My dog Ace is a laid-back, well-socialized guy. I didn’t train him to be this way. It’s just how he is. I took him many places after I adopted him, but he was already a year old by then.
Because Ace was born on a farm and then lived in a small farming town for a year, he must’ve been around plenty of animals, noises and different people. Genetics are also a factor, of course. (2018 update: Ace has passed away.)
Regardless, he’s not fazed by anything, which is really convenient.
I believe in ongoing socialization for all dogs – taking them out as much as possible to areas where they can be successful.
That’s different for every dog, obviously.
Visiting a dog friendly café is no big deal to Ace. It would’ve been a bit much for my previous dog. Just walking around the neighborhood is challenging enough for others.
You want to challenge your dog a little, but not too much.
Keeping this in mind, the following are some socialization mistakes to avoid. I can be very opinionated, so please feel free to leave a comment and let me know your own ideas.
Socialization should be about introducing the dog to something new in a positive way.
We hear about the importance of bringing our dogs to new areas, so we think of “big picture” events when really we should be focusing on less-exciting examples.
New dog owners are told to socialize their dogs around other dogs, so they might think it’s a good idea to visit the dog park, for example.
Obviously you wouldn’t want to take a dog with no dog-park experience and throw him into a fenced area with 25 other dogs on a lively Saturday afternoon. This would set most dogs up for failure, right? The dog may be overwhelmed at best. More than likely, he could act out aggressively.
See my post: Rules at the dog park.
But, a walk with one other dog followed by a little off-leash play? This is a perfect way for many dogs to socialize until they get more comfortable.
Another example: Bringing a puppy to a busy, noisy event like watching a marathon could be too scary. But a walk where you know you’ll be exposed to a small crowd – like walking by a kid’s soccer game – might be perfect. It’s less chaotic, and you can always move away calmly.
I recommend you wear a dog treat bag around your waist when out and about with your dog. That way you can always have quick access to high-valued treats to reward your dog for checking out something new. This keeps new experiences fun and positive for your dog.
2. Not investing in training
One of my favorite writers, Jon Katz, wrote that dog owners will often spend hundreds of dollars buying an exotic purebred or designer dog, but then they won’t spend a dollar on training that dog.
People will also pay $400 to adopt a “rescue dog,” but are most of them willing to spend money on training? Probably not.
I’m not saying you have to invest a bunch of money into dog training, but you do need to invest your time. My favorite way to train my dog is to do it myself. I usually train my dog on walks around the neighborhood.
Still, I do find group obedience classes valuable, even to those who “know everything” about training a dog. Classes are an easy way to work with your dog around other dogs. There are few scenarios in the “real world” that allow you to do this in a controlled way.
I know training classes can get expensive, but if you can swing even one six-week session of weekly classes per year, it is well worth it. They’re not for all dogs, of course. Hiring a private trainer for one-on-one instruction can also be very helpful.
If you’re interested, I even wrote a 184-page dog training ebook that goes over 50 of the most common dog training problems. Check it out here.
Some situations are just too stressful for certain dogs, and it’s up to the owner to always have a plan for what to do if it’s not going well. This is true no matter how well socialized the dog is.
Sometimes we humans set these unrealistic goals and expectations for our dogs. Maybe someone decides to take his dog to a street fair, for example, because he’s seen other people walking their calm, easygoing dogs through the fair in the past.
This is fine, but if it’s not going well and the dog is lunging and barking at people or so scared that his tail is tucked between his legs, you need to be ready to walk away or get in the car and go home.
As a less extreme example, I always have the goal of taking Ace to coffee shops on a regular, flat collar (vs. a training collar). Sometimes this goes OK, but usually it’s an unrealistic expectation and he pulls too much. As a backup, I always bring his Gentle Leader along in my bag so I have it just in case. Another good option is a martingale collar.
See my post: Easy socialization tips for dogs and puppies
4. ‘Correcting’ a fearful dog
It’s only natural for dog owners to want to tell a dog “no” or to jerk on the leash when the dog is barking or growling out of fear. I’ve done this plenty of times. It’s almost like it’s a way to acknowledge the other person. Like, a way to signal, “I’m sorry about my dog. I disapprove of the behavior. See? I’m telling him no.” At least that is the case for me.
Some will warn that correcting a fearful dog will make the dog more fearful because he will associate the “pain” with the other dog. What I find is that it simply adds unnecessary tension, which might add more fuel to your dog’s “outbursts.” Either way, correcting him is unlikely to help him get over his fears.
When I’m working with fearful, reactive dogs, I like to define the point at which the dog tends to react. Maybe he has no reaction when another dog is 40 feet away but starts to breathe heavily when the dog is 30 feet away and then really starts to lose it within 20 feet. (There are other variables, besides distance, of course.)
With this example, I would start working with the dog on calming commands (sit, watch me) using highly valued treats from a distance of about 30 feet from other dogs whenever possible. The goal would be to gradually change his response to other dogs over time.
A professional trainer would be able to help you go over a specific training plan for your dog if you need it.
See my post: Can you “reward” a dog’s fear?
5. Forgetting the little things, like walking in new areas
One of the easiest ways to socialize a dog is to simply take him for a walk every day. I know we come up with all sorts of excuses not to walk our dogs, but it really is such a simple and valuable way to provide daily socialization. You can even have your dog on a long 15- or 30-foot leash to give him more freedom to sniff explore new things at his own pace.
Dogs are exposed to so many new people, dogs, sights, sounds and smells on a walk. So if you want to expose your dog to something new, simply walk him down a different street than he’s used to or even walk him at a different time of day.
I know you all work very hard to socialize your own dogs.
Let me know in the comments!