How to Socialize Your Socially Awkward Pup

Dogs are very much like humans when it comes to personalities. They are all unique, regardless of breed. Yes, there are typical characteristics associated with certain breeds but you can’t expect your German Shepherd to be super social just because they are a German Shepherd. There are many contributing factors that make up a dog’s personality and how they will react to certain situations, and it all begins with imprinting.

Puppy Imprinting

Puppies are not born knowing everything. Like most young, they have to learn or be taught how to navigate the world. This process of learning is called imprinting.

Dog family bonding

In the first six to eight weeks of life, a puppy will learn; how to get attention, how to moderate their bite, how to be part of a pack, dog body language and communication, and many other essential doggy-related behaviors that can only be taught by their mothers and litter-mates. This is why removing a dog from their mother before 8 weeks can be so detrimental to their well-being long term.

If a mother dog has a fear of something, this can also be passed down to the pup through imprinting. For example, a mother dog that is scared of the dogs next door because of a previous incident could pass that feeling down to her pups. When she sees or hears the neighbor’s dogs she is frightened and these emotions are felt by the puppies. Over-time, and without any other positive experiences to balance the negative, they start to develop a fear or at least a wariness of other dogs.

Similarly, if a frightening event were to happen in these early weeks and the pup associates a person, place, or object with it, they are likely to carry this around with them into later life. If they were then to find themselves confronted with something that looks/smells/sounds the same or similar, it could trigger them to react badly.

Structured Safe Socialization

It is without a doubt important to socialize your puppy. However, it is crucial to socialize them in a safe and controlled environment to avoid any negative “firsts” that could have long-lasting effects.

Environment Socialization

When bringing a puppy home, you should give them the space to explore at their own pace. All of this new information will be quite overwhelming. Provide a  little “safe haven” such as a crate with a cover over it or a quiet enclosed bedded section of the house to retreat to if they feel the need to.

Puppy checking out his new dog bed

Think about how your puppy will experience new environments. Carefully controlling them to make experiences non-threatening and fun will have a positive impact on how they then approach other new situations. With each positively-received occasion, your dog will associate new environments with positive feelings and will not be afraid of them.

Socializing With Other Dogs

Unfortunately, even with all the best will in the world, socializing your pup with others can easily go wrong. Many owners want to introduce socialization early as they know the problems that can come from a lack of it. However, all too often the socialization can be too overwhelming and set a puppy back or create a dislike for other dogs. This worsens if they are subjected to it time and time again.

A puppy could withdraw and become fearful but it can also go the other way. Puppies that have learned bite inhibition from their litter-mates may quickly lose this sense of moderation if they are then forced into using excessive strength to warn off another. To them, the result of excessive force finally made the other dog leave them alone. If this is new excessive force behavior is necessary on more than one occasion, it will start to become the norm.

Young puppy meeting older dog

Start Slowly

By introducing your puppy slowly to a few dogs at a time and starting with ones you know, you can control these initial meet and greets - getting your puppy off to a good start. Follow this up with more contact from dogs outside of family and friends, like introductions to the dogs in the neighborhood. Finally moving onto dog parks where your pup should now be confident enough to engage and play and still young to learn social manners from others. Remember, keep human intervention to a minimum. Dogs learn best from dogs. Jumping in too quickly can hamper your dog’s ability to communicate.

If you choose to use a doggy day-care, visit it first and see whether it's the type of community play that you want your pup to be involved in. Are the dogs running riot? Do the dog-carers have a hands-on but calm approach to letting the dogs play out their antics but stepping in to diffuse when necessary? Some centers are great for socialization but there are plenty that can really have a detrimental effect. 

Socializing With People

It is important to consider socializing your dog with people, as well as dogs. Gaining a positive experience with both is essential for a happy hound. A lack of socialization with humans could lead a dog to be; anxious around people, outwardly aggressive to people, lacks confidence in public, and is more likely to develop a level of separation anxiety from their owners.

Hand reaching out to touch a puppy

Start Casually 

Meeting and greeting new people often goes best when the pup is not the focus of everyone’s attention. Initially ignoring them is a good way to go no matter what their confidence levels are. If the pup is an attention-demanding type, not giving them what they want immediately teaches them to calm down before being rewarded with attention.

If they are feeling anxious, this takes the attention off of them so they can gradually approach the new person in their own time. Puppies are guided by their owners’ actions and emotions. If they see that their owners are open and welcoming to the unfamiliar figure, they too are more likely to be welcoming. As new people come and go, a trust will build that strangers are nothing to be feared and some might even play with them.

