Canine Social Health
Something many people don’t realize is that the largest percentage of dog bite occurrences are due to the dog being fearful and unsure, not because they are aggressive or protective. Fearful biting is one example of poor social health of a dog; shy, fearful, disobedient or ill-mannered dogs are also examples of poor socialization in a dog.
The term “socialization” is a common term in the dog world, but many don’t really understand what it means, and how critical it is to a dog leading a happy life with you. Socialization is probably the most important “lesson” a human can “teach” their canine.
Teaching a dog not to be reactive to things she will encounter in everyday life by desensitizing her to these things. Socialization is not just bringing your dog to a dog park or doggie day care every once in a while, it’s more about being prepared to take on all of life’s experiences as they come and be part of society.
Desensitizing or the positive exposure, in small increments, to many situations, environments, and common things: other dogs, strange noises, cars, bicycles, new people, paws being touched, ears cleaned, nails trimmed. All exposure needs to be done at the dog’s pace, do not overwhelm the dog, making sure that the experience is enjoyable not fearful. A good sign that the puppy/dog is comfortable in a certain situation is that they will take treats, and are relaxed and happy.
Socialization = Desensitizing = Positive Exposure to Many Situations
An owner must never force their puppy/dog into what they think is “a socialization” exercise if the dog is uncomfortable performing this exercise. Look for: cringing, shaking, freezing up, trying to hide or run away. If any of these signs are observed, make it easier on the dog – add distance to the situation, remove the dog from the situation and pick a new exercise, always keep it fun and upbeat.
Periods of Life
There are several “periods” (7) of a dog’s life, from new-home arrival to end of life, but the ideal time to socialize a dog is before she is 4 to 5-months old. Socialization is still possible later in life, but it will occur at a slower rate, and more care may need to be taken with the process. A particular behavior, shyness or fearfulness for example, in an older dog is more ingrained and will probably take a little more time to overcome, but it can be done with care and patience (baby steps). Canine socialization is a continuum, just as it is with humans, and can always be worked on.
Shy or Fearful Dogs
Many want to believe that if a dog doesn’t enjoy human touch, tries to hide from a male with a baseball cap on, then he must have experienced abuse in his past from a male that wore a baseball cap all the time. Maybe this is the case, but the most frequent reason for this behavior is lack of proper socialization, especially from birth to 4 to 5-months. Possibly, the dog came from a puppy mill and had never seen a man with a baseball cap! The first 4 to 5-months of life are extremely important in the development of a dog’s temperament.
If you find yourself in a situation where the dog is nervous or fearful, do not soothe her, but simply remove yourselves from the situation and get the dog’s attention on something else, like a treat or her favorite toy. If you’re ready to try again, do it starting from a distance and in smaller steps, possibly playing a game with her favorite toy on the edge of her comfort level, and have plenty of treats on hand. If meeting new people is a fearful situation for your dog, try to meet 5 new people a day – at a park, on a bike trail, in your neighborhood. Sometimes you may be able to slip a treat to the new person and they can treat the dog.
We all want to promote healthy socialization throughout a dog’s life. Leaving the comforts of home allows a dog to see new things, smell new scents, and meaningful interactions with their owners, other people and dogs. Dogs are never too old to train and the mental stimulation of training cannot be overstated! By making sure a dog gets proper mental stimulation each and every day, you will greatly decrease any chance of deteriorating social health. A great way to do this is to have fun with your dog and teach her a new trick. However simple the trick training might be, it provides mental stimulation for the dog, builds a bond with you and your dog, maybe trick training will give you the opportunity to laugh and entertain others, and tricks can be used to distract a reactive dog from something that scares her.
Chris Guest, ABCDT, CTDI