Socialization isn’t just about making new friends. It’s about understanding the world and knowing the difference between good and bad.
Without the right socialization training early in life, dogs can become stubborn, shy, aggressive or fearful of strange people and other dogs.
But there’s more to socializing a dog than just presenting your puppy to a room full of people.
In this article, we’ll discuss why socialization is important for dogs — and we’ll give you our best advice for socializing a shy or fearful puppy.
Why It’s So Important to Socialize Your Dog
Socializing your dog is an often-overlooked aspect of training that, when neglected, can have long-term repercussions for you, your dog and others you encounter.
In essence, socializing your dog should happen when they are very young and should be an integral part of their training from the start.
With socialization, you teach your dog how to behave around other dogs, people and animals.
Dogs who have been properly socialized have few issues with other animals in public, but animals with little to no socialization can have a difficult time coping with meeting new people and other animals.
“Socializing can help many fearful dogs get past their issues,” says Peggy Swager, author of Rescue Your Dog From Fear. “Conversely, the lack of socializing can create a fearful dog and can lead to behavior issues.”
Dogs who have not been socialized (or not socialized enough) often display anxiety when confronted with a new situation, person or animal.
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways:
This is tough to watch happen, particularly when you’re not sure how to help.
Unsocialized dogs may display aggressive tendencies, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
To a dog, where they live and who they live with are their possessions, and they will defend them should another animal encroach on their territory. This is hardwired into their DNA.”
Your dog may not display anxious or aggressive behaviors, but they may be difficult to handle.
New places and things cause such stimulation that you can’t control the dog, even on a leash, and they end up walking you. This type of behavior means they will be hard to handle (if not impossible) at the groomer’s, the vet’s and any other pet-friendly area.
The best way to avoid these problems? Socialize your dog from a young age.
Dogs Learn Fear at a Very Young Age
A growling puppy is shocking because, other than in the rough-and-tumble of play, we don’t expect it.
Recently, animal behavior researchers have investigated the age at which puppies start to show fear and if this varies between breeds.
Fear is a useful emotion because it keeps a puppy safe. Unfortunately, an offshoot of fear is aggression. This happens when a puppy or dog can’t escape what frightens them. Unable to flee, they will stand and fight.
- 49 days: The average age at which a puppy learns to be scared and run away.
- 19 days: The average age at which a wolf puppy does the same thing.
Research on Fearful Behaviors in Puppies
Researchers exposed 3 dog breeds to a strange toy (a battery-operated quacking duck), a loud noise and a steep step to see how they reacted at different ages.
They chose 3 distinct breeds:
- German Shepherds (representing herding and guarding dogs)
- Yorkshire Terriers (representing working terriers)
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (representing a purely pet breed)
The results showed that German Shepherds acted fearfully from 4.5 weeks of age, the Yorkies from 6 weeks and the Cavaliers at nearly 8 weeks.
- A full 90% of German Shepherds acted fearfully by 5 weeks.
- For Labrador Retrievers this was a lowly 2%. Good old Labs.
Why This Research Matters to You
Knowing if different dog breeds develop emotionally at different rates has important implications.
First, it means puppies who learn fear at an earlier age require a lot of socialization to become well-adjusted adults — and this means lots of hard work.
The experiences a puppy has in early life forms the basis of their character. We’ve known this for ages. However, this research makes it even more important not to buy from a puppy mill or a breeder who isolates the puppies in outdoor runs.
This matters because bad experiences in early life, especially in breeds that can grow up into fear-biters, may imprint even earlier than once suspected.
It now seems German Shepherds are equipped to learn fear at an early age, so they need especially careful handling to stop them from growing into quivering wrecks.
Not only must you expose your puppy to many different experiences, but you also need to handle these introductions carefully.
What You Can Do to Socialize a Fearful Puppy
- Take time to read your puppy’s body language. If your puppy seems fearful of a new experience, move the object farther away so the puppy doesn’t react.
- Resist the urge to comfort your puppy when they show fear — this sends the message that they are right to be afraid. Reward their bravery when they are in the room with the scary object and they don’t react, and gradually move the object closer, always rewarding only the calm behavior.
- If your puppy is anxious or fearful, act normally. When visiting the vet, warn the staff ahead of time so they can give your pet extra time and not rush the visit. This allows the puppy to acclimate to a stressful situation and learn to not fear vets.
In short, how you behave has a huge impact on your puppy.
By doing the right thing for them and rewarding their bravery, you can make up for a misspent past, but this is tougher for some breeds than it is for others.
You need to control as much of the puppy socialization process as possible.
In Raise Your Puppy to Be a Wonderful Dog, trainer Pete Campione advises creating a plan to make “each introduction a positive experience for your puppy.”
“To do this, start small,” he says. “Make each introduction in a controlled environment where your puppy can be made to feel as comfortable as possible.”
