PET FRIENDLY: Socializing Your New Dog

| April 30, 2014 | 0 Comments | Pet Friendly

As a professional pet sitter I have the opportunity to meet, walk and interact over time with dogs of many breeds, sizes, ages and home environments. These experiences have reinforced my view that effective dog socialization with other dogs and people greatly enhances both your pet’s and your own pet companion experiences and relationships.

What are the benefits of socialization?  How would you respond to these questions?

  • When someone comes to your door, does your dog bark uncontrollably or does he/she bark to alert you to someone arriving, but anticipate meeting a new friend?
  • When you’re walking your dog down the sidewalk and it sees another pet approaching, does it wag its tail and want to greet it, or instead bark, growl and/or lunge toward it?
  • Do you avoid going to a dog-friendly store or dog parks because you (realistically) fear an encounter with another dog?
  • Would your life and that of your pet be more enjoyable if you could provide a positive answer to all of these questions?

If so, then socializing your adult dog should be a priority. So where and how to begin?

Most dog trainers agree: socializing a puppy and an adult dog are quite different, even if there are some common threads between the two. This edition of Pet Friendly will focus on socializing adult dogs, since most pet owners have adult dogs (1 year or older) and many have dogs they have adopted without having full information on that pet’s life history.

The more I read and observe, the more I agree with the “baby steps” approach to adult dog socialization. Most dogs reach “social maturity” between the ages of 1 and 3 years. Typically, your dog will advance farther and faster in its socialization as an adult if you first help him or her develop stronger basic listening and response skills (sit, stay, down, leave it, etc.) before placing them in riskier social environments with other dogs or people.

Individual professional dog behavioral training is recommended to provide a starting framework if you have limited experience in pet training. Specific, realistic goals should be set and a plan made and implemented to reinforce desired behaviors using consistent follow-up training by those family members who will have primary responsibility for dog walking and other pet care duties. This training approach works well with puppies too, but the goals, scope and pace of training likely will be different.

What Goals Should We Set for Our Adult Dog?

In contrast to puppies, socially mature dogs often do not enjoy playing with large groups of unfamiliar dogs. They may show initial interest in other dogs, particularly in sniffing to identify them. However, they also may try to avoid new dogs, stand close or retreat to their human companions and/or bark or growl at a younger, high-energy dog as it approaches. For adult dogs, this is normal behavior and forced interactions with unfamiliar dogs do not produce desired results and can backfire badly.

Generally, an appropriate socialization goal for an adult dog is to teach your pet to behave calmly in public and on walks, rather than play “nicely” with other dogs at dog parks. Having a few small treats on hand to offer as a quick reward for your dog when he/she behaves properly in such situations is often helpful. Most effective, however, is being ready to offer prompt, enthusiastic verbal praise for your dog’s efforts and achievement of good behavior on the trail.

For adult dogs, improved socialization with other dogs as well as people is best handled in frequent small doses in your own home or your back yard (off leash) or on leash with a single walking partner who has a calm, well socialized dog. Your goal is to gently stretch your dog’s comfort zone, not “build Rome in a day.”

Build your dog’s trust by avoiding face-to-face encounters with unfamiliar dogs; dogs that appear jumpy or aggressive; or what I call “fence patrollers.”  Face-offs along a fence line rarely turn out well between unfamiliar dogs. If walking your pet you can avoid unpleasant encounters with other dogs by remaining alert and crossing the street.

Another approach is to calmly command your pet to sit and stay (and then reward him/her once this is achieved). Again, the goal is to minimize risk, encourage a calm, conditioned response and reinforce positive results.

In short, socialization works best when encounters are brief, properly supervised and controlled and you receive clear feedback (body language) from the participating pets that this is an enjoyable experience. By maintaining proper control, protecting your pet from unwanted contact with unfriendly pets and encouraging relaxed, periodic engagement with friendly pets and new people, you will gradually socialize your adult dog and enjoy your walks and encounters with other pets and people more fully. And when in doubt, seek professional help from a qualified dog training/behaviorist expert! 

Chris Bates is the founder of Top Choice Pet Care LLC (, which provides affordable, loving and reliable dog walking, pet sitting and other pet services to the Bristow, Gainesville, Haymarket, Manassas and Nokesville communities.  A farmer’s son, life-long animal lover and pet owner, Chris is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) through Pet Sitters International and is PetSaver™ trained in pet first aid and CPR.

© 2014, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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