There are two common misconceptions about socializing dogs. The first is that you need excessive interaction with other people and dogs. The second is that you can’t work on socialization at home. For our purposes here socializing is the act of introducing your dog to as many facets of his world as possible, allowing him to build neutral associations, and giving him the tools and information he needs to build context and act appropriately in any situation. Notice the word neutral there and not positive; there are some situations in which a super fun reaction is not a positive, and sometimes the only positive in a situation is that you’ve assessed it calmly and know how to handle it. In those types of situations I would like my dog to calmly and quietly sit or walk by me unless told otherwise. Those are my goals when I talk about socializing my dog.
Now that we’ve discussed what I mean when I say ‘socialize’ lets talk about activities you can perform with your dog that will help him build context and practice exercising appropriate behaviors. All of these activities should be performed as if they are 100% a normal part of your life, because they are. Calmly reward your dog during moments when they’re calmly observing OR ignoring your chosen activity. If you want to invite them to join, that’s fine but forcing unwanted interaction may turn our desired neutral reaction into a negative reaction. If you feel you could safely and effectively use a waist/handsfree leash in any of these scenarios, go for it!
- Trade yard work with a friend. They can come to your house and help you prep garden beds, rake out old leaves, transplant sprouted starts, etc. while your dog roams around and relaxes on a tether or loose in a fenced yard. The goal here is for both of you to ignore your dog—yard work and friends over is business as usual.
- Drop your dog with a friend or family member for a day (this is great if you know people who are considering adding [another] pet to the family).Ask them to go about business as usual but take time to reward calm behaviors.
- Tackle some DIY projects! Break out the drill and the staple gun and go to town. It might seem weird but your don’t want your dog scared every time you hang a picture of decorate for the holidays. Which brings us to….
- Celebrate Christmas (or your favorite holiday) right now! Decorate a tree (if your have a fake) or a house plant, dig out all your holiday decorations, make a big deal out of dinner that day. Get your dog used to some of the hustle and bustle of the holidays BEFORE the holidays.
- Play sounds on YouTube. Other dogs barking, birds, horses, goats, chickens, geese, babies crying, children laughing and shrieking, sirens, smoke alarms, different doorbells, the sky is the limit. Keep in mind you should focus on sounds your dog may be commonly exposed to. If you’re a hiker play noises of local wild life, if you take your dog to the office or through the city use those noises. If you have multiple devices, play a few sounds at once and have your dog practice commands they already know while you listen.
- Stand in the middle of the park. Every other day I take my dog on a controlled walk (we stop any time the leash gets tight and don’t start up again until she’s come back to check in with me and the leash is slack again) to the park and meander around the center field with her for an hour while life goes on around us. Yesterday, we were in the center of a tennis match, a kick ball game, a basketball game, 4 people with dogs walking at intervals, joggers, strollers, a game of frisbee, and a game of fetch. While this was going on around us we practiced loose leash walking and sit and down stays.
- Go on a walk and search for new textures to walk and sit on. At the park bleachers are great as they provide a new texture AND a new sound as your dog walks on them. Manhole covers are a great place to ask for a sit. Go on a walk and get creative.
- Invite your dog into the kitchen while you cook a meal. Being in the kitchen with your dog can be great for socialization and bonding. Your dog gets to enjoy the experience of being close to you (even while your primary focus is elsewhere), there are tons of interesting smells, he has to look at you and be in tune with your movements to avoid being stepped on, and he’s reinforcing the idea that just because you’re eating or working with food doesn’t mean he gets any.
- Eat a meal on the floor. This seems weird I’m sure but goes back to helping your dog build context and believe me teaching a dog that sometimes food will be on his level but not be his is an important part of socialization. Things like eating popcorn in front of the TV , picnics, camping, and having kids all go more smoothly when your dog knows that in some situations it’s okay to eat food off the ‘floor’ and in some situations it’s not.
- Trade dogs with a friend and groom them. Go big! Brush teeth, paint nails, throw on some pet safe chalk ‘dye’! Your groomer will thank you.
- People watch. Sit with your dog in front of the window and describe what/who your see. Let your dog see that you level of excitement doesn’t change for birds, squirrels, other dogs, people, bikes or the mailman. You can even pick times to make a show of not being concerned (like leaving to get a glass of water when a large family with dogs walks by). As always reward calm behavior.