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Socializing adult dogs

“I need to socialize my three-year-old adopted dog…how do I do that?”

AHS trainers hear this question frequently, for understandable reasons.  Adopters want to give their dogs the fullest life possible, and many worry that their dog will “miss out” if they are not provided ample play opportunities.  The reality, though, is that adult dogs can lead a full life even without dog parks or off-leash play.  This article is intended to shed light on specific considerations for socializing adult dogs.

First things first:  socializing an adult dog looks very different than socializing a puppy.  Puppies in their sensitive period (between 3 and 20 weeks) are generally accepting of new people, places and dogs, so teaching them to feel comfortable around them is relatively easy.  Most puppy owners simply expose them to new things every day, feeding wonderful treats at the same time, to make each interaction a happy one.  This way, the puppy is likely to retain those happy impressions even after the sensitive period of socialization ends, around 4-5 months.  Continued exposure to new stimuli throughout the first year can keep the process rolling along smoothly.

Dog-to-dog socialization is a frequently misunderstood concept.  While puppies can be let loose together (in a structured, sanitary environment) to learn how to interact, the same practice can have detrimental effects on adult dogs.  While there are always exceptions, socially mature dogs (between 1-3 years, depending on the breed) do not typically enjoy playing with large groups of unfamiliar dogs.  They may either attempt to avoid the dogs, stand close to their human family or even growl and snap at boisterous young dogs that come too close to them.  Such behavior is often misidentified as abnormal, when in fact it is quite common. Click here for more information. 

So what does dog-to-dog socialization look like when it involves adults?  The goal should be to teach the older dog to behave calmly in public and on walks, rather than “play nicely” at the dog park.  Bring lots of small, tasty treats on your walks and reward Fido for sitting quietly and responding to his name while other dogs pass by at a safe distance.  It is not necessary or recommended for Fido to “say hi” to every dog he sees, or indeed to acknowledge any dog.  Introducing dogs on leash can be tricky, as many are forced to interact on tight leashes for too-long periods of time, leading to leash reactivity.  If he should bark at another dog, simply get his attention and walk him away from the situation.  Once he is calm, you can continue your walk.

With the advent of dog television shows, many owners assume that a dog who acts aggressively toward other dogs is “dominant” and must be punished.  This perception is not only mistaken, but can lead to injury if a stressed dog is pushed over his limit.  If you have questions about your dog’s behavior toward other dogs, call Behavior and Training at 763-489-2217 to set up an appointment.  

If your heart is set on social time with other dogs, start by introducing Fido to one dog at a time.  Invite a friend to bring her gentle, easygoing dog on a walk with you and Fido.  Allow polite distance between dogs while they get accustomed to each other.  If both dogs appear relaxed throughout the walk, allow them to sniff each other briefly.  Keep leashes loose and each interaction short.  If either dog appears to be tensing up, call the dogs apart with pleasant, relaxed voices.  If both dogs’ bodies appear loose and tails are wagging, consider an off-leash session in one of your fenced yards with leashes dragging, using the same short sessions and reinforcement for relaxed behavior.

The bottom line is that socialization of any kind only benefits dogs if they find it enjoyable.  Teaching your adult dog appropriate behavior and protecting her from unwanted contact will go a long way in building a trusting relationship.

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