Our dogs have often missed out on early socialisation because of their backgrounds, but helping your dog become more confident is an incredibly rewarding journey. Dogs who lack early socialisation may be reactive towards other dogs, or fearful around unfamiliar people. Some dogs are very scared of being handled or of certain noises. Your dog may be anxious anywhere outside their comfort zone.
Always remember to work at your dog’s pace, whatever that may be. Don’t force it. By “flooding” a dog with too much, too fast, you can increase fear and aggression. Keep their world small initially.
Keep practicing social distancing with your dog! The COVID-19 pandemic gave us some good practice in keeping our distance. For dogs who get overwhelmed or fearful around certain “triggers” in their environment, it is important to stay at a distance where they can see the trigger, but not overreact to it. They are too close if they are refusing treats, backing away, barking, growling, lunging or snapping.
It may be worth taking a mix of low value treats (dog food) and high value treats (chicken) on walks and use them to help you gauge how relaxed your dog feels. Food is often a good way to test stress levels if their body language leaves you a bit unsure. They won’t eat when feeling too nervous or stressed.
Be aware that your dog may not reach the level of socialization you envision – and that’s totally fine! Many dogs who struggle with missed socialisation enjoy happy and enriched lives without visiting places like a busy park, doggy daycare or the pub.
Keep the end goals in mind. The first goal is to help your dog become more comfortable, less stressed and anxious, and safer in their everyday life. The second goal is to make your life with your dog as easy and low-stress as possible.
Identify and use the reinforcement that matters most to your dog, but isn’t so distracting that it takes their mind off their environment. Many people use high-value food treats, but some dogs prefer playing with toys or calm praise and soothing petting.
Set Realistic Expectations and Goals
When the dogs first arrive, they are taking everything in and some dogs will tend to keep their heads down and sometimes seem surprisingly easy dogs. This we call the honeymoon period and it can lead to unrealistic expectations forming in the adopter’s mind. Two weeks down the line they are starting to learn about this new home, they are still insecure but also are aware they may be on to a good thing here. Sometimes this is when we see some unwanted, unexpected behaviours occurring.
You may have imagined that because you love them, your new rescue dog will soon settle in and be comfortable in most situations and you may have envisioned a dog that trainers refer to as “unicorn dogs.” These dogs are highly sociable, happy to interact with other dogs and all different kinds of people. Joyously romping into the vets and relaxing easily under the table at the pub. These unicorn dogs are not most dogs! But we see them everywhere because they can go everywhere.
Most dogs don’t love everything and everybody, and they shouldn’t have to. But the goal should be that your dog can be comfortable enough to feel safe and handle experiences that will need to happen throughout their life.
Some examples of realistic goals for your dog:
- Coping with visitors to the house, even if they are calmer staying in another room, that is ok, they don’t have to say hello to everyone
- Being able to play with one or two well-matched known dog friends for playdates (rather than expecting your dog to enjoy socialising with all dogs)
- Staying calm and focused on you rather than barking at other dogs or people while on walks even if that means you have to drive to quieter walking areas
- Being able to cuddle with you or lie in their safe corner when there are fireworks (rather than panic and try to escape)
- Allowing you or a vet to examine them
Having realistic expectations helps prevent you from becoming frustrated with or resenting your dog. You may not wind up with a social butterfly, but if your dog can be happy and functional, that’s a win!
Sometimes it helps to make a list of things that cause your dog stress, anxiety, or overexcitement. Then rank these things in the order of what is most important when it comes to you and your dog’s safety and quality of life and work on them one at a time. Start small and remember to work at a pace that is right for your dog. Don’t make the mistake of trying to get your dog comfortable with the whole wide world at once. Think baby steps and build upon successive wins, looking back over the months you will see good progress even when it feels like one step forward two steps back.
Sometimes you just can’t control the environment adequately for your dog and you may not be able to give them the space they need, maybe a crowded pavement, a birthday party or a busy café for example. In these situations it is often best to accept that your dog is not ready for this and avoid taking them there. There is nothing wrong with not bringing your dog along if you know it may be difficult for them. Dogs who become overwhelmed out and about can live very fulfilled and happy lives without being in these situations. Make sure your dog has lots of mental enrichment, exercise, and a strong relationship with you, this will give them a high quality of life, and you can work slowly and surely on additional socialisation as part of your training.