How to Socialize Your Dog in 10 Easy Steps
When I brought my little baby girl home from the shelter, I didn’t even know socializing a dog was a thing. Luckily, she came out OK anyway. But not all dogs fare so well. They may become aggressive or so timid that they leave puddles whenever they meet a new friend.
You are smart to learn how to socialize your dog. Because, yes, it is a thing. Having a well socialized dog will give both of you the freedom to go out and have fun in a wide world of wonderful options.
Like people, some dogs are adept at social graces, while others are a bit more like your Uncle Ned meeting Lady Gaga. Don’t wait until your ‘Uncle Ned’ has learned his first bad joke. The best time to socialize your little tail-wagger is when he (or she) is still a puppy. But, if Mr. Whiskers didn’t make the social circuit as a tot, not to worry. Worldly dogs can make new buds too.
What you need
Socializing your dog doesn’t require lots of gear. The most important things you need are:
- Lots of patience
- A leash
For social training, it is important that you have a leash that is a predictable length. That way, your dog knows just how far from you he’s allowed to bounce. Dog Leashes 101: Finding the Best Leash for Your Dog will help you make a good choice.
- A bit of money, if you decide to take a class or enlist a trainer
- For more challenging dogs, a muzzle or other restraint
PRO TIP: If you decide that a muzzle makes sense for you, connect with a specialist—such as a vet or trainer—about the right fit and best ways to use it. You definitely don’t want to make your dog even more unnerved. Here’s an interesting video on How to Introduce a Muzzle to a Dog to help make the muzzle a pleasant experience.
Notice that treats are not on the list. When a dogs are stressed they won’t take food and snacks may, in fact, incite competitive or protective behavior.
The 10 steps on how to socialize your dog
Step 1 - Know your dog’s personality.
Not all dogs are Cary Grant suave. They are born with certain genetic traits, while other quirks are developed along the way. No matter how he became who he is, knowing your dog’s personality will help you understand how to help him become a healthier member of society.
Most dogs have a fight-or-flight response to uncomfortable situations. Whether they lean toward fight or flight, depends on their personality.
A highly-sensitive dog requires a gentle hand and a slow pace. They’re more attuned to you and to their environment, so they don’t need emphatic suggestions and, for them, sometimes happy noises can even be distracting.
So, be low key. Let them move at their own pace. Don’t make lots of noise. Even words of encouragement, especially if they are in a high-pitched tone, can be stressful to reserved dogs. If you do speak, use a calm, quiet tone.
Other dogs may be more the margarita-on-the-beach go-with-the-flow types. Knowing how to socialize your dog if he has this personality requires an eye toward the other end of the spectrum. With these pups, you’ll want to be more obvious and, since they’ve never met a stranger who didn’t love dog slobber, you may need to steer your fur flinger with a bit more focus.
Check out The Online Dog Trainer for tips on how to teach your dog to remain calm and in control of his responses to challenging stimuli.
PRO TIP: If you don’t trust your dog to be friendly before you’ve fully socialized him, you may want to consider using a muzzle or other restraint. Before using any restraint, learn how to make it a pleasant experience. Otherwise, you could amplify the stress. This article will help: Aggressive Dog Training: How to Stop Different Forms of Aggression.
Step 2 - Assess your dog’s physical condition.
A tired dog is a happy dog. Whatever your dog’s personality, exercise is a great equalizer. It will help both a Nervous Nellie and a Good-Time Charlie feel—and act—more calm and balanced. An attitude that plays well with the snouted set.
On the other hand, a dog that’s under the weather won’t be inspired to make polite canine conversation. And, although dog germs are unlikely to affect us two-leggers, dogs can share harmful microbes among themselves. Yes, dogs can get and spread the flu, among other things.
No matter how your dog feels, before you take you him places where there will be lots of other pooches, check with your vet to be sure that he’s healthy and adequately inoculated for kennel cough and other icky ailments.
Full vaccination programs for puppies are not completed until the puppy is around 16 weeks old but this is also an important time for socialization. So, check with your vet about what they recommend during this important time.
For dogs that are especially motivated by food, being hungry might elevate their drive state. This may not be the best time to go for a meet-and-greet. After all, who isn’t calmer with a full belly?
Step 3 - Check your own energy.
Your dog is a mirror. If you are cranky, angry, afraid or any of the other seven dwarves, your dog will sense it. In response, he will either take on your demeanor or try to protect you because, to him, you seem vulnerable.
An important step in having a calm, receptive dog is to be calm and receptive yourself. As a bonus, socializing your dog when you are in a good mood makes the experience better for both of you.
