat or reward is and make sure they get it from every new person they meet. My dog will do anything for cheese, including making friends with the UPS man.

How to Socialize a Senior Dog

Socializing an older dog can be done but progress is slower, so expecting a miracle turn-around is unrealistic. A dog without positive socialization experiences with people or animals may struggle to overcome years of poor socialization. For their safety and wellbeing, figure out a comfortable situation where less is expected of your senior dog. By keeping your older dog’s environment small with exposure to just a few people or necessary animals, you reduce the stress that these new experiences bring. 

Follow the steps for how to socialize an adult dog, but take it even slower since senior dogs are more likely to become fatigued and overstimulated. Show them that they have safety from the overwhelming situation if they’re feeling stressed. No matter how your dog responds, stay calm, relaxed, and don’t feed into their fears.

How to Socialize Your Dog with Other Dogs

Just like not all people get along, not all dogs do either. Some dogs barely tolerate other dogs, or maybe don’t tolerate them at all. If your dog is not socialized with other dogs, don’t expect them to have good manners when a rude dog shows up – and that’s okay. Your dog doesn’t need to love every dog they meet, they just need to be socialized enough to be reasonable and safe around other dogs.

Determine what sort of dog your pup enjoys spending time with. For example, my dog doesn’t hang well with dogs his size, but he loves spending time with smaller breeds. Gender, species, and personality types can all make or break a dog’s ability to play nicely.

Talk to a trainer or dog savvy friend to set up a playdate in a controlled way. Introducing dogs safely for short, meetups can allow them to become more social. Keep it small to start, like a visit in the yard or on a walk instead of letting your dog go at a busy dog park.

How to Socialize an Aggressive Dog

Most dogs aren’t actually aggressive, rather, they show aggression when exposed to certain triggers. Some dogs have unhealthy prey drive, while others have food aggression. Some behaviors are commonly associated with certain breeds, and it can be harder to unlearn if it’s what the dog was bred for. However, that doesn’t mean anti-social or aggressive behavior should be tolerated.

Once you’ve identified the trigger for your dog’s aggression, your job is to keep everyone around them safe when your dog is exposed to these triggers. For example, a dog that snaps at anything that moves towards their bone should only be given bones in their crate or in a room by themselves.

Once you know that your dog can’t harm anyone else, ensure you can provide sufficient exercise and mental enrichment by making accommodations for their time outside, like by exercising during less popular times of day to limit exposure to possible animal or human triggers. Go for regular walks or play games of fetch in a safe space to take the edge off of whatever is setting them off.

Dogs with aggressive behaviors should never be punished – that only increases their fear and negative association with their trigger. Instead, consult a positive reinforcement trainer to discuss your dog’s socialization needs. They’ll help you set realistic goals for your dog. While your aggressive dog may never live peacefully with another dog, you can make it a realistic goal that your dog can see another dog through the fence and not go bananas.

While working on reducing your dog’s reaction to their triggers, you should also focus on their basic obedience. Not only will regular commands come in handy in case of a situation, but the increased confidence your dog will gain will help reduce their anxiety and the fearfulness that leads to the aggression.

When working on your dog’s socialization, let them set the pace. Make it a positive, calm, rewarding experience so both you and your dog will be much happier in the long run.

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