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Socialization makes it possible for human beings to reach their full potential. It banishes loneliness and promotes feelings of happiness and belonging. The same can be said for our dogs. Puppy and dog socialization encourages confidence, self-reliance, and social skills. It is better to socialize your dog when they are young and impressionable, but the same methods can be applied to adopted adult dogs as well. Proper socialization requires exposure to various environments, situations, and people of all backgrounds. The process may take a few weeks or months, but the lessons your dog will learn during this time will provide a strong foundation for a lifetime of happiness.
Today, socialization is more important yet more difficult than ever. COVID-19 has forced many of us to stay and work at home, and sometimes alone. For people who always wanted a dog, but put it off due to time or lifestyle restrictions, the lockdown orders provided a perfect opportunity to finally get a pet. And those who were experiencing unprecedented loneliness found comfort in the companionship of furry friends. More dogs than ever have found homes, but COVID-19 has presented new obstacles for dogs looking to socialize. Socialization is key to developing your dog’s personality, and, thankfully, it is still possible to do while staying safe.
Why socialization is important
During the first few months, all puppies act like a sponge. They take in their surroundings and learn from them. Proper socialization allows your dog to become comfortable and familiar with various sights, sounds, and situations. If done correctly, socialization will shape your dog into a well-mannered, friendly companion. Everyday activities such as going for walks, trips to the vet, and interactions with others will be much easier with a sociable pup.
Sometimes dogs who were not socialized at a young age can be fearful and aggressive towards new situations or people. Unfortunately, many puppies and adopted dogs are not getting the socialization exposure they need because of COVID-19. When life returns to normal, these pups may become anxious when separated from their family for the first time.
When to start socializing
The socialization process should start as soon as your puppy is brought home, if not before! Before they go home with their new family, puppies will learn from behaviors and interactions with their mother, littermates, and breeder. As a responsible owner, you should take the time to observe and get to know different breeders, as this stage is vital for your dog’s development. When your puppy is brought home they are still quite young and their brain is continuing to develop. This means that they are extremely quick learners, making them quite accepting of new situations. During this key time, your puppy will permanently shape its personality. The more time and effort pet parents put into the socialization process will only help to better socialize your puppy.
If you want to socialize an adopted adult dog, start as soon as they settle in their furever home. When it comes to socialization, it’s better late than never!
How to socialize your puppy or adopted dog
The idea behind socialization is to have your puppy or adopted dog become accustomed to different sights, smells, and sounds. It is all about creating positive experiences.
· Start slow: Pet parents should slowly introduce their dog to new experiences - too much at once can be overwhelming. Do not start the socialization process by taking them to a dog park. This is a drastic change for your pup and may cause a fearful response. Instead, introduce them to one new person or pup at a time, then another. If they are fearful of a situation, take a break and try again another time.
· Practice patience: Patience is vital for proper socialization. Dorothy Avery, an experienced obedience trainer at The Dog Market in Toronto, says that it may be normal for adopted dogs to have a fear instinct. A country dog who has just moved into the city may only walk half a block before putting on the breaks, for example. But that is okay. Praise him/her for what he/she has done and then try again another time. Do not force them.
· Include the family: Each time your dog meets a new person, they are being pushed out of their comfort zone. Socialization with their new family is very important as they start to learn how to react and trust other people. Pet parents can encourage their kids to play new games with their dog each day to gain new experiences.
· Introduce your puppy to new surroundings: Once your dog has become comfortable with the basics, pet parents can begin to introduce them to new sights, sounds, and smells. It is important to remember that everything is new to your dog. You can think of socialization as a checklist. Try to expose your dog to all different people, places, and textures.
· Make a public debut: To expand your dog’s comfort zone even further, try taking them out of the house where they may interact with others. After they have got their vaccinations, a puppy will be ready to take on the world. A trip to the pet store or an outdoor playdate is great exposure for your dog.
· Enroll in puppy classes: Puppy classes will help your dog learn basic commands. However, the most important part of puppy classes is the exposure to other people and dogs.
· Give positive encouragement: Last but not least, it is important that pet parents make the social experience fun for their dog! Reward good behaviour with treats and praise. Your dog can read your emotions and if you are stressed or angry, your dog may develop a fear of that particular environment. Avery says “if a dog is showing fear towards something such as thunder I clap my hands and say ‘oh did you hear that!’. Then I give them a treat. I turn the negative into a positive experience so that eventually they are excited to hear a thunderstorm.”
Safe social exposures during COVID-19
You may be worried that your dog can contract or spread COVID-19. However, the CDC, the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and other public health bodies and experts agree that there is no evidence that pets transmit the virus to humans or have played a role in its spread. There have been a few cases worldwide of human-to-animal transmission in dogs and cats and animal-to-animal transmission in cats, but there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 being transmitted the other way from animal to human. On the whole, pet parents should focus on human COVID-19 safety protocols, given the very low risk of transmission through their pets.
Pet parents should continue to socialize their pups with adjustments for COVID-19. You may not be able to take your dog to as many public places, but a socially distanced walk or dog park visit are great ways to socialize safely. Try to stay at least six feet away from other walkers, and after every encounter, it is important to wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer. Avery suggests taking your dog to a fenced dog park and walking the perimeter, or setting up an outdoor playdate with a neighbour’s dog. She emphasizes, “If one had to make a choice between obedience training and socialization, socialization would win every time. Through the socialization training they learn to just be a dog and how to read other dogs. Without it they will become fearful of many things and not just dogs!”
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