10 Top Tips for Socializing an Older Dog

Socializing an Older Dog


An Older Dog can Learn new Tricks
What is Socialization?

6 Signs that a Dog Needs Socializing:
#1 Fearful or Aggressive towards other Dogs
#2 Fearful or aggressive towards People
#3 Lacking Communication Skills with other dogs
#4 Over-excited or Domineering play
#5 Extreme Anxiety in a Specific Place or Circumstance
#6 Subtle signs of Anxiety

6 Benefits of Socializing an Older Dog:
#1 Dog can be happy in a second home
#2 Dog can Live with other Dogs
#3 Walks can be Enjoyable
#4 Visits to the Vet and Groomer
#5 Holidays for your Dog
#6 Successful Training becomes Possible

What Approach should you Take in Socializing an older dog?

10 Top Tips for Socializing an Older Dog:
#1 Learn to Understand Dog Language
#2 Progress in Small Steps
#3 Respond to any fear of unpredictable events (counter-conditioning)
#4 Respond to any fear of controlled events (counter-conditioning)
#5 Plan to expose your dog to a range of environments that link to your lifestyle
#6 Ensure that your dog is exposed to a range of experiences in these environments
#7 Check that your dog copes at different times of the day
#8 Continue to bond with your dog through positive reinforcement as a foundation for training
#9 Anticipate and Translate for your dog the strange behavior of humans
#10 Gradually build towards becoming more sparing and strategic with treat rewards

Good Luck

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An older dog can learn new tricks

If you think about how people continue to learn and adapt through life, it should be obvious that dogs also continue to learn and modify their behavior as they grow older.

We should never give up on an older dog. In fact, the brilliant thing about dogs is that they have a genius for adapting that has made them one of the most successful animals on the planet. Essentially they have been adapting to live beside us for thousands of years.

So an older dog in the right hands can build up emotional resilience and the security which springs from socializing, even if they have had a very difficult start in life. If you’ll excuse the pun, just like when Mary Poppins helps the children, you can make an older dog pawsitively perfect in every way! Well, no person or dog can be exactly perfect, but at least we can get our canine companion close enough to become a happy and confident member of your family.

This also means that by learning how to socialize an older dog, we can give surrendered dogs another chance to finding a forever home. By offering your dog emotional stability you are giving a rescued dog the necessary foundation for successfully training a rescue dog.

What is Dog Socialization?

In our guide to socializing a puppy we compared socialization to applying a protective layer of varnish to outdoor wooden furniture. If an adult dog has not been socialized they have not been protected emotionally and will be showing signs of wear and tear.

If we want our dogs to behave in a certain way we achieve this through training. But training will go nowhere unless we ensure that our dogs feel secure first through socialization.

As a dog begins to feel more confident, and this make take some patience and time, there are no limits to what can be achieved, and nine out of ten times an older dog will settle into a new home.

Socializing an Older Dog
Dogs are wonderfully resilient and adaptable creatures and can learn new tricks

6 Signs that a Dog Needs Socializing

So without the emotional varnish that socializing a dog provides, your poor pooch may well be internally a little weather-beaten. Here are some some signs that will provide a focus for you socializaing a dog:

#1 Fearful or Aggressive towards other Dogs

A fearful dog may become a reactive dog who is so fearful that they react with aggression towards other canines. This poor pooch may not have not been encouraged or allowed to have positive interactions. They may even have come from a puppy farm where early removal from their mother would have damaged their emotional well-being but also deprived them of learning opportunities on how to communicate with their siblings.

Or if a dog has had a bad experience and been attacked by a dog this emotional damage has not been repaired through socialization and positive association.

#2 Fearful or aggressive towards People

A dog may also act aggressively towards people who approach them. It is possible also that they can be fearful. Look out for your dog hiding behind you, or between your legs in an attempt to withdraw from contact.

#3 Lacking Communication Skills with other Dogs

Some dogs not socialized will approach dogs to play, but not have the necessary communication skills to signal that their intent is not aggressive. This may confuse another dog who could react with fear and potentially aggression.

#4 Over-excited or Domineering play

Similarly a dog requiring socializing may be over zealous in their play or even exhibit biting behavior.

Dogs who have been socialized when very young with their siblings will have learned how to only softly bite when playing. This will have continued when introduced to a family.

But this may not be the case with an older dog that has been rescued. This runs the risk of injury to another dog, and possibly a very angry dog-owner.

#5 Extreme anxiety in a specific place or circumstance

A dog without enough socializing opportunities may suddenly get nervous in a range of circumstances. This could be in crowded places, at the sound of traffic or even a vacuum cleaner and certainly may include a visit to the vets or groomers.

