What's wonderful about socialization for dogs is that the word has gotten out there. Decades ago, people weren't as concerned with socializing their dogs as much as they are now. We are bringing companian animals closer and closer to urban and suburban areas, where they're more likely to come across more human stuff like bikes, people in hats, screaming kids and of course, other dogs. So, it's great that people are understanding that their dogs need socialization, but this still leaves some dog owners unsure of what that exactly entails.
The idea behind socializing your dog is exposing them to as much different stuff as you possibly can and doing so in a controlled and positive manner. A puppy living in a house with four other dogs and never getting out to have varied and positive experiences with other dogs is NOT socialized to dogs. A dog that always sees the same visitors come over every day but never gets to meet complete strangers is NOT socialized to people. A dog that is apprehensive of new people needs to start their socialization on a street that doesn't have more than a couple pedestrians rather than in Dupont Circle in downtown D.C.
Let's say you're one of the dog owners that didn't expose your dog to all the things you should have. (Trust me, I know from experience how to do it the wrong way - see the first example above.) That doesn't mean all hope is lost! Dust yourself off, get some treats, and get ready to socialize!
Get out of the house.
Well duh. To take your dog on their walk, you're already doing this! If you alway turn right as soon as you get out the door, go left! Take your dog on a different route. Let them smell a tree they've never smelled before. Keep the sniffing exciting and upbeat and encourage them to explore. Seems simple, but this can go a long way. Carry some treats with you and when your dog encounters something new, give them some treats to show them that their bravery resulted in something positive. Associating new things with food will give them confidence to explore more. If a person on a skateboard rides by, treat your dog for not barking, lunging, or running away.
Understand what your dog is telling you.
If you have a dog that is fearful of certain things, don't push it. If your dog doesn't like other dogs approaching them, then don't allow it. Forcing your dog to interact on a level that they don't feel comfortable is not teaching them to like it, it's teaching them that they need to prevent it because you won't. Understand your dog's body language. Many people already know their dogs very well - they know when they're scared or happy or interested or mischevious. Paying attention to these signs when your dog is encountering something new will help you socialize them.
Dog parks are not an example of good socialization.
Look, let's be honest. We all know the scene at dog parks. There are the dogs that are running around like maniacs because this is their only time for exercise and then there are some dogs tucked off in the corner because they don't want to play. Fights break out, resource guarding is high and there's almost always an owner that isn't paying attention. If you've always had good experiences at a dog park, then consider yourself very, very lucky. Chances are good, however, you've had some bad experiences and this can destroy your chances of having a well-socialized dog. Dog parks are a recipe for disaster. Many dog owners describe to me that when they're at the park, their dog just sits there and doesn't want to play or she spends the whole time trying to avoid the other dogs. This is not uncommon and your dog is trying to tell you, "Get me out of here!" They aren't having fun if they're not out there playing, so free yourself from thinking you have to go to dog parks so that your dog gets to play with other dogs. This can still be accomplished, just in a much more organized manner.
Become a party planner.
Introduce your dog to other dogs that you know to be well-behaved. Be sure to have loose leashes when the dogs approach each other - tight leashes can cause a dog to pull and this is bad doggie body language! Pulling looks like lunging and lunging isn't a good thing to a dog. When the dogs are sniffing, make sure one of the dogs isn't getting more sniffs than the other wants them to. Take a break after they've smelled each other for a few seconds and if they still seem interested in the other dog, then go back to smell for another few seconds. Then take a break and give treats to your dog for a job well done.
Plan to meet new people on walks, have them approach your dog, drop a treat and be on their way. This will teach your dog that strangers drop food, so that must be a good thing!
Train your dog.
Ha ha ha - I think I almost heard the eye rolls. "Well of course I train my dog! What does that have to do with socialization!?" Training your dog helpful behaviors can take you a really long way in your socializing adventures. I teach my dogs to touch my hand with their nose. We practice this like we're going to compete in the hand-touching Olympics. Why? Because when we're out and about and my dogs are getting too much stimulation, I take the pressure off by giving them something to do that they're familiar with. This takes their focus away from any stimulus and puts their focus on me. Here are some ideas of "tricks" that can help you while out with your dog:
"Watch me" - gets your dog to look at you
"touch" - engages your dog to interact with you
The list goes on and on, really. Any trick your dog is really good at can help you while you're out. And when they offer the behavior you ask for, reward them with some really good treats. This teaches them to be comfortable with new experiences. Below is a video of my dog doing "touch" (it was an impromptu video just for this blog - I had to wake Miss Thang from her afternoon nap, so she's a little groggy. lol)
Here's an older video of me running through my dog's repertoire. I do this drill with her throughout the day - she loves it! We use this when we're out because she's really sharp with it. It keeps her mind busy so she doesn't have time to worry about her environment.
If you have any more questions about socializing your dog, contact Kahuna's K9s!