PRO TIP: To encourage your dog to be calm, calm yourself with meditation, deep breathing, even a snack before setting off for a socialization adventure.
Moderate your excitement. When you are appreciating good house training, a high-pitched excited voice is useful. But if you are introducing the dog to a situation where he might already be tense, don’t amp his adrenaline.
If your dog has a history of ineffective social interactions, be prepared, but don’t expect history to repeat. Every day is a new day for your dog. Don’t be a bellboy for his baggage.
Step 4 - Take baby steps.
No matter which end of the social spectrum your dog is on, it’s usually best to start socializing him slowly. Depending on your dog’s current level of social skills, you may even want to start with just one friendly dog and a person you like. Because dogs are territorial, either meet at your place or on neutral turf to give your dog the upper hand, uh, paw.
Keep an eye on the dogs, but don’t focus on them. Let them sniff each other out without watching parental eyes. Enjoy time with your friend and they will be more likely to enjoy time with theirs.
If, however, the dogs just don’t gel, be prepared for a quick exit. Before you arrive you may want to practice your own social skills by preparing your friend for the possibility of a prematurely curtailed visit.
Step 5 - Choose socialization locations wisely.
When you feel that your pup is ready to advance past one-on-ones, a nice stroll might be in order. But, you will still want to avoid crowds. Consider places that are more likely to have well-behaved dogs.
A pet store during a low-traffic time could be fun. If your dog is too treat-oriented to survive the glorious enticements at a pet store, many hardware stores allow dogs. This is where I take my girl when it’s raining. Some of them even keep crunch bones at the register.
VIDEO: Dog’s eye view of a hardware store
A dog park is more advanced. Try easing into the scene at non-peak times. This can buff off a bit of the novelty before you take him for full frontal fun.
Step 6 - Support the crucial rump sniff, a loose leash, and other canine social conventions.
Not allowing your dog to inspect another’s mission control positions your guy as an antisocial snob. For a dog, not exchanging sniffs is the equivalent of a human walking up to another human, pausing, looking them squarely in the face and then walking away with no words exchanged. It’s just weird. An incomplete transaction.
Humans gauge each other through words, dog do it through smells. To a dog, the smell of another dog’s rear provides a full bouquet of knowledge about their diet, gender, genetics, health and more.
PRO TIP: If your dog doesn’t yet understand the caboose-sniffing dance, help by rotating him so that the other dog can approach in polite dog fashion. It may be a bit awkward, but if your dog is small, you could even pick him up and hold his rear near the other dog’s nose. Obviously, this is best done with folks who know you already.
A taut leash can also pose a social challenge for a dog. A dog moves and postures to communicate specific intentions. If he is hindered by a pesky human pulling on his leash, he may give off unintended signals. As much as possible—and prudent—allowing a dog to have a loose leash when meeting another will foster an effective transaction.
Step 7 - Don’t push.
Remember how much calmer you were as a kid when your mom wasn’t hovering over your shoulder directing your every move? Give your fur ball the same freedom. Allow him to approach another dog at his own pace. If he is a puppy, he may approach with too much enthusiasm and the other dog may be churlish. Exhale. That’s how older dogs teach puppies manners. It may seem like the older dog is being aggressive, but the probability is that he’s just being educational.
A shy dog will need a different kind of freedom. The freedom to approach slowly. Be patient.
Step 8 - Watch the tails.
Tail wagging is a primary means of communication for dogs. Dogs don’t wag their tails when they're alone, not even if they're enjoying a glorious porterhouse. Researchers have found that it’s something they only do around others.
Each wag has a specific meaning according to its combination of height, speed, width and direction. Learn to read dog tail signals and you will build a stronger bond with your pup and have a clue when trouble may be brewing before it happens.
For more info on dog language, check out Your Dog “Speaks” – How to Read Your Dog’s Body Language and watch this video: Dog Tail Meanings & Dog Behavior.
Step 9 - Remember that you’re only human.
Socializing a dog is not a one-and-done activity. It requires consistent practice. So, don’t be hard on yourself if it takes a while. Just keep at it and try to enjoy the ride.
Step 10 - Help is available.
Puppy classes offer a controlled, if you can call it that, environment for your puppy to learn the ins-and-outs of puppy manners. As a bonus, he may also learn a few tricks.
For expert skills, hire a trainer. Many professionals are well versed in how to spot and correct problems. When selecting your trainer, keep in mind that positive reinforcement methods have been proven to be more effective than aversions, such as shouting and electronic collars.
Did you enjoy reading this tutorial on how to socialize your dog? I know I enjoyed writing it. Having a well-mannered companion has allowed my pup and I to have many safe and happy excursions. I hope this tutorial gives you the same results!