How Can I Socialize My Dog?

Set her up for success 🏆

Did you just adopt a new dog and now you’re super excited to introduce her to all the awesome people and animals in your life?

While you might want to bring her everywhere you go right away, it’s also important to take the right steps in order to set her up for success — especially when it comes to dog training and socialization skills.

To understand how to socialize your dog, The Dodo reached out Juliana Willems, head trainer at JW Dog Training in Washington, D.C., for some insight.

What does it mean to socialize a dog?

Socialization is the process of helping a dog enjoy and feel comfortable with people, other animals, places, novel objects and environments.

It means bringing your dog out into the world and introducing her to various kinds of people and situations — which helps to make sure she learns how to be a happy, friendly pup (with manners!), and can reduce fear in unknown situations.

It also helps to give your dog the skills she needs to learn about boundaries — meaning she’s not running around and bulldozing other dogs who clearly just want to sleep whenever she’s around them.

What’s the best age to socialize a dog?

According to Willems, the best age to socialize your dog is when she’s a puppy — because there’s a critical socialization window in a dog’s life between 3 and 16 weeks.

“This is the age where puppies are like sponges, soaking up information and using the experiences during this time to determine how they feel about the world later in life,” Willems said.

Experiences — or a lack of experiences — during this critical socialization window can have a direct impact on a dog’s behavior as an adult.

So what happens if you adopt an older dog outside of the socialization window?

Unless you adopt a puppy who’s 4 months old or younger, Willems said that the dog you’re bringing home is well outside the critical socialization period.

“What this means is you won’t be able to undo what did or didn’t happen during that window when they were a puppy,” Willems said. “That being said, a goal with newly adopted rescue dogs is always to introduce them to new people, animals, places and activities in a positive way.”

Of course, there’s a good chance your pup was already socialized, especially if she was living happily with a foster family before she went up for adoption. But no matter what stage she’s in socially, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of what to look out for.

As with puppies, being exposed to people, animals and places isn’t enough if you’re hoping to get your pup to truly love and be comfortable with these experiences. You should be paying attention to how she’s reacting to these situations as well.

According to Willems, simple exposure without looking at if your dog is having fun, feeling comfortable and enjoying herself leaves the door open for a negative experience.

That means it’s important you don’t overwhelm your dog by going to too many new places — or meeting too many new people — when she first comes home.

How to socialize your dog

According to Willems, the best way to socialize a new rescue dog is to go at her pace, use treats and always pay attention to body language.

“When you let your new rescue dog approach situations at their pace — allowing them to approach or retreat when they need to — you’re giving them choice in the interaction and you’re decreasing the chances that your dog will feel overwhelmed and scared,” Willems said.

And make sure you have some of your dog’s favorite treats ready to go during the process!

Like these Zuke’s Mini Treats from Amazon for $13.95

If you give your dog high-value treats when she meets new people or new animals or goes somewhere new, you’re increasing the chances that she ends up really liking those experiences. Why? Because she’s learning that new people, animals or places equal tasty treats!

While you’re keeping her happy with yummy treats, make sure you’re also paying attention to how she might be feeling in this new situation — and always give her the opportunity to take a breather if she needs one.

She should always have the option to leave a new situation if she’s uncomfortable — especially when it comes to meeting new people and dogs.

How can you tell if your dog’s uncomfortable?

According to Willems, your best bet is to look at your pup’s body language — and its helpful to be able to understand what certain signals mean.

Obvious ones include:

  • A tucked tail
  • Trying to move away
  • Avoiding interactions
  • Growling or barking

More subtle stress signals include:

  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Ears back
  • Stiffening

If your dog exhibits stress signals like these, it’s important you advocate for her and move her out of the situation.

What should you do if your dog’s uncomfortable?

If you find yourself in a situation that’s making your dog uncomfortable, you’ll want to get her some relief by moving away — and you can also try adding something your dog loves to the equation.

“The most effective tool here is high-value treats — something squishy and stinky that your dog really enjoys,” Willems suggested.

Keep in mind, though, that you won’t want to give your pup a high-value treat or toy around a dog she isn’t comfortable with, to avoid sparking any possessive aggression.

Take your time — and socialize her slowly

It’s definitely worth it to put in the work with your new dog to help her get comfortable with her new life — but make sure to resist the urge to take her to tons of new places or introduce her to a bunch of new people or animals right away.

Aggressive behaviors are rooted in fear, so all the more reason to be very intentional, patient and positive in your socialization practice to help your dog learn their world with you is not a scary place!” Willems said.

Your new dog has been through so many changes — so let her decompress and get acclimated to her new home, routine and family.

All those couch snuggles will be worth it.

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