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So your new rescue is five years old–well beyond puppyhood. Don’t despair! You can still socialize your new companion.
I get the question all the time from new dog owners: “Can you socialize an older dog?”
Even if you’ve had your dog for years, you can still socialize him.
But you have to take it slow and expose your older dog to new things at his pace.
During the pandemic, it’s often been difficult to socialize a dog, but it can be done.
What Does Socialization Mean?
When we think of socializing a dog, we usually think of him playing with new canine buddies and happily greeting new people.
But, in reality, socialization is so much more than that. It’s introducing a dog to new situations, people, animals, sights, sounds, and surfaces that he needs to face in everyday life.
It’s acclimating him to all the experiences that he’ll have to face in his world.
And it’s important to move at the dog’s pace and not force him to accept things before he’s ready.
PRO TRAINER TIP: When working with your dog, I advise using a well-fitted harness. A collar and a tight leash may convey to the dog that something’s wrong. An anti-pull harness I like is the Freedom Harness.
When Is the Ideal Time To Socialize a Dog?
The prime socialization period is from about three to 12 weeks old. Puppies should remain with their littermates until about eight weeks old, as they learn many things from their littermates and mother.
Then, when we get our new puppy, we can’t wait to show him off. We invite our friends over to see our fluffy companion.
And we can’t wait to take him on the road to show the world how adorable and smart he is.
But many of us rescue an older dog and don’t have the opportunity to socialize our pup during this critical period.
I’ve adopted dogs at older ages and also socialized many puppies. Even with puppies, their genetic make-up enters how successful you are in your socialization plan.
With a puppy who’s been properly socialized, you have a blank slate to work with. Whereas with an older dog, he may not have been socialized or have been poorly socialized.
But most older dogs can successfully be socialized.
Why Were Some Older Dogs Not Socialized?
Some dogs weren’t socialized when they were younger because their owners weren’t aware that they should be.
Others weren’t because owners were afraid of their puppies getting canine diseases at a young age.
And some other people actually wanted their dogs not to be social–and even to be protective and aggressive.
Unfortunately, some puppies and dogs weren’t socialized because no one took the time and effort with them to do so.
Yet others were abandoned.
So there are many reasons why an older dog wasn’t socialized.
What Are the Signs That an Older Dog Needs To Be Socialized?
Some dogs take everything in stride. And even if they haven’t been properly socialized, they adapt well to the real-world situations they face.
They have a relaxed, slightly opened mouth and their tail may sway in a loose, easy manner.
But most who haven’t been socialized will show some signs that they’re having difficulty adjusting to day-to-day life.
Some dogs may become reactive, whereas others may shut down when confronted with new situations.
1. Reactivity or aggression
A reactive dog may bark, lunge, have raised hackles (raised hair on his back), have a hard stare, or bare teeth. The reactivity may even escalate to a bite.
Not all reactive dogs will escalate to a bite. But if you see any of these signs, it’s advisable to get professional help.
2. Fearful behavior
A scared dog may have ears held back, try to run away, drool, tremble, hide, have a tucked tail or lowered body, or whine. Their hair may even shed dandruff and their paws may sweat even though it’s not hot out.
A fearful dog is anxious and stressed.
How Do I Socialize an Older Dog?
The important thing to remember in socializing an older dog is that he needs to learn how to accept many new experiences to function in our world.
But he may not love all other dogs or people.
A common misconception is that socialization means your dog needs to love all dogs and people he meets.
Every dog is an individual whose past experiences and genetics influence how he reacts to new situations.
And just as we don’t love everyone we meet, we need to respect our dog’s limitations.
It’s often best with a dog who hasn’t been socialized to get professional help. If you find that your dog is very scared of the world, you want to give him the best chance that you can to make progress.
If you see any aggression such as growling, snapping, or lunging, you definitely need such assistance.
A positive reinforcement trainer who has experience socializing older dogs can really help you be successful. A board-certified veterinary behaviorist may be required if anxiety medications are required.
Engage only rewards-based, force-free professionals, not those who use dominant or corrective methods.
The following suggestions assume that your dog is healthy and can perform the exercises discussed.
PRO TRAINER TIP: Have yummy treats ready so that your older dog associates the world with positive things. Freeze dried liver, cheese, hot dogs, and chicken can work. Make sure that the treats aren’t too fatty and are tolerated by your dog. Just have them cut up into pea-sized treats.