Our rescue dog was afraid of the car which clearly offered some logistical issues. This anxiety was not completely dispelled until after around a year.

#6 Subtle signs of Anxiety

Or some signs of anxiety are more subtle. For example, one dog that I was training would not take treats or food on a walk. This made it more difficult to reward the dog in a training regime based around positive reinforcement. But the underlying reason was that this poor, confused pooch was anxious. Think about it, if you are highly anxious in a situation, you are not going to immediately fancy sitting down and enjoying your favorite snack.

Socializing an Older Dog - a dog anxious on the lead
There are many signs of anxiety in a dog to look out for – this dog pulling back on the leash is clearly fearful of their current situation

6 Benefits of Socializing an Older Dog

#1 Dog can be happy in a second home

This is one of the main reasons that we adopt. We gain a faithful and wonderful companion, but we also gain a feel-good factor in giving a home to one of the far too many dogs that have need of one.

#2 Dog can Live with other Dogs

Well-socialized dog will provide an excellent role-model and can significantly help with socializing an older dog who has joined the family. If you are thinking about a puppy later on, then this dog could even progress to becoming a good role-model

#3 Walks can be Enjoyable

A dog who is fearful or even reactive could potentially make walks difficult , particularly if a dog reacts aggressively. If a dog can build towards being more relaxed, first just on the leash, and potentially off-leash later down the training trail, then it will become a happier experience for all

#4 Visits to the Vet and Groomer not Stressful

A visit to the vets is not really a happy occasion for anyone, but particularly a fearful dog. We want our dogs to be as relaxed and comfortable as possible.

Socializing our dogs carefully can achieve this for them, and remove the guilt from us on those necessary trips out for check-ups.

#5 Holidays for your Dog

Many of us hate being apart from our dogs, almost as much as they hate being apart from us (please click here for specific training to prevent or mitigate separation anxiety). A dog that is confident and secure will not care too much where they are, as long as they are with the people who love and care for them.

This means that socializing our dogs opens up the wonderful world of taking our dogs on holiday with us

#6 Successful Training becomes Possible

The relationship between socializing and training a dog is not a chicken and egg question. We know that socializing definitely has to come first.

Just as an unhappy child cannot learn in class, so an unhappy and insecure dog will not be in a place to learn how to behave through training.

But using the tips below you your socialized older dog will be more than capable of learning a range of new tricks, such as fundamental sitting, waiting and recall training. This will establish you as a trusted and strong canine leader to your new dog, and they will thoroughly love you for the confidence that this will give them.

What Approach should you Take in Socializing an older dog?

The top 10 tips below will have two clear threads running through each one:

  1. Desensitization

    Ensuring your dog becomes more confident in a place and or during an event of some kind(notice that these two are always in combination as something happening in a particular place). Just because your dog gets used to meeting unfamiliar people on a walk, does not mean they will gladly welcome them into the home.

    This means ensuring you are full aware of your dogs body language. If your dog is becoming more settled then continue to push the boundaries, but if they are worried go back a few paw-steps and build their resilience. For more information on speaking and understanding dog, please click here.

    For example, if you see your dog can cope with one visitor in the yard or garden, then perhaps allow that visitor into the entry hall. Then next time make sure you have two visitors. Before long you can get those visitors to bring along their well-socialized dog, and both you and your dog will have a vibrant social life.

    Owning a dog and having them share your social life is incredibly rewarding. But it does not have to stop there. What about days out? Or even holidays? Put your dog in the car for five minutes, and then let them out again. Next time they can stay in the car for 10 minutes and so on. Then a little drive around the block. Soon your canine chum will be leaping eagerly into your vehicle even if the destination is the vets.

  2. Positive Reinforcement and Association

    This means you and your dog having a small treat-filled celebration every time you want them to feel good about something. This should happen when in a new environment or something new is happening.

    You may notice I have already mentioned the vets. It is a very good idea to take your dog to the vets and show them that this does not have to be frightening. These first visits should be spent having a little party, offering your dog treats outside the vets. Then stepping into the vets and rewarding your dog with praise, and some treats. If you can swing it and there not too busy, even asking if staff would not mind saying hello to your dog for further reassurance.

Socializing an older dog - creating positive associations
Socializing an older dog is built around creating positive association with potentially challenging circumstances

10 Tips for Socializing an Older Dog:

#1 Learn to Understand Dog Language

This will take time, patience and sometimes help from a dog trainer or behaviorist. Particularly if you have just adopted an older dog as you will not be familiar with their specific ‘normal’ body language. But try to ‘listen’ to what your dog is telling you with their body posture and language.

