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Dog Socialisation: How to Help Your Dog Navigate the Social Scene

Many dog owners dream of their canine pal happily socialising with everyone they meet. While this would make life much easier for everyone, dog socialisation isn’t always quite so simple! Yes, many dogs enjoy the company of others, be they canine or human. However, there are just as many who would rather keep their distance.

Kamal Fernandez

Author: Kamal Fernandez

Edited By: Anna Bain

Dog Socialisation: How to Help Your Dog Navigate the Social Scene

If you’re considering hitting the social scene with your dog, there are a few important things to consider, especially if they’re not well-versed in interactions with others. Kamal Fernandez, Master Dog Trainer, explains in this guide how you can tell if your dog is comfortable around others and what you can do to encourage positive social behaviour.

Things to consider when socialising your dog

Their breed

An important fact to consider when attempting to socialise your dog is whether their breed is generally social with others outside the family unit. While there are, of course, exceptions to these rules and nurture can be just as influential as nature, certain breeds are simply not predisposed to being friendly with those they deem to be “outsiders.”

For example, dogs originally bred for guarding purposes, such as Shar Peis, Tibetan Mastiffs, and Cane Corsos, can very well be social at times. However, their main objective is to ensure your safety above all else, which means they can be aloof with (and even suspicious of) strangers, including other dogs.
This can make socialising a bit more of a challenge, as going against their genetic instincts can be tricky. However, with consistent positive reinforcement and compassionate support from you, even these breeds can become more social, though they might never be the dog that loves everyone they meet.

Their unique temperament

Dogs are unique in that their individual temperaments can vary widely. Being aware of your dog’s personality and common behaviours when in the presence of people and other dogs will give you a baseline guide on how you might proceed in their socialisation.
Taking a moment to watch their body language (discussed in more detail later) and overall behaviour when they see and/or interact with people and dogs can help to clue you in on areas that might need a little more attention.

For example, dogs that wag their tails softly and appear generally relaxed in the presence of new people/dogs are likely interested in socialising. Those who attempt to retreat, stand forward stiffly on their front legs, or pin back their ears may be trying to tell you they’re nervous and unsure.
It’s essential to go at your dog’s pace in these situations, as rushing into something they’re uncomfortable with can create difficulties down the road. Slow, steady, consistent progress is the best way to help your dog feel more comfortable about new people, dogs, and situations.

Their history with other dogs/people

Another important piece to consider is your dog’s past experiences with other people and/or dogs. If you’ve had them since they were a puppy, this will be much easier to figure out, but it’s not always possible! Don’t worry, though, as even rescue dogs with no known history can go on to lead happy, social lives with the right tools.

Early experiences during puppyhood can often impact a dog’s willingness to be social, which can be true of positive or negative encounters. Though it’s not impossible to correct any negative associations that may have occurred, it will take a little more time and effort on your part. Likewise, any negative reaction patterns you notice are clues as to where your dog might be feeling a bit nervous.

Dogs that have generally had positive experiences with people and other dogs are much more likely to socialise willingly. However, these friendly, easy-going dogs can also run into people and other dogs they may not care for, so it’s still important to watch for body language cues that may be a call for help.

Socialising your dog safely

How to read your dog's cues

Body language

Whilst many of us humans wish we could “speak dog,” it’s not as hard to decode your dog’s language as you might think. Our dogs are constantly “talking” to us with their body language. This can be helpful to recognise, especially in situations where they might be uncomfortable! Here are a few cues to watch for to help understand how your dog may be feeling:

Tail

A soft, broadly wagging tail indicates that your dog is relaxed, comfortable, and interested in whatever’s happening. However, not all tail wags are created equally! A quick-wagging tail held up high can signal over excitement, high arousal, and a potential desire to fight. The same can be said for a tail held high and stiff without any wagging.

Conversely, a tail held low or even tucked between the legs portrays fear; this shows that your dog is definitely not comfortable with the current situation. Dogs that are this afraid will often attempt to flee or hide from the threat, though they may freeze or feel the need to defend themselves if no escape route is available (such as when they’re on a lead or within the confines of a dog park).

Ears

Dog’s ears can tell you a lot about their feelings, though they can be tricky to decode depending on their ear shape! However, some general ear positions tell similar stories. For example, holding them naturally and without tension signals a relaxed, comfortable dog, and gently pushing forward in your direction shows that they’re interested or listening.

Ears pinned back or down can signal fear or anxiety, and those pushed forward stiffly can be a sign of over-excitement or arousal, especially when accompanied by a stiff, forward-leaning posture. These are both clues that it’s time to remove your dog from whatever (or whoever) is bothering them!

