According to an article in The Washington Post last month, the number of adoptions of dogs from shelters is “soaring.”
What’s behind this trend? People are spending more time at home than in the workplace; suddenly, the demands of dog-ownership seem less daunting—there is time to walk, feed, and care for a dog. Plus, the near-elimination of social gatherings has led to an enormous sense of isolation and loneliness. The companionship of a dog can fill that gap.
Whether you bring home a puppy or an older dog, your primary task should include “socializing” this new member of your family. Simply put, that means training your dog to get along with other humans and dogs in a variety of settings. The result: a happy, well-adjusted animal that brings joy to family and strangers alike.
Why socializing matters
Too many dogs end up at shelters because their family deemed them a problem—”jumps on visitors;” “is aggressive with other dogs in public;” “tugs too hard on a leash to make walks possible;” “destroys our shoes;” “will not come when called;” “steals food off the table;” “barks incessantly;” and so on. Hmmm. These traits are unpleasant, to put it mildly. Did all these families simply have the misfortune to acquire a bad dog?
Barbara Woodhouse, internationally renowned dog trainer and author of No Bad Dogs, believed there are no bad dogs—only dog owners who won’t, or don’t know how to, train their dog properly.
Build a foundation first
Essential to any dog’s socialization is that it knows the basic commands: come; sit; stay; down.
And the word “no.” You’ll need to use these commands during social interactions—with strangers or old friends—and be confident that your dog will comply. While you’re teaching these skills, always use positive reinforcement—never punishment. Reward-based training works beautifully with dogs. Use eye contact, verbal praise (good dog!), petting, a firm but calm, encouraging, upbeat tone of voice, and small food training-treats. Be consistent with language: for example, saying a loud “down!” when a dog jumps on someone is incorrect; instead say a sharp “no!” for that behavior. (Then, have the dog “sit,” and give it praise along with a pet or training treat.) “Down” is the command you use to get a dog to go from a sitting to a lying down position.
When your dog has learned the verbal commands, invite a friend to visit. Have the dog sit and stay while you answer the door. Once your friend says hello to the dog, go to the room where you’ll be hanging out and have your dog sit and lie down next to you while you and your friend chat. Repeat this exercise, gradually increasing the number of people visiting.
Socialization also requires that your dog is “leash-trained.” That means you can take the dog on walks without it tugging relentlessly on the leash, dragging you along. Leash-training teaches the dog to walk at your pace, by your left side, and to pay attention to you. As with verbal commands, use only reward-based training. If you’ve never leash-trained, sign up for a group dog-training class at your local community center. Or read up on it, check out Youtube videos on the topic, or ask your vet to recommend a local trainer. Practice in your yard until you and your dog have it down before venturing out into public places.
Limit all verbal-command and leash-training sessions to 20-minutes, and allow the dog unstructured play-time afterwards. Three training sessions a day is the maximum. After a week or two of daily training sessions, or when your dog has mastered basic commands and is leash-trained, you’re ready to begin socializing outdoors.
Take your dog for a walk in an area that’s not too busy. When a stranger approaches from the opposite direction, say hello and keep walking. If it’s someone you know, or a stranger who wants to stop and meet your dog, keep the interaction pleasant but brief. If the person has a dog, pay attention to its demeanor, and if you sense a potential aggression problem, don’t linger; keep walking. Walk your dog daily; on the first half-dozen outings, you don’t want to overwhelm your dog with too many interactions (and definitely not negative ones). Over the course of a 15- to 30-mnute walk, your dog will have experienced plenty of new sights, sounds, humans, and dogs.
As Shoshi Parks, Ph.D., Certified Professional Dog Trainer advises, “If your dog becomes overwhelmed [during outings] or if something unexpected occurs, soothe, don’t scold. Yelling at a frightened and stressed-out dog will only add to their stress. Instead, get your dog out of the situation quickly and help them relax with physical affection, play and/or food rewards.”
No bad dogs
Your dog looks to you for guidance on how to navigate its environment. Putting in the time to help your new dog master verbal commands and walking on a leash, and gradually introducing it to a variety of people and dogs in diverse settings will yield a well-socialized dog. The benefits are far greater than the effort it takes, and the result is priceless: a very good dog that gets to enjoy a long and interesting life with you.