Socialisation - Deep Dive
Our world can be pretty challenging for us, so imagine what it’s like for our dogs. People, vehicles, household appliances, other animals, weather, furniture (I could go on and on!) come in all shapes and sizes, make different sounds, have different smells, feel different, move differently.
When we bring our pets home, no matter what age they are, they have a vast amount to learn and get used to. You won’t know exactly what experiences your dog had before they came to you, so, at least to start with, assume that everything is new to your dog.
So what does that mean for what you do with your dog?
PeopleMost animals feel happier when they can choose to interact with new people. People who are unfamiliar to your dog shouldn’t come straight up to your dog and begin touching them. If the dog is a puppy or a small dog, some people are tempted to pick them up – most dogs would find this extremely stressful. (Check out the Greeting Dogs Guide available at Cattle Dog Publishing https://cattledogpublishing.com/blog/free-downloads-posters-handouts-and-more/) Let your dog come over to the person when (if) they feel ready and, if they move away, ask the person to let them go and not hold onto them. Gentle touch on the dog’s back or chest is better than touching the face. If your dog shies away as a person reaches toward them, ask the person to just ignore your dog. By turning away or moving away, your dog is saying they need space or a break – when (if) they’re ready for more attention, they’ll go back to the person.
ThingsLet your dog learn about different things gradually. Let’s take a vacuum cleaner as an example – most dogs are going to live with vacuum cleaners. A vacuum cleaner could sound like a horrible monster to your dog!
PlacesYour dog will need to visit the Vet, and there are lots of other places she will go as well – your friends’ houses, groomers, pet sitters, etc. Your dog might go almost everywhere with you! Taking them to the places they will go, for just short visits initially will help them to be comfortable and confident in that environment.
Other AnimalsOur pet dogs are the pets most likely to be in situations where they spend time with unfamiliar members of their species.
Importantly, you don’t want to simply take your dog to an off-lead park with multiple other dogs unknown to your dog, and say ‘off you go and make friends’. Your dog might have the time of her life, or she might have an experience that gives her long-lasting anxiety. Instead, set your dog up for social success: for some dogs standing (at a distance) and watching other dogs might be enough for them for a start; for others, you can go ahead and set-up some play dates with calm, stable, friendly dogs. You will know other people (friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, etc.) who have dogs that you can invite for an on-lead walk with you and your dog: one or two other dog-walking-buddies at a time is enough while your dog is building their confidence. (Meet on ‘neutral ground’ like a park, rather than someone’s home, to avoid any stress related to ‘territory’.) If the canines are compatible (stay alert for positive/tense body language signals), they might come off lead for a play after their walk. Your dog will be getting exercise, making people-friends and dog-friends, and becoming familiar with other dogs’ social and play cues. You will be getting to know how your dog likes to interact with other dogs.
So how do you know that your dog is having a positive experience?
- When your dog is starting to show minor stress (or even just that they are getting over-tired or over-stimulated), end the interaction or the experience. It’s always better to stop while everyone is still pretty happy.
- If your dog shows more than minor stress, that’s a sign that your dog needs more gentle exposure to the new experience. For example, he might need to be further away to begin with, coming closer gradually, over time.
- A dog who is in a new environment/situation and snatches wildly at the treat you offer, or stops eating the yummy treats you offer altogether, is usually very stressed. If your dog does become very stressed it is best to go home and/or let your dog rest and relax. Try again another time.