Nature vs Nurture

Early experiences play a big part in shaping a dog’s personality and how they view the world, but they are not the only component. A dog will have unique and individual tendencies to behave a certain way. If a dog barks when excited, they might just have a tendency to be vocal without any other contributing factors. 

How to Work with an Unsocialized Dog 

Not all owners have dogs from puppies to socialize them as I have described above. Even when having them from puppy-hood, some have lacked the understanding of how important socialization and boundary setting is in the early months. Now they have an unruly teen on their hands.

Puppies coming from puppy farms are all to often separated too early and do not get that valuable learning time with their mothers and litter-mates. So many behavioral problems are caused by this. And of course, dogs from shelters and rescue centers typically lack social skills for a number of reasons.

Often not thought about are retired working dogs. These dogs usually have amazing discipline in so many areas but are massively clueless on how to interact with people, dogs, and even toys.

There are lots of dogs that struggle in social situations, so how do you socialize a socially awkward dog.

Dog barking on the walk

Behaviors typically associated with a lack of social skills are: 

  • Overly-insisted play initiation
  • Playing too roughly - no moderation to biting/nipping
  • Not backing off from another dog 
  • Poor dog communication
  • Becomes excited quickly during play
  • Barking, growling, lunging at approaching dogs
  • Barking, growling, lunging at approaching people
  • Anxiety/fear around dogs
  • Anxiety/fear around people 
  • Lack of sharing skills - possessive

How to Improve Your Dog’s Social Skills

Once a dog reaches adulthood, it is already conditioned to behave a certain way. Unlike a puppy who is a blank canvas, an adult dog has already established certain associations with dogs, people, environments, and objects. When trying to improve their social skills we need to break those associations and create new ones. Effectively we need to rewire their brains to think differently. This takes time, consistency, and patience. There are no quick fixes, but some dogs do change quickly whilst others take longer. 

Socializing your dog to new surroundings should be done gradually. Dogs can become overwhelmed quickly and subtle behaviors indicating they are uncomfortable can be missed until they manifest into unwanted behaviors.

Not all dogs are familiar with parts of life that a new owner might take for granted. A street dog that was brought to a city shelter from a village might not be used to all the city traffic and noises that are background noise to us. If all of a sudden they are taken onto public transportation or into a cafe, these new experiences can be terrifying. Even if they outwardly seem to be coping, there is a lot going on for them to take in. Too many of these trips in a short amount of time can cause a pup huge tension and stress.

Get back to puppy basics and start slowly. Take things with you that are familiar to your dog such a blanket or old top with your scent on it. Take a toy they love. I think something to chew is best as it keeps them occupied and not watching all the things going on around them. Provide treats every so often. Again, you are looking to associate new places with positive feelings.

Dog growling at another dog

Dog-on-Dog Aggression 

For dogs that display aggressive behavior towards others the key is to find the distance trigger. This is the point at which another dog is close enough to trigger your dog to react. Once you know the distance trigger, you can start to give your dog the space they need to not feel threatened, and thus reacting, even if this means crossing the road or taking a different route. Distance is the first step.

Use desensitization to create a positive association by introducing a treat when your dog sees the other approaching. The basic idea is that we want the dog to associate seeing another dog with positive feelings. Receiving a treat is a good thing. Timing is key. Pop the treat in front of the nose as they see the other dog. Try to not use any other method to get their attention. Saying their name or getting a sit might associate the treat with responding to the cue rather than seeing the other dog. Desensitization is the second step. 

Over time as your dog reacts less, decrease the distance until you can walk passed a dog without incident.

Dog-on-People Aggression 

It should not be assumed that all dogs like to be petted. Learning what your dog does or doesn't like and indicating that to unfamiliar people before they get handsy can go a long way to creating a positive association for your dog. 

If your dog does not like to be touched on the head, yet everyone they meet does this they will soon get fed up with people. If your dog ducks, shys away, exhibits tension, or backs out then they should probably back off. 

Ignoring a dog when initially meeting is also good when they are adults, let them approach you in their own time. Avoid direct eye contact as this can be confrontational. Movement should be calm and slow. Of course, playing or treats are generally quick wins.

Final Thoughts

Depending on how intense your dogs’ reactions are to new stimuli you can make huge progress by introducing the steps above by yourself. If you are not able to get any encouraging results, consult with a online dog trainer or behaviorist. Most dogs can be reconditioned to think differently, with the help and guidance of professionals. There will be some exceptions to this, of course, but with help, you can learn to manage any quirks your pet pooch has for a relatively stress-free time for you both.

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