Last month we began covering the subject of socialization and why it is important for a dog to be socialized in order to be happy, healthy and balanced. The most ideal time to start socializing your dog is when they are a puppy. The more the pup is exposed to different environments, people and dogs, the more they will trust you and the world around them. Obviously, this is not the case with most rescues. It is very common for new dog owners to rescue an older dog from a shelter, a dog that has acquired many bad habits from their previous owners, which has left them fearful of everyday things and people.
Before starting any training, it is very important to build a relationship of trust with your dog. Without trust, no amount or type of training will work. Your dog needs to know that no matter the situation, that you have control and that you will not let any harm come to him/her. Once this trust is established, socialization training can begin.
So where do you start? With fearful dogs, it is important that they feel safe with you. If your dog is afraid of doorways, get him to walk up to a doorway and reward him. If he’s afraid of gravel, move him toward the gravel and eventually onto the gravel in a motivated way and reward him. Do not drag your dog to the gravel no matter how tempting it may be or how frustrated you get. He needs to get there on his own. You have to be your dog’s cheerleader, and although that may sound a bit weird – its what you have to do. Forcing a dog too early on to prove to him he shouldn’t be afraid destroys the relationship and does no good to build his confidence.
It is also important to prevent the feared (or triggering) situations from causing more fear. In order to prevent bad things from happening, make the entire process about you (the dog owner). So, if your dog is shy of people, DO NOT allow other people to give your dog treats – not yet! Instead, you give your dog treats while there are other people around. The reason for this is that you giving your dog treats has no risk of backfiring. If a stranger is giving your dog treats it can confuse the dog. He’s afraid of the person, yet the person has something he wants. What happens then is the person pulls the treat back and asks the dog to sit; now the dog is challenged by someone he is leery of to start with. Instead, you should feed your dog small bites of treats while moving around another person or people. The person has no responsibility except not to bother your dog. You can watch your dog’s body language and see the dog get more and more comfortable as the days progress. As the dog gets more and more comfortable, you can THEN ask the stranger(s) to just hand the dog a treat. All the while you can encourage your dog. Remember, it’s not important that your dog loves other people and other dogs, it is important that he/she accepts that there are other people and dogs in the world.
So how do you deal with a dog that has bad manners, for example, aggression toward other dogs due to poor socialization? Just like fearful behavior, this behavior needs to be addressed. In short, if a dog is fearful, you need to build his confidence—if a dog is dominant, you need to block that dominance. In either case, however, you want to prevent any bad situation from escalating. So, if your dog is reactive to other dogs, it’s best to keep him at a safe distance from the other dog. It is also important for your dog to understand basic obedience before exposing him to an environment where he can become reactive. Commands such as “Leave It” can be very useful when training a reactive dog. When your dog understands some basic commands, then you can get your dog at a safe distance to that which stimulates him – be it a person, bike, dog or whatever. When your dog becomes reactive, say Leave It and make sure he does. If he doesn’t you will have to block his attempt; this can easily be done by simply going in another direction. As soon as he acts how you want him to, reward him. Then re-visit what was stimulating him. If he leaves it, you can stop there and reward him. If not, redirect him back to you and THEN reward him. The key this is that your dog is always rewarded for doing the right thing. He should not be punished for doing the wrong thing. A correction should always move a dog into the direction of REWARD.
Another important aspect is that YOU need to teach your dog socialization. Handing him off to a trainer or a board and train facility is not the correct way. Dogs have different relationships with different people. A good trainer will work with you and your dog to teach you how to teach your dog. A trainer that grabs the leash and makes your dog do what he want’s him to do is not helping you and your dog. YOU have to learn how to build the best relationship with your dog. This might not be easy, but it is the best way to help your dog.
Your primary goal in training and socialization is to know your dog’s threshold and work around that. You don’t want to go past that threshold and cause him too much stress, but once you have a good relationship with your dog, you do want to challenge his/her limits and ask him/her to exceed them. Just like a good coach pushes his athletes without hurting them, you too want to push your dog for success.
Remember that socialization is a very important part of dog ownership, and poor socialization is a death sentence for dogs. Our nation’s shelters are filled with dogs that have poor socialization and improper training. Teaching your dog is a process, not a one-time exercise. If your dog doesn’t understand, he has to learn. You can’t explain to him that he shouldn’t be afraid – you have to show him that there is nothing to be afraid of. He is your dog and your responsibility. If you love him as much as he loves you then you will commit the work and time it takes.
Finally, always end training on a good note. For example, when working with a dog that has aggression, NEVER end the session with the dog lunging at another dog. Try to get the dog at a distance and in a situation where he sees another dog and HE (the dog being trained) walks away and gets a reward. If you allow your dog to see the other dog being removed from the situation, chances are your dog will see that his insecurity or dominance was correct. He needs to learn that his good behavior is what you are looking for, and only then will the session end. Putting him away or ending the session when he is fearful, dominant or avoidant is an imprint that will stick with him – and that’s not what we want. You want your dog to end with the imprint – “That was fun, nothing bad happened, I can’t wait to do this again.”