This will enable you to guide your dog at an appropriate pace without, hopefully, having to take any backwards steps. It will also offer you clear indication of progress.

For example, if your dog’s tail is down when they meet another dog, for example, then you know that your dog is fearful or anxious.

Ensure you withdraw them, and focus on gradually building their confidence. If you have a friend with a well-socialized dog try with a meeting at distance on neutral ground. Try to keep your dog on a loose leash to further suggest a relaxed environment. Watch for your dog’s tail becoming more elevated and reward any movement towards the dog, or interaction. If not continue to walk them together but at a distance until your dog is ready to take things to the next level.

Be aware that although all dogs, obviously, speak this physical dog language, different breeds could be said to have different dialects. One example is a spitz dog, like the Siberian Husky or Pomeranian, will always have their tails curling up in a state of alertness which could be misinterpreted as a sign of tension or alertness. This means you may have to factor in your puppy’s breed when observing your dog’s posture, and it is always a good idea to consult a breed guide to give more information on this.

Also, all dogs are individuals and behave slightly differently in response to different stimuli. By carefully observing your dog and looking out for physical signs of anxiety, you will become the world’s expert on your own dog and be able to guide and support them through ‘listening’ and understanding how they feel.

For an excellent online guide to interpreting dog language please click here.

#2 Progress in Small Steps

As with children, an anxious dog must be allowed to make progress in small steps.

This means in socialization, as with training, ensure your approach is gradual based around desensitizing your dog to any situation that your reading of dog language reveals them to be anxious.

For example, if you are planning to take your new member of the family on outings they will need to get used to crowds of people and potentially dogs as well. This may be particularly important in the case of a rescue dog who may be traumatized by any suggestion that they are being left behind.

This should start with you taking your dog to less busy places or going out at less busy times of the day in order to get used to there being ‘some’ people around. Also try to begin by waiting at a distance away from the crowds to get your puppy used to the clamor from a safe distance.

If far from the madding crowd, you read your dog’s body language and it says ‘calm’ then get closer and over time build up to busier situations.

#3 Respond to any fear of unpredictable events (counter-conditioning)

If you have recently taking on a dog, you will both spend every day making up for lost time and learning about each other.

Any older dog will come with some emotional baggage. It is important to monitor the dog closely and watch how she reacts with signs of fear to an event or experience. It is then that you must try to swoop in with reassurance based around positive association strategies.

If your dog reacts fearfully to a car hooting as you walk her beside the road, when that happens again make sure you swiftly provide comforting attention and treats or praise.

Again, be aware of body language, and note how long it takes your dog to recover from the event and become relaxed again. Take note the next time the event happens of how long the recovery time is if this happens again so that you can monitor progress.

Remember that an older dog may have some entrenched anxieties but things will improve with perseverance and patience.

#4 Respond to any fear of controlled events (counter-conditioning)

Remember that an older dog that has been rescued may often have missed out on socialization not only during the stages of development as a puppy, but also later in life.

This means we must try to avoid making any assumptions in respect of what they are comfortable with. An anxious dog may initially shy away from physical contact. A good rescue center will give as much advice and background as possible, but once again be alert to your dog’s body language and respond accordingly.

One way to address this is by using verbal and physical cues to prepare your dog for a particular event. If your dog is anxious about being touched and wish you place them on a leash, hold up the leash and give the verbal cue of ‘walk’ so that the dog can be prepared and confident for the physical interaction.

Using verbal and physical cues to prepare a frightened or reactive dog for an interaction, along with positive association, will help to modify behavior

#5 Plan to expose your dog to a range of environments that link to your lifestyle

If you have adopted a dog then everything will be new and potentially frightening for them. Like charity, this should begin at home, particularly in establishing a safe ‘den’ or crate for your dog full of lovely things like blankets and clothes that smell of you, and of course, the odd treat. This will give them a ‘safe place’ where they can feel entirely comfortable.

Having this kind of doggy home within a home will give your dog somewhere ‘safe’ to retreat to if they are worried about anything. This added layer of security will help with counter-conditioning in the home.

Aside from this try to make an exhaustive list of all the places you might take your dog over the next few months. This may include an outing to the local shop, should you wish to combine a walk with a dash out for a carton of milk or even a bottle of wine (but don’t forget a chewy treat – this is equivalent to a glass of wine for a dog as chewing is therapeutic for them and helps them to relax).

This should also include a range of local walks, and potential flash-points of tension or anxiety such as the vets and the groomers.

You will also want your dog not to be overwhelmed by crowds, so gradually try to build in some busier places so that despite being small, your new canine companion will soon be able to walk tall and confidently by your side.

