How to boost your dog’s social skills

Anti-social behaviour can really limit your lifestyle with your dog. Unfortunately you may have noticed a setback in progress due to lockdown as your dog is meeting fewer dogs and people day-to-day. Petplan’s behaviourist Nick Jones and APBC clinical animal behaviourist Inga MacKellar give us some advice on how to boost your dog’s social skills so you can both feel more relaxed and ready to have fun.

Is your dog shy, anxious or tricky to handle when he comes into contact with other people or dogs? Even the most socially adept dog can slip into habits that leave you cringing at those disapproving looks from other dog owners in the park or feeling awkward when you have visitors. This may become especially prominent due to recent changes in your routine, and lack of other dog or human interaction, as a result of coronavirus restrictions. New research from Petplan has revealed a new challenge facing the nation’s pets and their owners. 18% of pet owners cited that they were concerned about aggressive behaviour in their pets post lockdown.

Of course, some dogs and breeds are naturally friendlier and more adventurous than others. But socialisation and assimilation with a wide range of experiences and environments during your dog’s early training will help him to be more adaptable, confident and relaxed, even when out of his familiar territory. Checking out a puppy training guide can refresh your memory on the essential socialisation steps. For those of you with new puppies, we have some tips for helping you socialise your puppy at home during lockdown. Most dogs learn quite quickly, but training an older dog to improve their people skills can take longer as their memory may be less sharp.

If going to the park is tricky

After you’ve put lots of hard work into your dog training techniques it’s stressful when he starts acting-up, barking at people and even showing apparent aggression towards other dogs. A sudden spate of antisocial behaviour can be a reaction to a traumatic event or experience. Maybe he’s been attacked by another dog in the past, so he’s bound to be wary and on his guard.

Due to restrictions, it is likely your dog has spent more time on their lead and had fewer interactions with other dogs and people over the past few weeks than normal so it may be the case that they are lacking social contact and could be frustrated by this.

There may also be other reasons for anti-social or unruly behaviour. Younger dogs, typically in their adolescent period of around six to eight months, are keen to explore the world and can seem to forget all their early training, becoming unresponsive and boisterous. Older dogs may have previously lacked early training and socialisation, or perhaps be experiencing stiff joints and find it painful to play with other dogs. This could lead to a fear of other dogs as they associate them with pain.

Top tips:

  • If your canine is on a tight lead, this may well be exacerbating his antisocial behaviour. If he barks and pulls at his lead, it could be through frustration at wanting to go for a run, and possibly not because he’s being aggressive.
  • Try using a line that’s around 10-15m long attached to a body harness. This will give him 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 gain confidence again in his recall response.
  • Keep a supply of treats in your pockets to reward good behaviour, and when restrictions are lifted, suggest that regular dog walkers in the park give him a treat when he behaves well around them and their dogs, so he’s pleased to see them.

When visitors call and it’s chaos

Everyone is usually excited when visitors come to the door, but if your dog goes over the top by barking and jumping up, others might not be so pleased to see him. It is likely you have not had any visitor in the house recently so when the time comes, your dog may be even more overwhelmed.

Help him to learn to be calm by calling him into another room or placing him behind a dog gate when visitors first arrive at the door. Reward him if he obeys your command to follow you, and only let him out once everything has settled down and he’s calm. If he jumps up at you or your visitors, try not to shout, but ignore him until all four feet are on the ground and he is calm. Then you can praise him and ask your guests to greet him and give him a stroke, if they are comfortable to do so. Greeting your dog when they are excited or overwhelmed may reinforce the undesirable behaviour and make the problem worse.

Top tips:

  • If you’re worried that he may be snappy or stressed, or there are children in the house that he’s not accustomed to, bring him into the room on a lead and get him to sit close by you, asking visitors to keep their distance.
  • Praise and reward him for sitting still and calm.
  • If they’re willing, ask your visitor to gently throw him a treat from a distance when your dog is calm. This will help your dog to feel sociable.

Keep a progress report

Starting a progress report can be really useful. It can help you work out why your dog may be acting in an unsociable way. You can then take swift action to bring his social confidence up to scratch. Keep a record of when the problems occur to help identify any triggers and patterns to his behaviour. It’s not easy to accurately remember his behaviour from a couple of weeks ago, so a progress diary is a great resource to have.

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. Always seek professional advice and do not to get angry with your dog.

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