Dogs need socialization.
Whether it’s your Papillon learning to be a social butterfly, your Leonberger is assuming his role as a social lion, teaching your Pug not to be pugnacious in public, your Newfoundland not to be a nuisance, your Bull Mastiff not to be the bull in the china shop, your Great Dane to stop being a Great Pain or your Terrier to curb his terrorist tendencies when out and about, it’s your job to teach your beast how to act in public.
Part of the reason for the ongoing war between Big Dog People and Little Dog People is lack of socialization. The Big Dog Person is out walking the Big Dog, and along comes the unsocialized Little Dog, barking and growling and generally being obnoxious while the owner giggles and exclaims, “oh, isn’t that cute? He thinks he’s a big boy.” Errr, no, it’s not cute. And it’s dangerous for the Little Dog, especially the day he pulls that on an unsocialized Big Dog who thinks all Little Dogs are named Hors oeuvres. The onus to have polite dogs is on both sides of the Great Dog Divide!
The imperative for socializing Big Dogs is obvious, and, contrary to what some might try to tell you, socialization won’t ruin a dog’s instinct to guard. It should make a dog a better guardian – one with good judgment and can differentiate between a situation where he needs to make his presence known and one where all that’s required is being observant.
How to Socialize a Dog
Socialization builds a dog’s confidence. A confident dog is a safe dog. Dogs with self-assurance aren’t going to be fear aggressive. For a dog to be truly self-confident, he must also be confident in his owner; you are, after all, a team, and when he has trust in you, he will be more inclined to accept your assessment of a situation rather than insisting on having his way.
Above all, when you socialize your dog, it means you get to spend more time together, and that’s reason enough to put in the effort.
Age doesn’t preclude your dog’s ability to learn to move about in the world. Sure, it’s easier when you start as a puppy, but like anything else you teach your dog, if you have the trust established between you, the odds that your dog (unless there’s an underlying problem, like an abusive past that’s caused deeply ingrained fears) will put forth whatever effort you ask of him to become a citizen of the world you move through outside your front door.
Some dogs are ebullient spirits who have never met a stranger or a human who didn’t cause their doggy souls to radiate with affection and joie de vivre. When you’ve got one of those characters, your biggest hurdle is to teach them to curb their enthusiasm to socially acceptable levels. That’s a matter of basic obedience, and working toward a CGC (Canine Good Citizen) should get you there with a minimal amount of frustration and mortification on your own or in a class.
Shy or reserved dogs and small dogs need a different approach, one that doesn’t throw them off the deep end and flood their senses. That can set your social work back or derail it permanently. These dogs need a chance to observe the patterns of life from a safe place before venturing in a little at a time.
Always be aware of their stress levels. If they begin panting or trembling, or you see signs as subtle as a fixed stare or nervously looking off to the side, or you reach down to pet and reassure and lose dog hair follows, it’s time to leave the environment. Make it an orderly retreat. Don’t pull your dog in close and leave in a hurry. Be decisive but casual. Give your dog the message that things are all right and it’s not a big deal to leave. Nothing bad is happening. Nothing bad is going to follow you. Take some time to decompress and de-stress; a quiet walk with people and other dogs at a distance is ideal. You can go out again tomorrow.
Working with a dog who has reservations about being social should be like stretching. A little at a time, gradually increasing the reach, but never so much that it hurts.
Sometimes these quiet ones turn out to be the real stars of the show – regal, self-contained, and well-mannered charmers, whether they are small or large.
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