#6 Ensure that your dog is exposed to a range of experiences in these environments

While socializing an older dog try to expose them to a range of experiences as you would with a new puppy.

This will include other ‘animate’ objects, most obviously in the form of dogs and humans. It could also include encounters with cats and sightings of smaller animals such as squirrels. Within this, as broad and diverse a range as possible is always best. It should include, for example, adults and children, large and small dogs both on and off the leash.

This will help you identify the situations that may act as triggers for anxiety in your dog and begin to address them through positive association and counter-conditioning.

You will also want to expose your dog to ‘inanimate’ stimuli such as doors opening and closing, the honking of horns from traffic, and all the sights, sounds and smells offered in both urban settings and the park.

Socializing an older dog - create a comfortable den for your dog
Socializing an older dog, like charity, begins at home. Creating a comfortable den for your dog will help them feel secure and confident

#7 Check that your dog copes at different times of the day

A rescued older dog may also be more nervous at different times, such as at evening or night-time. They may have experienced stressful situations or even have been shut out during these times. Or they may not be used to busy periods of the day.

If you are a well-organized list-maker you could even add a column for times next to places. For example, you may need your dog eventually to cope with busy environments in order to ensure they can be taken out with the family. This may mean building up from quiet periods of the day towards busier times.

Also you will need to make sure your dog feels as confident and safe walking with you outdoors at night, as in the day.

#8 Continue to bond with your dog through positive reinforcement as a foundation for training

Along with training, consistent and supportive socialization can only strengthen your bond with your dog. Not only will they see you as a bastion of comfort and safety they will also view you as a strong canine leader. This is particularly essential for a rescue dog, and your fair and firm guidance will provide them with initial reassurance and lay the foundations of trust as you guide them towards good outcomes and celebrate each of these with praise.

With this in place an older dog can go on to be successfully trained. I can personally vouch for this and it is wonderful to see a rescue dogs grow in confidence and often keep up with the youngsters in training sessions.

Socializing an older dog - bonding with your dog
Socializing and then training is a bonding experience for you and your dog. They will grow in confidence guided by a strong canine leader towards good outcomes

#9 Anticipate and translate for your dog the strange behavior of humans

But just because you have learned not to make assumptions about this new member of your family, does not mean that other humans have made the same leap.

Let’s face it, many of us don’t always understand the behavior of other humans. So for one moment let’s see this from the view-point of our little canine companion.

If you attempted to loom over a wolf, staring at them eye-to-eye, possibly with your teeth bared in threat (okay- we call it smiling), and then brazenly dart your hand out to make contact with their head, things could go very badly.

In the world of the canis familiaris or the domestic dog this does not necessarily translate as ‘somebody coming to give you a friendly pat on the head’. But we have to make sure our beloved pet dogs understand this rather odd behavior of the humans around them as social, rather than threatening.

So ensure you become the first to ‘pat’ your dog on the head, you will need to be able to swiftly explain that this may not be a good idea if you have noticed any signs of anxiety when unfamiliar people approach your dog. This should be worked on in small comfortable steps for your dog by introducing them to friends and family and allowing them to get used to unfamiliar people gradually in small steps.

#10 Gradually build towards becoming more sparing and strategic with treat rewards

As your dog builds resilience and starts to make positive associations with a range of situations your dependence on treats as rewards will diminish. This is important as, like most things, treats are good in moderation but not excess.

Remember also that some breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever, can be prone to putting on weight.So treats can continue to be used sparingly as your dog develops, but should not be an immediate response to everything that your dog continues to do right. Once positive association is established and your bond with your dog strengthens, the treats can be used far more sparingly as your dog will revel in your praise and attention, and this will often be reward enough.

Another strategy for ensuring positive association without reliance on treats is to introduce clicker training. At first associate the click with a treat, then start to dispense with the treats. A click will be all your dog needs to know that they done good!

Good Luck

If you ‘opt to adopt’ is a truly wonderful and rewarding way to get a best friend for life. By using the tips above you will ensure that your dog begins to repair any emotional or psychological damage that may have inflicted by a bad start.

You will also rightly feel the satisfaction of giving a dog the good home that they all very much deserve and will get even more back than you give.

Learning how to socialize and train your older dog is very likely to lead to a happy ending that your dog so richly deserves

By consistently socializing an older dog you can prepare them for the many benefits of successful dog training. Click here to find out more.

All of the tips on socializing an older dog apply to a new puppy. If you are thinking of adding a smaller addition to your pack at home then please click here for tips on socializing a puppy.

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