I was recently asked how you socialize a young dog when they are already anxious? We are told we need to socialize our dogs as puppies and continue this process through into adolescence and beyond. But what happens when our dog is already anxious by that stage? Do we still socialize? Or will that make it worse? It is a great question.
Socialization is often misunderstood, even with young puppies. People can think it is simply exposing them to everyone and everything, letting them experience as much as possible in the first few weeks and months. But it is not just about experiencing lots of things; it is about having safe experiences of lots of things. Our role is to manage what our puppy experiences so that they learn that the world is a good place and that, even if things are unusual, they are not threatening. So, with puppy socialization, quality is every bit as important as quantity. Yes, we want them to experience lots of things in that primary socialization window before about 12 weeks old – but those experiences must be good ones or we risk doing more harm than good.
When we are dealing with an older, already-anxious dog, it is even more important that we manage the experiences they have carefully. No dog will learn to be comfortable with something by being “thrown in at the deep end”. They need to learn slowly and safely that the things that worry them are not so scary after all. So, with anxious dogs, quality of experience is even more important than quantity.
Here are some dos and don’ts for socializing your anxious dog:
You will be more successful if you plan carefully in advance. Write down all the things that your dog is concerned about. Be specific. Are they only scared close up or is it also at a distance? Does the size of the dog or the age of the human or the type of vehicle that is passing make a difference?
Think about where you can go to see these scary things in a controlled way. Is there a park where you can watch dogs play from the safety of your car? Where can you stand to watch children coming out of school without your dog being approached? Is there a road where you can start walking well away from the traffic?
Put together a plan for all the things you want your dog to experience and the ways you can do this safely. What? Where? When? Who? How?
And once you have a plan, DON’T be distracted from it by well-meaning but misguided strangers or friends who tell you that you are doing it all wrong, that your dog needs to “face his fears” or that he is scared because you “mollycoddle” him. Just smile and stick to your plan.
DO start with distance.
Distance is your friend. Always start further away from the scary thing than you think you need to be. Far better that and for your dog to be calm and happy than to accidentally get too close and for your dog to freak out! Start working further away than you need and move closer very gradually, as your dog becomes more comfortable.
DON’T be tempted to move too quickly.
Take your time – it is not a race. Only move closer when your dog is really relaxed and comfortable.
DO make experiences positive.
The golden rule is that great things appear every time they see the scary thing. Choose the best thing ever for your dog – roast chicken, playing an exciting game – whatever they love most – and keep it just for these occasions. If you do this consistently then they will start to associate the scary thing with getting that amazing thing that they love and, after a while, it won’t be scary anymore.
DON’T force interaction.
Never make your dog approach another dog or person – that won’t ever help them feel comfortable. Always let your dog choose if they want to interact with someone or something, or not.
DO take breaks.
Experiencing new things is tiring. Learning is exhausting. So work in short sessions and take lots of breaks. Your dog needs time to process all the information they are taking in. It is your job to make sure they get it.
And DON’T be afraid to speak up if you need to protect your dog when they need space.
Tell people what your dog needs. Be prepared to say ‘No’ to requests to meet your dog if you don’t think it is right for them. It is far better to risk offending a stranger than to risk a set back with your dog!
DO choose your moments.
This is something to do when you yourself are feeling relaxed and on the ball. You need your wits about you so that you can make sure your dog feels safe. You need to be calm and focused and be able to give all your attention to your dog. So this is not the thing to do when you get in from a stressful day at work or when you are in a hurry because you are running late for your next appointment.
DON’T feel you have to do this every single day.
Getting frustrated with your dog won’t help and is much more likely to happen if you are stressed yourself. Take time out when you need it. Spend quality time with your dog at home instead or go and walk with them where you won’t encounter the scary things.
And remember quality beats quantity every time!
Janet Finlay is a TellingtonTTouch Practitioner, Dog Trainer and Human Coach, based in Yorkshire in the UK. She specializes in working with reactive dogs and their guardians by addressing tension and anxiety at both ends of the lead. She runs the online Canine Confidence Club (www.canineconfidenceclub), which provides information, education and support to members all over the world. You can find out more about Janet and her work – and get her free online courses on TTouch and coping with reactivity at www.canineconfidenceacademy.com.