Most socialization can happen right at home. Try these tips:
- Bring people over one at a time to meet your puppy.
- Allow others to bring their friendly dogs over for some playtime (again, one at a time).
- Get your puppy used to the sounds of a vacuum cleaner or loud appliances.
- Take them on walks so they can experience new textures, such as grass, gravel and soil.
Remember: Every experience is new to your puppy. They are learning all about the world through you.
The most important things you can do are plan out each step, make each experience fun and let them go at their own pace.
Tips on Socializing a Shy Dog
Now let’s look at a few more socializing tips.
For starters, find a friend’s dog who is calm and not overbearing with your dog for private play sessions in a quiet, safe environment, one without lots of noise.
- Watch how the dogs interact.
- Is your dog approaching the other one willingly?
- Are they sniffing each other with relaxed body language?
- If your dog tells the friend to back off, do they?
Any dog who is timid or fearful should be around dogs who know how to play and will leave them alone.
Dogs have their own language, and you need to listen to what they are saying.
Forcing a shy dog to be around other dogs who are running around, barking and having a great time can be scary. Just be sure to listen to what your dog is telling you and go at their own pace.
Please don’t do these things when working on socialization training with your puppy:
- Don’t strike, scream or yell at, or otherwise intimidate them. By doing so, you’re simply teaching them not to trust you and to be afraid of you.
- Don’t force them into new situations before they’re ready. Some dogs will take to socialization like a duck to water. Others need more time with each experience to feel comfortable. Proceed at your dog’s pace.
- Don’t ignore warning signs: excessive salivation, shivering, submissive posture, etc. They will tell you when they have had enough and you need to take a break.
Mary Belle Brazil-Adelman, author of The German Shepherd Dog Handbook, puts it this way:
“Present each new learning experience in a positive manner that will be easy for the young dog to learn, and you will have an adult dog that can face each new challenge with strength, determination and confidence.”
Socializing an Older Rescue Dog
We’ve talked about puppies, but what about socializing an older dog?
Socialization happens the moment you leave the shelter. Making your dog comfortable and giving them a routine are the very first steps.
1. Prepare Your Home
Be prepared ahead of time: Have food, water, toys, beds and any medications your new dog needs on hand. Once you have everything set up and ready to go, bring your dog home and introduce them to a space that’s already theirs to share. Give them time. Never force anything new on them.
Start following a set routine with bathroom breaks, exercise and meals. Get them acquainted with their new life and comfortable with what to expect throughout the day.
2. Introduce Them to Friends
When you see your dog relax in their new surroundings, start introducing them to other people.
Invite friends over for a pup meet-and-greet, but do some prep work ahead of time:
- Remind your friends to stay calm and refrain from any excited noises or movements.
- Encourage them to let your dog make the first move and only pet when it’s clear your dog is comfortable.
- Provide treats or positive reinforcement when your dog approaches a new person or stays calm during the process. This will remind them that meeting new people is a good thing, and good, social behavior will be rewarded.
- Most important, stay patient. Give your dog time to become comfortable with new people in the home.
3. Introduce Them to Other Dogs
It’s equally as important to introduce your dog to other animals. After all, you should be able to take your dog out for a walk without them growling at other 4-legged strangers along the way.
Not only that, but also you want them to enjoy a vital part of life, which is being around and playing with other dogs.
Just as you should introduce your dog to humans in a controlled environment, the same holds true for meeting other animals:
- Introduce the dogs to each other in a home, yard or other open space.
- Keep both dogs on a leash, but let the leashes drag on the ground so the dogs don’t automatically feel threatened.
- Be patient and let the dogs get to know each other on their own. Never force it.
- Stay calm and reward both dogs for good behavior with praise or treats.
4. Keep the Socialization Going
Repeat these same steps with children, larger groups of friends and other animals.
The more variety you can introduce into your dog’s life, the less likely they’ll be to react to new situations in negative ways.
This video gives a brief overview of what’s required to condition a fearful dog, using the technique of “applying pressure” then backing away without eye contact:
Socialization Throughout Their Lives
Once you’ve successfully introduced your dog to friends, other pets and children, keep that momentum going.
Enroll in group dog training classes, spend time at your local dog park and take your dog with you on trips to new places.
Always reward your dog for positive behavior — and never punish them for being afraid of a new situation.
Undoing years of possible poor socialization can be difficult. Depending on the kind of life your dog lived before adoption, these steps may take days, weeks or months.
Stay patient. Socialization takes time, but with the right mindset, you and your dog should be able to enjoy a fruitful, happy life.
This article on how to socialize a shy dog was written by a team of writers including a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. Other contributors included Petful editor in chief Dave Baker, Melissa Smith and Kristen Youngs. This article was last reviewed Dec. 13, 2018.
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