Eyes

Soft, relaxed eyes are a significant clue that dogs are happy and relaxed. Squinting is also a sign that they’re content and maybe even a little sleepy, provided there’s no reason to suspect they’re ill or in pain.
However, big, wide eyes with dilated pupils (and showing the whites of the eye) generally say something very different. This is a clue that your dog is highly uncomfortable in some way, whether they’re anxious, fearful, or over-excited.

Posture

Posture is a big one in dog body language, but can be the subtlest sign in some cases. If your dog’s body is generally loose, wiggly, and relaxed, this is a good sign that they’re content and comfortable.
Stiff body posture, leaning forward tightly, and bowing the head (with the exception of play bows) are all signs that dogs are not happy about something. Also, any time their hackles (or the hairs on the back of their neck) stand up straight, that’s a sure sign that it’s time to move on!

Vocalisations

Contrary to popular belief, not all dog vocalisations mean bad things. Dogs have multiple reasons for using their voices and can produce happy sounds, too! See if you recognise any of these common dog vocalisations:

Barking

Dogs, of course, bark to alert us to intruders and voice their discontent, but they also bark when in a good mood. Short, sharp, playful barks can mean they’re happy to see you or want you to play with them, whilst higher-pitched, whiny-like barks can be a sign of excitement or anticipation (when seeing other dogs they want to greet, for example).

Big, strong barks in rapid succession are the ones that communicate dogs’ discomfort, such as when they see other dogs they don’t like or when a stranger approaches your front door. Though they can be tricky to decode, you’ll likely know which barks mean what if you think about it for a moment!

Growling

Like barking, not all growls are bad news, either. Dogs use this vocalisation to communicate their discomfort, but they also do it when they’re excited or during play. The key to decoding growls is to consider their context within a situation and your dog’s other body language cues whilst they’re growling.
For example, if you’re playing tug with your dog and they growl whilst trying to hold on to the tug toy, this isn’t something to worry about. They’re simply excited about playing with you.

On the other hand, if a dog sees something they’re unfamiliar with or dislike and you hear a low growl, this may be their way of saying they’re unhappy. Especially when paired with a lowered head or stiff body posture, this combination is definitely a warning to heed!

Whining/crying

Whilst whining and crying can signal pain and/or sadness in dogs, it can also suggest they’re excited about something. After not seeing you all day, your dog may whine in excitement when you come home, which can also be true for seeing their doggie friends from a distance.

However, if they’re not typically very social and whine and/or cry when seeing people or other dogs, this may signal anxiety or nervousness. If you’re seeing this, it’s a good idea to remove them, as the whining can turn to barking and other fear-based behaviours if they feel uncomfortable.

advocating for your non-social dog is important

Advocating for your non-social dog

If your dog doesn’t enjoy the company of others, it can be challenging to take them out in public. However, they still need their exercise! Thankfully, there are ways to make the situation less challenging so that you can better enjoy your time with them:

Adapt to their needs

Every dog is different; non-social dogs may need you to take a different approach than you might with other dogs. This may mean that you walk at odd hours, in certain locations to avoid interactions with their triggers, or always carrying their favourite treats/toy to encourage them to make better choices, distract them and reward them when they’ve done a good job. Once you’ve figured out what helps you and your dog to enjoy walks together, you can use it to your advantage!

Be blunt

Some dog owners simply don’t understand that not all dogs are social. In the cases of “friendly” dogs running full speed towards your non-social dog, don’t be afraid to be blunt in order to advocate for them. Shouting “He’s not friendly!” or “Please call your dog” is a quick, effective way to avoid a potentially negative interaction. Try not to worry about what others think; it’s your job to protect your dog, and you’re doing it well!

Remain calm

It’s easy to get worked up when your dog overreacts, and who can blame you? However, your dog takes their cues from you when assessing any situation [1], so it’s vital that you remain calm as often as possible. When your energy is relaxed and confident, it makes it easier for your dog to handle their triggers, as well as making it a less stressful experience for you.

Maintain control

Non-social dogs’ reactivity can appear scary to onlookers, even if you know it’s all for show. This is why it’s super important to maintain control of your dog at all times, as it reduces the risk of them getting into trouble or hurting someone (or themselves). Ensure that your harnesses and leads fit correctly and that you have a good hold on them while walking so that you’re prepared for any altercations that might surprise you.

