Socializing Older Dogs

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While it is more difficult to socialize an older animal who didn’t receive the proper experiences when young, in today’s world, it is something that is necessary more and more.  Many dogs are adopted from shelters and dog pounds.  Often, these dogs, have not had the benefit of socialization at the appropriate age.  Even puppies dumped in a shelter at a young age are often victims of a lack of socialization prior to being dropped off as well as during their time in the shelter.  Most people assume that their adopted dog has been abused and that is the explanation for behaviors that they don’t understand.  More often than not, these animals have suffered from a lack of socialization their whole lives rather than life at the hands of an abuser.  Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this and instead of taking steps to remedy the problem, they simply chalk it up to horrible abuse and cater to the behaviors instead, which multiplies them tenfold.

Socializing an older dog requires different steps than one would take with a young puppy who is just starting out.  The socialization process has become largely remedial in the older dogs.  With a young puppy, everything is new and fears have not yet been formed.  In an older puppy or dog who has suffered from no socialization, fears are cemented and very real and can encompass the whole world depending on the specific situation.

Socializing an older dog will take longer than it would to socialize a puppy who has already had a good start.  Older animals tend to have developed a certain amount of suspicion towards strange people, places, dogs, noises, objects and situations.  While the process is more difficult, it is possible.  The number one thing to remember is to pay attention to the specific needs and problems that your dog has – each dog is an individual with individual experiences.  Keep this in mind at all times and modify accordingly.  Below are some basic tips to socializing the older dog:

  • Take it slow.  Give your dog plenty of time to get comfortable in his day to day surroundings before introducing him to new things.  Don’t begin intensive socialization as soon as your adopted or rescued animal comes home.  He needs time to settle.
  • Make sure you are aware of his comfort zone and take care to not push him faster than he is able to adjust.  One step at a time is your mantra.  If he is afraid of something, don’t bring him directly up to the ‘thing’ that terrifies him.  Do it slowly, over time.  As his comfort level and confidence grows, you can move closer and closer.  Help him gain confidence in a methodical and easy manner – don’t flood him with too much at once.
  • Be careful when socializing your dog with other dogs.  Set him up to succeed.  Don’t take him to a random dog park and make him go through trial by fire.  Many inappropriate ill-trained dogs frequent dog parks.  You can easily compound the fear of other animals that he has and make it so that your dog will NEVER be okay around others.  Pick known dog friendly dogs and set up private time with them and their owners.  Again, take it slow.
  • Ignore your dog’s fearful reactions.  When they are obviously afraid of something, don’t tell them its okay, don’t comfort them and react as though they have a good reason to be terrified.  All you will do is reinforce to them that there IS a reason to be fearful.  They trust you – if you react poorly you can bet they will latch on to that and it will make the situation even worse now and in the future.  Be normal, act as though the fearful thing or situation is simply not a big deal.
  • Use lots of treats and positive reinforcement.

When in doubt, find a professional positive trainer to help you out.  If you are not certain that you are doing more good than harm, don’t take the chance, seek help.  Socializing the older dog might be one of the harder things you have ever done, but the satisfaction you will feel in seeing your new pet blossom with confidence and happiness is well worth the time spent.