Can you socialize an adult dog?
Adult dogs who have missed socialization can be helped, but it needs to be done right. Here’s the most effective, friendly way to teach your dog that the world isn’t such a scary place.
Did your dog miss socialization in the critical first few months? Perhaps you have been advised to keep your puppy in isolation for health reasons, or your work schedule was so crowded that nothing went according to plan, or you adopted an adult dog who had the best start in life for who-knows-for what reason . Regardless of how your dog has had a socialization deficit, there is a good chance that you will find Dr. Consulted Google and the vivid daylight terrified you because of their prospects of happiness.
I am here to tell you that there is no reason for all of this darkness. There are things you can do instead of throwing your hands up in despair.
No panic. All is not lost. Sure, no one will argue that this is the ideal situation, but your dog can still lead a wonderfully fulfilling life. Countless dogs that have not been socialized “according to the book” experience joy every day, as do their people. The key to making this a reality for dogs that haven’t had the benefit of adequate socialization is the same as for almost any goal: work slowly and patiently, rather than pushing them, and accept that it dictates how fast you are get where you want to go. It doesn’t help to set an arbitrary deadline for their progress. There has never been a circumstance better suited to the sentence: “It is the journey, not the destination.”
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Think about the purpose of socialization: Exposing your dog to a variety of objects, social partners, sounds, sights, and experiences in a positive and non-threatening manner. In the first few months of their lives (especially between three and twelve weeks, which is technically the socialization stage of development), puppies are really good at accepting everything they encounter in creepy ways. At this critical time, it is very easy for dogs to get used to new things when the new things are combined with happy experiences. (“That man in the funny hat gives me goodies!” Or: “This floor has a strange feeling, but it’s fun to play on!”)
After the socialization window has closed, it is generally more difficult for dogs to adapt to new developments. The better the socialization, the easier it is for them to generalize. (“Oh, another weird hat – that’s cool.” Or: “Wow, this floor is different from the others – that’s fine.”) For adult dogs who did not have these good experiences early and are learning new ones Accepting things and being comfortable in the world takes more effort, but progress can be made that can be continued throughout life.
It’s analogous to learning a language. It’s a lot easier for babies and toddlers than for adults – almost effortless with the right exposure. However, adults can and learn foreign languages all the time. Their proficiency in the language depends on their natural abilities and the time and effort they invest.
Keeping experiences positive. The most important part of making up for lost socialization opportunities is keeping them positive. Your dog can learn to accept or be less afraid of new situations and experiences by having many, many positive experiences.
For example, your dog didn’t meet children early in their life and now finds them terrifying. She can learn to be okay with children if you start with a child who is too far away to upset them. If she sees a quiet kid on the block or across the park, give her a piece of chicken. If you do this often enough, your dog will associate the sight of a child with chicken. That makes seeing a kid a positive experience, and that’s great.
Over time, gradually – and the governing word here is gradual – you can gradually get your dog into situations with a child who is closer or with multiple children in a way that doesn’t upset them but continues to teach them to be happy about children to see. These positive experiences are critical to success.
Conversely, you cannot help your dog feel comfortable around children by exposing them to negative experiences – for example, with a child some distance away or a nearby group of children running, screaming, and throwing their backpacks around. That’s too much for most dogs, socialized or not, and not a lot of chicken can make it a positive experience. Such negative experiences counter the goal of helping your dog feel comfortable around children by reinforcing their ideas about children who are afraid.
Walk slowly and don’t push your dog. There are many steps to taking in making your dog successful and there is nothing to be gained by rushing through them. Indeed, rushing them is counterproductive. Let them guide your timeline, not the other way around. If she handles a situation well, great! If not, get them out. Accept that she is giving you the opportunity to exercise your own patience.
Forcing her to be too close to something or spending too much time in a context that makes her uncomfortable will only hinder her progress. They won’t speed it up. Any time you try to help your dog get over fear or discomfort, you need to be willing to back off, even if you don’t want to.
Ideally, you can keep the situation positive and end it while you are ahead. However, if that fails, you will need to remove them. It is a great kindness to protect your dog from situations that put him in distress. Work with your dog where he is and expose him to new things in a way that works for him without trying to expose him to the world at once.
Adjust your expectations. If your adult bitch missed puppy socialization, she will go a different path than she would have based on these early experiences. Don’t expect her to be a social butterfly that will handle absolutely everything with the utmost ease. In all fairness, dogs with perfect socialization histories don’t often end up like this, and it’s even less likely for a dog that hasn’t had such opportunities. Remember, the goal is to have a dog who is safe, happy, and comfortable with most things and people she encounters in life. She doesn’t have to be a Happy-Go-Lucky dog without looking after the world to be incredibly happy and enjoy life to the fullest.
Don’t try to do this on your own. There are many resources that can help a dog who needs to learn to be comfortable and not be afraid, including books, webinars, and websites. Take advantage of them. Many focus on helping fearful dogs. This is because most dogs that have not been well socialized are afraid of various aspects of the world, be it cats, other dogs, people, carpets, or the sound of cars.
Find individual help. A qualified trainer or behaviorist can teach you how to use the principles of classic conditioning along with the best of treats and toys to help your dog make positive associations between new things and feeling good. It may not be as fast as if she took these shots as a puppy, but she can still take them.
Use what it can already do. For example, many dogs are not well socialized with people, but are very comfortable with other dogs. Take advantage of that and go to new places with a dog buddy. If someone doesn’t already live in your house, maybe you can borrow a dog, or a friend and her dog can go on trips.
Or maybe she had what some would call “no socialization,” but that’s actually not right. Has she met some people? Do you hear strong winds or do you walk on the grass and pavement? All of these exposures are helpful and very different from a dog that really had no socialization at all. There are rare and heartbreaking examples of dogs who have had no human-dog interaction for the first six months of their life. While these dogs are much more difficult to rehabilitate and likely not make as much progress as most dogs, the principles are the same.
In conclusion, remember that many dogs thrive without ideal socialization experiences and there is always time to help your dog achieve many of its benefits. Adjusting your expectations for the start of their lives is important, but that doesn’t mean that you should give them up. The effort requires patience, time and a realistic setting of expectations. Go slowly, keep the experience positive, diligently help her with things that alert her, and protect her from situations that could overwhelm her.
Many dogs that have not been socialized in a textbook are filled with love and joy every day, and we want your dog to be one of them!