Whether you get your dog as a puppy or as an adult, socialization is one of the most important skills to practice with your four-legged friend. If you get your dog when she is a little bit older (or even just past the initial puppy socialization phase), there may be some catch-up work to do so that she can feel comfortable out and about, but with a little practice, it’s possible!
That being said, it’s important to note that not all dogs are going to be able to go everywhere and do everything. Please respect that your dog might not turn out exactly as you had hoped and accept his boundaries. Also, if you dog has extreme fear or aggression toward other dogs/people, get a positive reinforcement trainer involved in this process.
Instead of taking your dog directly into the dog park or right up to the cafe, spend some time (days or weeks, depending) just walking near the dog park, or down the street by the cafe. Pay attention to your dog’s body language, and if he is looking nervous (ears back, tail low or tucked, lip licking, etc.) or is resisting going closer, then take some steps back. Walk your dog around the perimeter of the dog park or across the street where it might be a little quieter. Reward your dog with a treat or by playing a tug/fetch game near the park to build his confidence. It can also be helpful to go near the dog park at a quieter time of day instead of the busiest, if possible.
Do NOT go straight into the dog park or a cafe as a way to “socialize” your dog. When you throw a dog into a scary-for-him situation, it’s called flooding and can cause your dog to shut down, or even worse, go on the offensive and bite/attack when he feels threatened.
Whether this is at your house or when you are out in public, ask people to squat down and stick out a hand for your dog to sniff. If your dog isn’t too nervous, then allow them to offer him a treat with an open hand and/or scratch your dog’s chest (not over his head).
Do NOT allow multiple people or children to crowd around your dog. This could be super overwhelming and could be dangerous!
Dogs who are nervous will do better meeting and playing with other dogs one-on-one, instead of in large groups. If you have a friend or a family member who has a dog your dog is already familiar with and likes, schedule play dates so they can spend some time together. If possible, bring that dog on walks or near parks. Walking your shy dog with a more confident dog could make him feel a little better.
Do NOT take your dog to a friend’s house for a party with a bunch of people and dogs. Slow and steady, one at a time is the way to start.
This will not only strengthen your bond with your new dog, but will build your dog’s confidence. Being at a class with other people and dogs will give your dog a positive experience around others, because she won’t have to interact with them and your dog has a task to focus on. The skills you learn in a class can also be practiced near the dog park to give your dog something to focus on while in a somewhat scary environment.
Do NOT push it. If your dog doesn’t seem to like agility or is really nervous about the class, talk to the trainer about one-on-one classes or maybe practice some of the other skills first (walking around the store/training center for a couple weeks before signing up) and try the class again later.
Even if it doesn’t seem like a scary situation to you, if your dog is nervous, it’s something to build his confidence around.
Do NOT punish or yell at your dog for being scared. Don’t force him to do things he doesn’t want to do. Take baby steps. That being said, you also don’t have to go crazy coddling him. A reassuring “it’s okay” and a “good boy” with a treat or toy is good enough. If you make a huge deal about something, he might wonder if it is indeed something to be scared about.
The bottom line: Give your dog happy and pleasant experiences around other people and dogs, and take it slow, and you will see an improvement!
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About the author: Abbie Mood lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues, food culture, and the human experience through her writing. You can find out more about her atabbiemood.com or her blog, lifediscoveryproject.com. Follow Abbie on Twitter @abbiemood or Instagram @abbiemood.