How to help your dog enjoy socialising

Start early (if possible)

It is true that starting the socialisation process in puppyhood generally makes for a more social adult dog [2]. This isn’t always possible, of course, as many dog owners choose to adopt adult dogs with varying histories and experiences. However, if you can start from scratch, it’s best to utilise the opportunity before your pup gets too much older. This way, you’ll integrate desirable behaviours that help your dog’s social life down the road.

Discover more tips on welcoming a puppy into your home in ProDog’s Puppy-Prep Guide, written by Canine Behaviourist, Caroline Spencer

When socialising dogs, it can be helpful to see them as small children who don’t yet know the correct way to behave around others. Instead of assuming that they’re able to handle anything that comes their way, setting them up for success by teaching them appropriate behaviour will have far more positive results. This also works to quell any nervousness or anxiety that they may be feeling in new situations, as they’ll already have a foundation of positive behaviours to fall back on.

If you don’t have the opportunity to start while your dog is young, not to worry. You can still potentially socialise your dog as an adult; it just takes a bit more care. Once you’ve figured out whether or not they’re naturally social, you can take steps to help them in whichever areas they may need it with positive reinforcement training.

Make it fun

As mentioned earlier, dogs take their cues from you. This means that the better you feel about socialising them, the more likely they’ll be willing to do it! Keeping a calm, relaxed demeanour will show your dog that they’re safe, allowing them to be more open to the idea of people/other dogs.

Using reinforcements (or rewards) when your dog behaves desirably is a great way to build their confidence, which is important for successful socialisation. For example, if your dog reacts positively to the presence of people or other dogs, rewarding them will not only build their confidence, but also increase their desire to repeat this behaviour.

Rewards such as tasty treats, praise, and affection from you let your dog know that the presence of people and/or dogs means good things, thus giving them a positive association with social activity. It becomes more of an enjoyable experience for both of you, as well as expanding your dog’s social circle!

Short and sweet experiences

If your dog is new to the social scene, it’s best to keep interactions short and sweet, to begin with. This way, you’re always ending the experience on a good note, leaving a positive association in your dog’s mind for next time.

Much like training sessions, dogs fare better with frequent, short exposures that are positive. These will be far less likely to overwhelm your dog, helping avoid undesirable behaviours that may taint their experience and cause apprehension the next time.

Consistency is key

Just like humans, dogs learn through repetition and consistency. This is especially true with socialisation, as they’re more likely to remember the previous experience if there’s not too much of a time-lapse in between.

Since dogs’ short-term memories aren’t the best, consistency is especially helpful here. Providing frequent, positive exposure to other dogs and people is a great way to set them up for social success, as well as aiding in integrating desirable behaviours that contribute to their socialisation.

Vary their exposures

Dogs can’t generalise, which means things that appear similar to humans can seem wildly different (and potentially scary!) in a dog’s eyes. For example, if your dog only knows one other dog, they may react totally differently to a second dog. Likewise, their reactions to people can change depending on location, clothing, height, and several different factors.

This is why exposure to various dogs, people, environments, and sounds is so crucial: it allows them to become comfortable with different stimuli and reduces the likelihood of fear-based behaviours. However, it’s also important to emphasise positive interactions. If your dog appears uncomfortable or stressed, it’s best to call it a day and try another time.

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Dogs are individuals, too

Above all else, your dog is an individual that is deserving of your love and affection. Whether they’re social butterflies or not, you can learn to love and enjoy their uniqueness as they do you.
It’s important to realise that not all dogs want to socialise with others, and whilst you may very well be able to improve this over time, ultimately, you can’t force it on them; they are who they are. If your dog is non-social, there are still plenty of ways to have fun with them.

Going on nature walks in quiet places will stimulate their minds while providing exercise for you both. Playing games at home or in the garden can be great fun. Taking them to reactive dog training sessions with a professional trainer can help you feel less alone, and so on. In the end, the bond you share with your dog is what’s most important to them, no matter how much they appear to love socialising (or not)!

Helping your dog enjoy socialising

While some dogs are naturally easy-going and social, others might not be. This is totally ok! Dogs are individuals just like us, and they have their likes and dislikes as humans do.
Reading (and responding to) their body language, considering their breed, history, and temperament, and being their number one advocate can all help your dog feel more confident and relaxed. For more training tips and advice or to enlist professional help, visit Kamal Fernandez Online Dog Training.

References

1. Dodman, N., Brown, D., Serpell, J. Feb 2018. Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems. PLoS ONE,; 13(2):e0192846. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192846

2. Howell, T., King, T., Bennett, P. 2015. Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialisation practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports; 6:143-153. Doi: 10.2147/VMRR.S62081

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