Antisocial behaviour can really limit your lifestyle with your dog. If you’ve noticed they need to revisit their training and brush up on their socialisation skills, it’s best to get started as soon as possible.
Good socialisation is critical to the physical and mental wellbeing of dogs. It is also a vital part of building a healthy bond between you and your pet. Socialisation should be viewed as a continuous activity, rather than a puppy training tick box. Nevertheless, it can be frustrating if it seems like your dog’s social skills have regressed, especially if they used to be comfortable with meeting other dogs and humans. If you notice that your dog is becoming more anxious or reactive when they come into contact with people and other dogs, it could be a sign that you need to invest time in helping your dog feel comfortable in social situations.
What does good dog socialisation look like?
For your dog to be ‘well socialised’, or to have good etiquette, they should feel comfortable when they’re exposed to all the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life. They should also be happy in the company of other dogs, all kinds of people, including both men and women, children, teenagers and elderly people.
When a well-socialised dog meets another dog, they engage in all the natural dog behaviours you’d expect: sniffing, playing, chasing and barking in a friendly way. Ideally, your dog should also have learned not to react to other animals, including cats and horses, when they see them out and about. There might be a few triggers that unsettle your dog, such as fireworks, but, generally speaking, they should be able to live their lives feeling calm and relaxed, and get along with everyone.
On the other hand, if a dog has poor social skills, they are likely to be fearful or reactive when strangers and other dogs are around. They may also bark loudly in alarm, growl or show their teeth.
Your dog being well socialised starts in their puppyhood. While they are young, puppies need to be exposed to lots of different environments, with different scenarios, so that they become accustomed to the sights and sounds of everyday life and feel relaxed when they are outside their familiar territory. Socialisation will also help your pup learn to trust you and understand that they can rely on you, no matter what happens.
As you begin your training with your puppy or dog, your end goal is a happy, adaptable and confident dog.
Why can a dog revert to poor socialisation habits?
There are lots of potential reasons why a dog might start to struggle in social settings.
It’s normal for a dog’s training to slip over time. Perhaps you’re busy with work or family life, and the regular training routine you developed when your dog was a puppy has become a little difficult to manage.
Alternatively, perhaps your dog has reached a new stage of their life, such as the tricky adolescent time, and they need some extra positive reinforcement when it comes to understanding desired behaviours. Adolescent dogs, aged between around six to eight months, are keen to explore the world, which can distract them from what they learned during their early training.
Older dogs may be experiencing stiff joints and find it painful or tiring to play with other dogs. This could lead to a fear of other dogs as they associate them with pain.
A sudden spate of antisocial behaviour can be a reaction to a traumatic event or experience. Maybe another dog has attacked your dog in the past – in which case, they’re bound to be wary and on their guard.
It is also worth remembering that some breeds of dog tend to have naturally friendlier temperaments than others. Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels and Basset Hounds are all generally good socialisers. Nevertheless, every dog breed will need some level of socialisation to grow into a happy and well-adjusted individual.
Whatever the reason for your dog’s social struggles, there’s lots you can do to help them feel more comfortable.
How to socialise an older dog
Most dogs learn quite quickly but, just like puppy training, training an older dog to improve their socialisation skills can require lots of patience. They may have developed particular habits or behavioural patterns, they may have some deeper anxieties or triggers or their memory may be less sharp. As dogs age, they go through changes and they might need different levels of support.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that while training older dogs can be trickier than training puppies, it is absolutely possible. To improve your older dog’s social skills, take them out for regular walks, and slowly introduce them to people who are comfortable interacting with dogs, other dogs and new environments for short bursts of time. Slowly increase the amount of time they spend in places that seem to trigger unwanted behaviours – such as barking loudly at other dogs – and give them lots of praise, treats and rewards for demonstrating calm behaviour and improved self-control. Remaining positive and patient is really important.
How to improve dog socialisation behaviours at the park
Often owners see their dogs exhibiting anxious or reactive behaviour while walking in the park. A park can be an extremely overwhelming environment for a dog. There are wide open spaces, stimulants such as balls and sticks, other dogs, intriguing smells, new sounds and even wildlife such as squirrels. All of this could be exciting or overwhelming for your dog, and could easily tip them into anxious and defensive behaviour.
Here are some things to consider when socialising your dog in the park:
- If your dog is on a tight lead, this may well be exacerbating their antisocial behaviour. Try using a lead around 10–15m long, attached to a body harness. This will give your dog the freedom to interact with other dogs and run around, while you still have control. This can be particularly useful with adolescent dogs until you regain confidence in their recall response.
- Keep a supply of high-reward treats in your pockets to reward good behaviour. Give other dog walkers and friends these treats to reward your dog to reinforce positive interactions with them and their dogs.
How to improve dog socialisation in your home
If your dog overreacts when visitors or postal workers come to the front door, by barking and jumping up, or even growling, this is a sign you need to socialise your dog at home.
This experience is stressful to you, your visitor and your dog. So, it’s important to help your dog feel more comfortable and relaxed in these situations.
Help your dog to learn to be calm with help from a friend. Have someone press your doorbell, and then call your dog into another room, send them to their bed or safe space, or place them behind a dog gate, before opening the door to the visitor.
Reward your dog if they follow your cue, and only let them interact with your guest when everything has settled down and they’re calm. Repeat this process a few times in a row until your dog immediately goes to their safe space when the doorbell goes.
If your dog jumps up at you or your visitors, don’t shout at them or give them any attention. It can feel counterproductive, but ignore your dog until all four paws are on the ground and they are calm. Then you can praise them and ask your guests to greet them and give them a stroke. Greeting your dog when they are excited or overwhelmed may reinforce the undesirable behaviour and make the problem worse.
- If you’re worried your dog may be snappy or stressed, or there are children in the house that they’re not accustomed to, bring them into the room on a lead and get them to sit close by you, asking visitors to keep their distance.
- Praise and reward your dog for sitting still and calm.
- If they’re willing, ask your visitor to gently throw your dog a treat from a distance when your dog is calm. This will help your dog to feel sociable and trusting in the company of new people.
Keep track of your progress
Keeping track of safe or triggering environments, people and events can be useful. It can help you work out why your dog may be exhibiting certain behaviours. You can then take swift action to reassure them in situations they find difficult and improve their social confidence. Identify any patterns to their behaviour so you can pinpoint how best to support your dog.
It’s not easy to accurately remember your dog’s behaviour from a couple of weeks ago, so a progress diary is a great resource to have. There are a number of apps to help you train your dog.
The most important thing to remember is that, when dealing with these problems, you need to have patience and understand that your dog is not intentionally being naughty. As with any sudden behavioural changes, it’s always worth seeking the advice of a vet to check for any underlying health conditions. You could also consider getting help from a qualified dog trainer or behaviourist.
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