Angie Hill, editor at woofdog.org, is our guest writer on the topic of socialising anxious dogs.
Socializing your dog is a job that cannot be rushed; even more so if they have anxious tendencies. Good training in this area isn’t simply a case of exposing your pup to lots of sights, sounds, people and places because this can all be very overwhelming and have a negative effect.
Effective socialization, especially for anxious dogs, involves plenty of safe experiences in pretty much everything your dog is being introduced to. Your role as a responsible pet parent is to carefully manage what your dog experiences so that they can grow and develop in a way that helps them live stress-free.
Having a happy, healthy four-legged friend in the family is what we all strive for, so when you are working on socializing them, quality is the focal point. You want your pet to explore and experience many different things, but you must ensure that these experiences are good ones or there’s a risk that you can do more harm than good.
Remember, a dog won’t overcome their nerves by being thrown in at the deep end, so don’t be tempted to do this. Instead, go steadily, especially around those triggers that worry them.
What are the Signs of Social Anxiety?
Dogs react to their anxiousness in different ways and it’s your responsibility as the owner to recognise the signals and traits your pet has. Some of the most common signs are:
Displaying timid and scared behaviour, such as whining or cowering behind their owner.
Their nervousness can be displayed through drooling and/or panting. They may even suddenly urinate or defecate in some extreme cases.
Aggressive behaviour, including growling, barking or leaping toward another animal or person.
Planning is one of the most important factors in training anxious dogs. If you prepare for what’s coming up, the success rate tends to be higher. For instance, if you write down all of the things that you have observed your dog having concerns with then you can address them carefully.
Remember to be specific here. For example, are they only anxious when someone/other dogs come close? Are they particularly anxious around children? Is there an object in the house they aren’t comfortable with? What about a certain type of vehicle that is passing when you’re out for walks? Are they suffering from separation anxiety?
By being specific, you can work out how to deal with their issue. This could involve finding a place to take your pet to address an issue but in a controlled way. Think about a place where you can see other humans – if this is the issue – at a safe distance but without the worry of being approached. If traffic is the problem, take your walks away from busy roads and then work up to busier areas.
It’s always worth speaking to a vet for advice on this matter as they will be able to give you invaluable advice when you are putting your plan together.
Keep Distance in Mind
For your dog and their socialization training, distance is a useful friend. Whatever is scaring them should be further away than you think it should be - just be overcautious. It’s going to be more productive and successful if your dog starts off the training calmly and happily. You can gradually work your way in with your dog as they gain trust and find more comfort in the situation.
If it’s other dogs that are the problem, introduce your pet to a timid dog and make sure you are fully in control of the situation. If it’s people, begin by allowing your dog to meet one person at a time. Let your dog initiate the contact and ensure it has a safe retreat in case they begin to feel overwhelmed.
Make the Experience Positive
One of the best things you can do with socializing anxious dogs is to make every experience a positive one. If they have a favourite snack, when they show calm behaviour, you can give them a treat each time. This positive reinforcement will help them to progress.
If they have issues with other dogs, then every time you pass another dog calmly, give them a treat as a way of saying “good job, well done!”. Doing this can often help dogs to look forward to the training.
Always end the session on a positive note.
Taking a Step Back is Okay
Even if you are making good steps towards your goals, it’s always okay to take a step back if there’s a ‘bump in the road’ in your training. Dogs can suffer small relapses and when they do, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re back to square one. Mistakes happen and it’s important to note their cause.
Remember to Rest
Learning can be stressful and tiring, so when your dog is being taught to overcome a fear, it’s a good idea to factor in some rest time in the training. Keep the socialization to short sessions of around 15 minutes. If you try to make the session too long your dog can become stressed/tired/distracted/bored.
Socialization training doesn’t need to be carried out every single day either. Spend quality time with your dog at home, go for walks and do things with them that they enjoy..
It’s important that your dog has time to process the information they are absorbing, to get the best results, they need downtime.
Ultimately, this process that can take , but the result is worth it. Carefully assess how much your dog can tolerate each time they are exposed to a social situation. Be patient and stay positive.
Angie Hill, woofdog.org