While you may think your dog’s socialization period ended during puppyhood, socialization should last your pet’s entire life. Without ongoing socialization, your dog can develop anxiety and become uncomfortable in new situations. So, although a puppy’s prime socialization period is from 3 to 12 weeks of age, socialization is a lifelong concept for dogs. This initial time frame creates the foundation on which your pup views the world, but they need repeated, positive exposure to novel environments, to maintain their confidence and calm in such situations.
Socializing an adult dog is different from socializing a puppy. Keep the following tips in mind when giving your four-legged friend the opportunity to experience the world around them.
#1: Schedule one-on-one playdates with other dogs
As a puppy, off-leash play—like in a puppy kindergarten class—is essential for learning behavior cues from other puppies. However, this same practice can be detrimental for adult dogs and result in dangerous outcomes. While there are exceptions, dogs no longer enjoy playing with large groups of unfamiliar dogs when they reach social maturity (i.e., between ages 1 and 3). For example, a dog park may be too overwhelming and force your pet to avoid the other dogs, cling to you, or growl and snap at boisterous young dogs who come too close. This behavior is often labeled as abnormal, but is actually common among adult dogs.
If you think your dog would enjoy social interaction with other dogs, start by gradually introducing one dog at a time. Invite a friend to bring their easygoing dog on a walk. Keep a polite distance between dogs while they get accustomed to each other. If both dogs appear relaxed, allow them a quick sniff while you keep the leashes loose. If both dogs display relaxed body language with gently wagging tails, consider an off-leash play session in a fenced yard.
Keep in mind that not all dogs want to interact with other dogs, and may only need people to fulfill their social needs.
#2: Practice good leash manners on every walk
As dogs grow older, opportunities for social interactions diminish, which can lead to leash reactivity when they see other dogs. Adult dogs who fail to receive ongoing positive socialization with other dogs may lunge, pull toward, or bark at other dogs on walks.
Leash reactivity is rooted in a couple of reasons. To start, greeting another dog while leashed is unnatural. When left to their own devices, dogs naturally greet from the side and avoid head-on approaches and hard eye contact. Being introduced to another dog while on a short, tight leash can cause tension, and force a head-on approach. Most dogs don’t want to be confrontational, so they display behaviors, like barking, lunging, and growling, to make the threat go away.
Another reason for leash reactivity is improper greetings. Insufficient dog-to-dog socialization past the puppy stage often results in rude greeting behavior, like charging up to another dog, bumping them, or jumping on them. Adult dogs will discipline adolescent puppies who display this behavior, which is why ongoing socialization past 12 weeks is so important.
To help prevent your adult dog’s leash reactivity, form a positive association with the sight of other dogs. When your dog sees another dog, get their attention, and offer a reward, without waiting for a reaction. If your dog begins to react negatively, move further away, and try to regain their attention. With practice, your dog will walk calmly past another dog while focusing on you.
#3: Visit public places with your dog
Although puppies are commonly toted along on public outings, taking an adult dog is much less common. However, adolescent and adult dogs still need socialization and environmental enrichment. Without offering them a wide variety of mental stimulation by exploring public places and interacting with other dogs and people, your dog is more likely to develop behavior issues as they age.
Low-key public places for your dog include pet-friendly bars, restaurants, and outdoor cafes. Festivals and other gatherings, provided they aren’t too crowded, can also be fun outings for your four-legged friend. However, if your dog appears overwhelmed by clinging close, tucking their tail, or flattening their ears, head home. Otherwise, give your pooch plenty of treats and praise for accompanying you calmly on your adventure.
#4: Stay on top of your dog’s grooming needs
As a puppy, your pet was likely amenable to brushing and nail trimming, provided plenty of distractions kept them still. However, as your dog grows older, they may be less willing to have their nails trimmed, ears cleaned, and mats brushed. Create a grooming schedule and stick to the routine, to ensure your dog remains used to being handled and groomed, always providing ample treats as rewards. Oftentimes, grooming falls to the wayside, but encouraging your dog to accept these potentially unpleasant tasks again can be difficult, so stay on top of their grooming needs from the beginning.
#5: Reward calm behaviors with treats and praise
While socialization is the act of exposing your dog to new stimuli, each interaction and experience must be positive to have a beneficial effect. Otherwise, your socialization efforts can do more harm than good. When out exploring and discovering new things, always be armed with high value treats to reward your dog for calm, confident behavior, to help reinforce their socialization skills.
Before venturing out to continue socializing your dog, ensure they are up to date on essential vaccinations and preventives, to keep them safe. Contact our Livingston Veterinary Hospital team to schedule an appointment.