Socialising a Rescue Dog
Updated: Apr 6
The world “Socialization” is one of those words that seems to have taken on a life of it’s own in the world of dogs. Now it’s not that people are misdefining the word and calling something socialization when it’s not - it’s just that they don’t apply it broadly enough. The reason is that socialization doesn’t just mean helping a dog to become comfortable around other people and dogs by taking them outside and having puppy parties, although that’s a big part of it. Really, anything you do to help a dog become more comfortable with basic aspects of their environment is classed as socializing.
These are seemingly miniscule things such as if you’re bringing a dog into a cityscape, for example, you’ll need to socialize them to all of its sounds, from buses and motorcycles to the chaos of construction sites and emergency vehicle’s sirens. Similarly, if you’re bringing a dog into a rural environment, you may need to socialize them to the neighbour’s farm animals and machinery, in the UK foxes at night can be quite loud and tend to sound like a woman screaming, or if you’re in the US the sound of coyotes can also be something you dog has to acclimate to.
There’s two important types of dogs that really need socialization, these are most commonly puppies, and then after that it’s rescue dogs. The great thing about socializing puppies is that they haven't had time to pick up bad behaviours that become engrained. Rescue dogs on the other hand often have owners that allow negative behaviours or they’ve had time to let those behaviours really sink in, so results and the effort needed in socializing them become more varied.
Even if the shelter you either got or are getting your dog from isn’t able to tell you much about your pup’s history, the animal’s body language in different environments and situations is likely to give you some good clues. The fewer positive experiences a dog has had with a variety of situations during their “critical socialization period”—the time between 16 weeks of age and 3 years of age—the more likely they are to be fearful of new things.
Reading your dog’s body language can be easy if you know what to look for, for example let’s have a look at a sign of fear. A dog who tucks its tail and attempts to escape the leash when on busy streets, for example, is likely a dog that has had limited or no experience on leash on busy streets. This would definitely be something to work on as there is a high potential for hazards.
The key to socializing a rescue dog to any unfamiliar sights, sounds or experiences is to let the dog set the pace. Keep them as relaxed as possible and don’t try to rush them, as this will increase their stress and the training will become ineffective.
Look for signs of discomfort, anxiety or fear in your dog’s body language. These signs include Tucked tails, flattened ears, lip licking or nose licking if done a few times in a row, yawning a lot, shaking, having a crouched body, attempting to run away or hide, whining or piloerection. Piloerection is the hair standing up on their necks and/or their spine.
Pushing your new pup into an uncomfortable situation before they’re ready is likely to “flood” them, causing them to shut down. They can even form negative associations with whatever you were trying to acclimate them to not just leaving the training ineffective but also hindering further training sessions. Instead, move slowly and allow your dog to “graduate” from less challenging to more challenging scenarios and training sessions.
Most of the time your dog will be passive with your training sessions, in that the behaviour hasn’t been learned yet and there isn’t any persistence against what you’re trying to teach. What we mean here is that in some cases, negative past experiences may cause a dog to feel the need to act “aggressively” to defend themselves against a perceived threat. It’s important to learn to read your dog’s body language for defensive behaviour. For example you may see them bark, lunge, snarl, growl or grimace.
If you see these signs, your socialization work will likely need to be combined with other elements of training and counter-conditioning, and it may be best to consult a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or attend a group class.
Alternatively though, if your dog is hesitant but not defensive when they’re introduced to other dogs, children, men, busy streets, and so on, the following rules can help to gradually introduce them in a positive way.
1 - Keep encounters positive and keep them brief.
Praise and encourage your dog for every victory you can. If you’re not introducing your dog to other dogs, use treats liberally. If however, you’re introducing your dog to other dogs then use treats sparingly, this will help avoid any food squabbles. Reward your dog for looking at the “scary” thing or for choosing to acknowledge and interact with it. Never force your dog to interact before they are ready.
If you’re trying on-leash introductions to other dogs while out on your dog walks then once you’ve determined the other dog is friendly, allow your pup to interact. Let them sniff, praise them for the calm behaviour and then move on in under 30 seconds. You can reward them with a treat after you have completely moved past the other dog. The longer you hang around, the more likely it is for one dog to become uncomfortable or overstimulated and lose the good behaviour.
2 - Start off small with less challenging or intimidating environments or encounters.
Dogs, other animals, and people too, have what’s known as a “stress threshold”. This is all about keeping your dog under theirs. If they’re calm and relaxed, they’ll be able to learn more effectively whereas once the stress skyrockets, learning goes out the window. If getting your dog to walk comfortably down a busy street is your goal, start first with a quiet residential street. When their confidence has grown, take them to a slightly busier area, and so on.
3 - If your dog becomes overwhelmed or if something unexpected occurs, remember that you should soothe, don’t scold. Yelling at a frightened and stressed-out dog will only add to their stress and make the whole situation far worse. Instead, get your dog out of the situation as quickly as possible and help them relax with physical affection, play and/or food rewards. A great way to socialise your dog is to drop them off with a sitter who offers dog boarding in your area. Another good option are dog walkers - your dog will get exercise, learn to behave around other dogs and will get used to being pleasant on a leash.