Back to Behaviour

Lack of Socialization

By Cathie Cino

Professional Dog Trainer

Dogs who suffer from a lack of socialization can present extreme reactions when forced into situations they are unfamiliar with.  Although our hearts go out to any dog that shows obvious signs of fear or panic, it’s hard to be sympathetic when a dog reacts with violence.

Proper socialization requires two very important components ~ frequent and positive experiences in numerous situations.  This means that people, places, and things become a part of your dog’s daily life.  

The secret to excellent socialization is to make your dog think none of it matters.

The main goal of this article is to help you see that your dog does not have to engage in order to become social!  In fact, the secret to excellent socialization is to make your dog think none of it matters.  It is important that he can walk past a dog, child or handicapped individual and not worry about being corrected, excited or fearful.  Actually, if you appear unfazed despite his reaction, he will follow suit.  Think about the parent who reacts to their toddler’s fall ~ concern will create tears while a matter-of-fact attitude will develop courage.  Of course this approach works best when there’s been no previous association.

Most of us would agree that a working Guide Dog is the epitome of a perfect social and well trained animal.  So take into consideration his first year of life and the foster program’s training.  It…

  • begins in the home and gradually advances to quiet residential areas
  • introduces the dog to as many different, everyday environments as possible
  • slowly introduces restaurants, shopping malls, public transit, elevators, etc.

Although the emphasis is on gradual introductions, it is essential to note that the foster program does not require the dogs to participate in most settings.  If you have ever come across a puppy walker, you might be encouraged to calmly say hello.  If you have a dog with you, they are asked to politely hang in each others space without playing or wrestling.  This helps a dog develop a self-disciplined social awareness.

It is a common misconception that social dogs are created by allowing them to greet and play with everyone they meet (dogs, cats, kids, elderly, and all the varieties in between). Some very undesirable behaviours can develop from just such an approach.  Many dogs that frequent leash-free parks end up displaying dog aggression.  Surprisingly, some dogs with numerous kid friendly experiences end up with uncontrollable excitability.  Dogs with tons of outdoor activity time could develop detachment to anxiety issues!  It is not just the variety of situations that you introduce but rather how you reward the comfort level during them.  If you are confident in your knowledge of animal behaviour and communication, you can prevent common errors.  But if you’ve been taking your dog to the park to play a game of tag and he’s really been running for his life, your pup might just end up as another incorrectly socialized dog with all the undesirable behaviours that can go with it!  Just because you think it looks like fun, it doesn’t mean he’s developing healthy social skills.  

Puppy socialization

Let’s talk about puppy socialization first.  If you are lucky to be reading this article as you’ve just brought home your little bundle, congratulations!  It is between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks that we’ve identified their social imprinting period.  Which simply means during this time you can make or break your pup’s social future.  A traumatic experience at this time will have a terrible and sometimes lasting effect even though your dog will continue to be influenced throughout his life by social settings he experiences. So, always being aware of the surroundings you introduce your dog to.  I can’t tell you how many older friendly dogs have turned aggressive after a few incidents with unruly, bullish dogs.

Each individual pup has his own genetic makeup that encompasses his coping skills, inherent traits, and predisposition.  This explains why one pup approaches life’s events with confidence while another reacts with caution.  So it comes back to the critical point that whenever you introduce a new social situation to your pup, it is his reaction that is most important.  The goal for both of you should be to remain calm without concern for either’s safety.  Any extreme reaction by either one of you can result in negative exposure causing future episodes.  So if you’ve been scooping up your pup every time another dog approaches, you are going to create an anti-social baby.

Socialization challenges with mature dogs

If you are troubled with a mature dog who displays undesirable behaviour, your solution may be within reach.  There are three common causes to consider.  The first is a previous negative or traumatic experience, the second is an extreme lack of socialization, and the third is that your dog is reacting due to a physiological reason. For each of these problems I will use another dog as the trigger.

So let’s say your dog had a previous negative experience with another dog.  This will most often come across in a defensive reaction.  He may panic, lunge, squeal, and possibly attack if the other dog were to get too close.  Of course correcting your dog may feel like the right thing at the time but it will only make things worse in the end.  A gradual desensitization program which takes a distant approach to introducing other dogs can be a long process but depending on your dog’s fear and/or violent response, it may be your only option.  If your dog doesn’t appear so traumatized, you can use a positive reinforcement program that treats the dog (with play, food or praise) every time a dog appears.  It is critical you never let the second dog come so close as to prompt your dog’s reaction.  There is nothing wrong if your final goal is just to walk past another dog without incident.  It isn’t always necessary nor the right thing to attempt to be friendly with every dog on the street.  If you have a handful of doggie friends that you would like your dog to accept, it may be best to work with a professional who specializes in this.

Dogs that have been raised in complete isolation from other dogs tend to be more curious and cautious than reactive and aggressive.  These dogs don’t rely on past experiences so their reaction depends primarily on their individual coping skills.  If your dog routinely reacts to new situations with mild apprehension, it’s going to be a lot easier to convince him all is ok…compared to the dog that trembles, hides, or relieves himself upon the sight of a new distraction.  What you use to motivate him must be stronger than his fear. This is the standard approach to a first time introduction when trying to create a positive experience.  Some dogs will be easily bribed with food, while others might need to feel the safety of a barrier before any further introduction.  Whatever you choose as the distracter, it must be enough to ease their fear.  Your goal is not to force interaction on the very first introduction.  A behaviour modification program can sometimes take months before you see the slightest improvement.  This is the difference between reality and reality television.  If you know the personality of the second dog and believe it to be friendly and playful, you might consider introducing them when your dog shows relaxed interest.  If your dog copes well and doesn’t use aggression when pushed in new situations, you may find yourself with some new doggie friends soon.

Some dogs appear to be anti-social when the real issue is a physical one.  This can happen at any age with a dog that has an underlying health concern.  Before I attempt a behaviour modification routine, I will look at all the personality, exercise routines, and behavioural changes that have occurred.  There have been numerous situations where a recently adopted dog was labeled anti-social.  Fortunately, we were able to diagnose these dogs. In particular, a dog that is hypo-thyroid may appear to be aggressive and intolerant.  It takes an experienced eye and a thorough evaluation to pinpoint a potential health concern.  Do your best to note any minor changes or abnormal behaviours to help your veterinarian with his diagnosis.

Hopefully this article has given you a new perspective in understanding an animal with anti-social behaviour.  Whether your dog is shy or abrasive, there is likely an underlying cause that he had nothing to do with.  As their guardians, it is our job to ensure we provide, empathize, and guide our best friends to a healthy happy future!