Many dogs lack basic social skills because they are seldom exposed to strange people or animals. Dogs who are raised without ever leaving their own home or yard may be shy or fearful of new situations that have unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds. For such dogs, any change in their environment can be stressful and they will have a hard time adjusting to a new environment. Shy or fearful dogs who end up in animal shelters may be considered antisocial and unfit for placement in a new home.
When you bring a new puppy home, it is a good idea to begin his socialization early. Get him used to being handled and take him places with you so he gets used to unfamiliar places, people, and pets. Give him proper obedience training so he will be well-behaved in public places and other homes.
Before beginning to teach social skills to an older dog, give him basic obedience training if you haven’t already. Teach him to walk on a leash, and “sit-stay” and “come” commands. If you expose him to new situations while he is still learning basic obedience, he will be even more stressed, and you must have some control over him for his own safety and the safety of strangers he may be exposed to. A fearful or timid dog may try to bite or could bolt into traffic.
The first step is to walk your dog regularly, varying the route you take. He may be familiar and comfortable with the sights, sounds, and smells in your own neighborhood if he is walked regularly, so take him on different routes each day to expose him to new experiences. Walk him past the park, where noisy children are playing, walk him along the edge of busy roads to become used to the sound of traffic (keeping a tight hold on the leash so he does not become startled and run into the road!), walk him past people in wheelchairs or using walkers, walk him past people of different ethnicity, let him get used seeing humans of all shapes and sizes! If your dog is not used to children, try to discourage kids from running toward your dog to pet him. Don’t allow unfamiliar people to approach your dog; let the dog initiate contact. A poorly socialized dog may not like being handled; play with him daily, handling different parts of his body, so he will not be fearful of being touched by strangers.
Dogs are often startled by unfamiliar apparel such as heavy winter coats, hats, sunglasses, big boots, motorcycle helmets, masks, or uniforms, even if donned by their owners! At home, get your dog used to seeing different types of apparel by wearing them while playing with or taking care of your dog.
Make arrangements for your dog to meet other animals. If you have a friend who has a dog you know to be friendly and non-aggressive, introduce them to each other in a neutral location (not at either home) so the territorial instinct doesn’t take over. Let them sniff each other and get to know one another in their own time; don’t force them to play. Dogs who want to play will often “bow,” placing their fore legs on the ground. A little snarling or barking may ensue, which is normal, but watch for signs of aggression such as bared teeth or fur standing up at the back of their neck, and stay close by to separate them if necessary. You may want to keep the leads attached to their collars until they appear to become friendly. Obedience classes will also allow your dog to meet strange dogs and people in a controlled setting. Avoid taking him to a dog play park until he is comfortable with other dogs.
Once your dog has developed some self-confidence, introduce him to different experiences such as riding in elevators and cars, automatic doors in stores, playing in the park, grooming salons, and visiting other people’s homes. Don’t try to get him to do too much, too soon! When he behaves fearfully in a new situation, resist trying to soothe him by petting him, picking him up, or speaking soothingly to him. Pet owners can unintentionally reinforce a dog’s timid behavior this way by offering reassurance. If he tries to hide, don’t encourage him to come out, he will misinterpret this as praise. He may become defensive when approached, snarling and snapping. Reprimand his poor behavior immediately. Ignore his timid behavior, and praise him when he behaves with confidence.
A well-socialized dog will be a happy dog, and truly a member of the family, a joy to take on vacations and outings!
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