1. Take him out for daily or at least regular walks
Taking him out not only physically exercises him but also exposes him to the world.
He gets to see new people, new dogs, cars, bikes, and motorcycles. He may pass by flags flying in the wind, see and hear children playing, see squirrels scurrying up a tree–and much more.
In my opinion, as long as your dog can handle it, exposing him to these real-lifesights, sounds, and activities makes his life much more interesting.
Expose him to things slowly–especially if he’s new to you.
You want him to have positive associations with the world. Have your treats ready and reward and praise him for calm behavior.
If she shows that he’s frightened of something, don’t force him to go near it. Instead, distance yourself far enough away that he’s not scared.
2. Work at your dog’s pace
It’s really important not to push your dog too fast.
Some dogs are naturally more outgoing than others, whereas others are shyer.
So don’t ever force your dog into a situation that’s uncomfortable for him. For example, if you see that your pup’s too scared to go up to someone, don’t force him to.
Take “puppy steps.”
Instead, distance yourself from the person or situation. Just calmly walk a short distance away until your dog isn’t stressed.
Some of the signs your dog may show when stressed are:
Yawning, panting, drooling, trembling, pacing, hiding, lip licking, tense body, and tail tucked.
3. Set realistic goals
Not every dog is going to love everyone and everything. And that’s alright.
When I’m training a new dog, my goal is to make him comfortable in his world. And to expand his world as much as he can handle it, so that he doesn’t live a boring life.
I want him to have the happiest life he can have.
One of my rescues, Linkin, was a very abused Lhasa apso. He was terrified of everything that was new to him, and he was especially fearful of people.
It took many months for Linkin to trust new people. With slow introductions to newcomers and new situations–as well rewarding him for even incremental progress–he eventually looked forward to his walks.
But it took a lot of work and not forcing him to accept things when he wasn’t ready.
4. Have patience
It’s often difficult to wait because we all want our dogs to be Lassie.
It’s easy to get frustrated and want to give up. As long as you see improvement, that’s great!
In the beginning, your dog may be afraid of the mailbox he passes. He may cower and try to pull away as he passes it.
If you give a treat as he passes (or even goes near it), also praise him so that he knows that’s the behavior that you desire.
Eventually, he’ll understand that’s what he should do, and he’ll also associate good things with what he at first feared.
5. Train your dog
Obedience training helps us communicate with our dogs.
It teaches him the rules that we expect to be followed. And it gives him confidence in his world.
Until he understands what’s expected of him, he may feel insecure in his world. And then the world may be more scary.
Teaching basic commands will also help you work with him. If you can get his attention, it can help him to look at you and not be too focused on something that frightens him.
Teaching him to walk on a loose leash will also help in his socialization because a tight leash can convey to a dog that something’s wrong.
Training classes are also a great, safe way to expose your dog to new settings, people, and dogs. In the training class, all of the dogs should be on leash at a safe distance from each other.
6. Introduce your dog to friends and family
Often, it’s good to start introducing your older dog to people you know at first. They need to listen to you and not rush at your dog.
Interactions must be positive. If the dog is too scared to have people approach, have the person at a distance, not staring at the dog.
Have your dog meet only one person at the time to begin.
When the dog calmly looks at the person, praise and immediately give a treat. The person should be at a distance where the dog isn’t visibly stressed.
Over time, which may be days, weeks, or even months, you can have the person be closer when the dog can handle it.
Eventually, as your dog is able to be closer to a person, you can have that individual give him the yummy treat.
At first, I never have the person hand the dog the treat. That can be too threatening to some dogs.
One exercise I use to help an older dog understand that new people are safe and not scary or threatening is to gently toss a yummy treat near the dog while using the cue “hi.”
So, in meeting a new person, I would first show that individual how to do this without the dog present. And practice a few times without the dog present so that the distance of the throw and gentle treat toss is done correctly.
The dog should be on a loose leash no more than six feet long. The new person tossing the treat should stay about eight feet away.
The person greeting the dog shouldn’t stare at him, and can even turn slightly sideways.
The person greeting the dog should toss the yummy treat near him while saying “hi, (dog’s name).”
Just do this three or four times in a row in a training session. Then, walk away with your dog.
Eventually, the cue “hi” with the dog’s name will mean to him that something great’s coming from the person.
And the more people you do this with, the more your dog will believe that people are good.
Eventually, over time, the new person can hand your dog the treat. But only do this if you’re sure that your dog is to the point that he trusts people.
