Dog Articles - Socializing Early for the Benefit of Mental Health

Socializing Early for the Benefit of Mental Health

Socialization is one of the single most important things you can do for your puppy. Depending where you adopted the puppy from, she may or may not have been exposed to all kinds of things before coming to live with you. It is well proven within the dog training industry that dogs that are socialized as puppies are more confident throughout their lives.

Let’s say you get a puppy at about eight weeks old. At that point, you should not take your young pup to hang out with other dogs you and the pup don't know primarily because puppies lack the proper vaccinations to protect them from diseases. If you have a friend or family member who has a dog that you know has been vaccinated and is safe to hang out with, you can certainly allow your puppy to play with him.

Look for places where it’s safe to take your pup

Some places also hold puppy “Play Times” for young dogs that are not fully vaccinated, kind of the same thing they do with kids. You also want to avoid public areas where people take dogs that may not be vaccinated. That being said, when your puppy is between eight and sixteen weeks, you should still attempt to socialize your dog.

Exposing your puppy to a wide variety of people will help with their mental soundness later in life. This includes adults, children, people with hats on, people with beards, people with disabilities – basically, as many different types of people as possible. You can also carry your dog into many stores at this age for extra exposure to humans, but do not put him down; he’s not ready yet. Any pet shop, as well as places like large hardware stores, welcomes dogs and will understand what you’re trying to accomplish. The wide exposure to a variety of people helps build their mental stability by reducing fear and insecurity, which is vital later in life.

Along with this comes exposure to different places, different smells and different noises. You should gradually introduce your puppy to as many different things as you can to help him become comfortable and confident. On the flip side, be mindful of making your puppy's world too big too quickly. You can do more harm than good by bringing a puppy you have had for one day to a huge store with tons of noise and people!

When it’s time to introduce your puppy to other dogs

Once your dog is fully immunized at approximately 16 weeks age, you can begin to introduce him to other dogs. You obviously want to be cautious as your dog is young and inexperienced, but approaching friendly canines is a must. This socialization builds your dog’s confidence. In addition, being around or playing with other dogs allows your pooch to figure out the appropriate way to interact with other dogs. Dogs that are never around other dogs feel insecure and frightened, which is often displayed by aggression.

I worked with a young couple who had a very aggressive five year old St. Bernard. They told me that once she got big, they had trouble walking her, so they simply stopped. The dog lived in their home and backyard for 4 1/2 years, without ever interacting with other dogs or people. When I met her, she was extremely aggressive, and it took nearly an hour for her to allow me to approach her. Over the course of a month I was able to help the couple socialize her to both other dogs and a wide variety of people. The rehabilitation took many months, as the lack of exposure really damaged her mentally and created a tremendous amount of fear and distrust.

This brings us to a situation people who have adopted rescue dogs often face. Many rescue dogs were mistreated by their humans, and even more were never properly socialized. I work with a number of clients on a regular basis whose rescue dogs show fear and insecurity as a result of their previous treatment and training. Again, this insecurity is typically manifested in aggression, which is never a good sign. These dogs can only choose between “flight or fight,” and all too often it is the latter. Typically, such dogs were never socialized.

With that being said, if you adopt a rescue dog, you should try to establish how comfortable he is with other dogs and people, and begin to socialize him cautiously. This way you can help your Fido become less insecure and frightened, and increase his mental stability. The process can take a long time with a rescue dog that was badly treated or simply not socialized, but it can be done.

When attempting to socialize your dog

If you’re trying to socialize your pooch, you first need to assess if your dog is afraid and if so, what causes this fear. Don't allow people or dogs to approach your pet right away. It is always best to do this with friends and family first. If your dog does have a bad reaction, this will help protect both you and your dog from possible injuries, unpleasant conversations and especially legal ramifications if your dog does bite. Never force your dog into a situation they are uncomfortable with, and if they are still displaying aggression, you should seek professional help.

When all goes well with introducing a pup to people you know, bring your dog to a place where there’s a variety of strangers hanging around, maybe even dogs on leashes. Dog parks, or even regular parks that allow dogs can be a good place for socializing your pup. Sit on a bench and have your dog simply take in what is going on around them. If someone approaches you, be upfront that you are unsure if your dog is friendly. Assess how your dog reacts to other animals, dogs and people, and try to establish a pattern. For example, does your dog react to big dogs or small dogs? What reaction is it – fear, happiness, curiosity? How about reacting to elderly people or children? People making loud noises or people wearing hats or riding bikes? Everything counts with a young puppy.

If your dog is showing aggression, you should by no means allow it to continue. You can try to correct aggressive behavior yourself following well establishing obedience training patterns. But if you do not feel confident in handling the situation yourself, seek out the help of a qualified dog trainer. Negative socialization experiences can lead to even greater problems, and avoiding these instances has a similar result.

A well socialized dog is typically comfortable, confident and mentally stable. The more you do for your dog when she is young, the better. If you didn't get your pooch when she was a puppy, you can still work with her to build mental stability through socialization. With patience, consistency, and good techniques, you can achieve very positive results with most dogs in a reasonable amount of time.

This is a guest post by Beth Jeffery of Top Dog Tips, a professional dog trainer and animal behaviorist with 15 years of experience in the field.

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