“How Do I Get My Emo Dog to Socialize?”
The Wildest Collective dog trainer Robert Haussmann’s tips for getting a shy pup to go from wallflower to social butterfly.
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My six-month-old pup, Gator, is a velcro dog and never leaves my side. He’s generally pretty happy but he lived in the mountains for the first couple of months of his life, so isn’t used to hanging out with other dogs. At dog parks, he doesn’t play with other dogs unless they approach him first. How can I help him be comfortable enough to socialize? — James
Gator (great name BTW) sounds like a good dog. Being a bit cautious isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps we can help improve his comfort level and willingness to engage other dogs. We also want to prevent him from becoming over-stressed and developing any fearful or reactive behaviors around other dogs.
Dogs go through a developmental stage known as the critical period — commonly referred to as the socialization period — between two and 14 weeks of age. During this time, dogs can develop familiarity with a variety of sights, sounds, other animals, people, and situations. It is their exposure during this crucial time that builds resilience and confidence around novelty. The more exposure, the more comfortable they become. Since Gator has spent much of his early socialization period in the mountains, he may not have developed his social chops with other dogs. This can leave him feeling unsure about inviting or accepting play and/or expressing his likes and dislikes and his ability to safely resolve conflict.
At six months of age, Gator is just starting his teen years. Along with the awkwardness that befalls all teens, dogs also hit yet another developmental phase called the secondary fear period. The secondary fear period starts between six and eight months of age and lasts until about 18 months. This lesser-known and often overlooked stage of life coincides with the time when a dog would leave the care of his mother and venture off in the world. Nature, being as clever as she is, flips a little switch in the brain that says, Be careful, if you’re not 100 percent sure, stay back, and proceed with caution!
Having a sheltered early socialization period followed by intense exposure during the secondary fear period can lead to anything from minor discomfort to severe fearfulness depending on the dog. Lucky for you, it sounds like Gator is more of the former and just feels a bit uncomfortable around other dogs. Here are some tips to help him go from wallflower to social butterfly.
Dog parks, daycares, and playdates with other rowdy puppies may be a bit too much for Gator. Closed spaces with larger groups of dogs running around and playing can often be pretty overwhelming. Try enlisting some friends or family members with dogs to go on walks together, moving in the same direction and having the chance to be near each other without a lot of face-to-face encounters right away. Allow both dogs to take their time and feel safe. They are seeing and smelling each other from a distance while roaming around together sniffing and exploring.
After about 10 minutes of this, you can stop and see if they are interested in sniffing each other for a few seconds. Once they have given a sniff or two, walk-on for a bit longer, stopping occasionally to assess their comfort level and allow them to engage in prosocial behavior. They can then be encouraged to have a little outdoor off-leash play too. Building Gator’s social experience and exposure should accumulate into an overall sense of safety in the presence of dogs.
Find your tribe.
Some dogs play rough, some dogs play gently. Some dogs like to chase, some dogs like to wrestle. Others just want to play fetch and be left alone. Follow Gator’s lead on what kind of player he is and set him up with playmates and activities he enjoys. Perhaps the dog park on a Saturday morning is just too rowdy for him. Maybe the closest dog park is just not big enough for him to find a buffer to create space and assess the situation. Maybe he is more into an open field with a few good friends. If you find a group of dogs he gets on with, try and make it a regular thing. If you find a big open park where he can avoid rowdy dogs and find chiller playmates, go out of your way to take the trip — even if it means passing the park right down the block.
Book a class.
A well-run group training class can be an organized way to engage with other dogs without play being the primary focus. Find a class with a professionally certified trainer who practices LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) techniques and has plenty of experience. Learning a strong foundation of training cues is also a real confidence booster and opens up a clear line of communication and strong bond between you and Gator.
Help him build confidence.
Engaging in activities where Gator can feel capable and safe can help him in his day-to-day confidence. Try engaging in some scent games. Have him perform a down stay in one room while you hide his breakfast, a few kibbles here, a few kibbles there, then release him to go find it. If he eats wet or raw food this can be distributed in stuffable rubber toys and hidden in the same manner.
Speaking of stuffable toys, invest in a variety of interactive feeding toys that he can engage with and dissect. This can be the primary way he eats his meals and any snacks outside of training. Having him search and forage for his own food is a great way to help him feel capable.
While it will be tempting to take him into the dog park on a Saturday when everyone looks like they are having a good time, try to avoid putting him in situations where he may feel overwhelmed. You may even receive well-meaning advice to keep bringing him until he gets used to it. But this can have adverse effects on your progress, especially during this sensitive time in his development. Exposure to dogs is critical to getting him to feel more confident around them and therefore more social. Make sure to work slowly until he is ready and excited to go play.
Know thy animal!
Once Gator is more comfortable playing with dogs, it is still important to know when he has had enough or if he is feeling a bit overwhelmed. Familiarize yourself with canine body language and the subtle cues that indicate when he is and is not comfortable. Remember you are his teacher, guardian, and overall main squeeze. He depends on you for information and trusts you to make decisions that keep his best interests in mind.
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Robert Haussmann, CPDT-KA
Robert Haussman founded Dogboy NYC in 2005 to help pets navigate the urban jungle that is New York City using creative, practical, and humane training methods. Haussmann is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant, specializing in helping dogs overcome behavioral issues including fear, phobias, anxiety, and aggression. He advises owners on the best practices for making their dogs feel safe at home and beyond.