Once your dog accepts some people, slowly introduce him to a wide array of people: women, men, people of different races, people with hats, people with coats, and others he may meet in his everyday life.
You want him to generalize that people are good and not to be feared. Some dogs may love people; others may love some people. And some may just love their immediate family.
To me, the goal is that we get our dogs to the point that they can function in the world without stress and fear.
Just take it slowly and don’t rush the process. Get professional help if you need it.
7. Keep expanding your dog’s world
As he’s able to handle it, take him new places such as pet stores,
In the beginning when I’m socializing an older adult dog, I take them places that are not too busy.
So I take them to pet stores at an off time, not on a busy Saturday afternoon. Or to parks where dogs aren’t loose. Or to new shopping centers when it’s not busy.
A rescued golden retriever that I had, Brandi, was a former breeding dog at a puppy mill. She was fearful of new situations, so I started introducing her to new locations very slowly.
We went to pet stores about an hour before they were about to close. There were no customers in the store and it was very quiet.
I would give her yummy treats as we went in the store. Then, I’d give her some as we walked around.
It took months before she felt comfortable in that setting. Because she actually seemed to enjoy her new adventures, eventually I took her places when they were busier.
Over time, she adjusted and loved her new-found freedom.
If, at any time she seemed stressed, we went back a step at which she was successful. Then moved onward again.
Eventually, you can take your dog to busier places when he’s able to handle it without being too stressed.
PRO TRAINER TIP: If your dog is too frightened, he won’t eat the treat. Don’t panic! Just go back to the step that he was successful.
8. Introduce your dog to new dogs
This can be tricky. Not all dogs want a canine friend in their face.
So I advise erring on the side of caution. First, let your dog see a dog at a distance. Reward calm behavior. Praise and treat.
You want your canine buddy to have a positive association with other dogs.
Don’t overstay your welcome. Just keep moving on your walk.
Over time, you can get closer to other dogs. You can even do practice sessions with a friend’s nonreactive, friendly dog.
Keep distance, getting closer over time. This may take weeks for your dog to be comfortable.
Over time, as long as your dog isn’t stressed, you can get closer. You and your friend can even walk your dogs parallel to each other, but far enough away that they can’t reach each other.
Eventually, you can walk them closer together as long as they aren’t stressed or reactive.
Then, you can do the same thing with other friendly, nonreactive dogs.
If at any time either dog seems stressed, just move away and end the encounter.
I don’t normally let dogs I’m working with go face-to-face with each other.
Normally, it would be unsafe even for friendly dogs to think that it’s alright to rush up to another strange dog.
In order to be that close, I read the body language of each dog to determine whether they should interact.
Remember: not all dogs love another dog in their space or face.
Also, in real life, we just need our dogs to ignore and not be stressed by dogs in the environment.
9. Distance matters
When introducing your dog to new people, situations, items, or dogs, it’s important not to drag them up to it.
Let your dog determine where to start.
Always start at a distance your dog can handle. If he seems too stressed, add distance.
Move back a few feet. Calmly tell your dog “let’s go” (or whatever his motion command is) and walk away to a distance he doesn’t seem anxious.
Stay upbeat and use a happy voice. If your dog senses that you’re stressed, he will be too.
What Shouldn’t I Do?
In introducing your older dog to the world, It’s important not to rush things. Positive reinforcement techniques will show him that the world is worth exploring.
1. Don’t force the dog to be exposed to an experience or being
If your dog appears to be too stressed or reactive when exposed to a new experience, person, or dog, back off.
You may be too close, so move away as we discussed above. The important thing is don’t drag your dog up to what he fears.
Doing so will inevitably make matters worse.
I’m not a fan of dog parks. Not all dogs who enter may be friendly to others.
For a dog just learning to greet or be near other dogs, it can be disastrous to have a group of dogs rushing him
One-on-one introductions are better and more likely to be successful. After all, we want our dogs to trust us and what we’re introducing him to.
2. Don’t correct your dog for a fearful or reactive response
A dog who’s stressed can’t help it. Correcting him for reactions you don’t approve of will show him that the world is to be feared.
Through positive association with new things, your older dog will better understand that good things happen when he engages with the world.
In socializing your older dog, it’s important to respect his limitations. Each dog’s an individual.
Some will adjust more quickly to new experiences than others will. As long as he’s healthy, it makes his world more interesting when we expand it.
Have you had experience socializing and older dog?
Tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.
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