How to socialise a fearful dog


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It can be disheartening when our dogs are worried about other dogs or people. Here are some things we think are important to know when trying to socialise your fearful dog.

Whilst the term ‘socialisation’ typically refers to an early developmental period in puppies, we often get calls from people who have dogs of any age who are worried or fearful of other dogs or people. The caregivers of these dogs are needing as their dogs are showing signs of fear including, but not limited to:

  • Freezing
  • Cowering or running away
  • Barking
  • Growling
  • Lunging
  • Biting

For these dogs, it is important for us to slowly reintroduce them to other people and dogs in a safe way, allowing them to build positive connections and develop trust in the presence of others. Informally, we will use the term ‘socialise’ throughout this blog to refer to this process and provide you some advice on how to socialise your fearful dog.

Note: if your dog is demonstrating serious aggression or has bitten people or dogs in the past please always seek tailored support from a qualified positive-reinforcement based trainer.

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Dog Socialisation is a Process

Regardless of the age of our dogs, socialisation is a process and not an activity. During this process, our dogs are learning (or re-learning) several key life lessons:

  • Learning to tolerate (and even enjoy) others in their personal space
  • Learning how to read other’s intentions and body language cues
  • Learning how to communicate their own intent in a socially appropriate way
  • Building their behavioural repertoire in social situations

Goals when socialising our dogs:

  • Have our dogs able to walk past other dogs or people and assess the situation without rushing into their space
  • Have our dogs feel able to walk away or remove themselves from dogs that are acting anti-socially instead of reacting aggressively
  • Have our dogs feel calm and confident in as many situations as possible

Received wisdom tells us that all dogs should love every other dog they meet and the ones that don’t are ‘broken’ in some way or another. This is completely untrue and sets an unfair standard for our dogs to aspire to. Just like us, it is entirely normal to have individual preferences and enjoy the company of some dogs but not every dog. Just like us, dogs fall somewhere along a social spectrum, with the majority of dogs being either ‘dog tolerant’ and ‘dog selective’.

If we go into situations thinking that our dog should love everyone and anyone regardless of how they behave, then we will almost certainly put our beloved dogs in bad situations, set impossible standards and be disappointed when our dogs fail to meet them. Furthermore, our more fearful dogs will only further learn that dogs and people don’t listen to me when I am uncomfortable or scared.

Where it goes wrong

Here’s where we often see people go wrong. They head out of the house with the intent to ‘socialise their dog’ and head to the dog park. Their dog gets uncomfortable and instead of helping the dog out and removing them from the situation, they coax and push their dog back in, in the hope that they will ‘get used to it’. Unfortunately, if we continue to keep our dogs in situations that they are no longer enjoying, we’re only building negative experiences.

As soon as we ask the dog to merely tolerate the situation we are reducing their resilience. Repeatedly asking our dogs to suffer through something without protecting their exit route is how we push them too far and allow them to practice the anti-social behaviours.

Our job as caregivers is first and foremost is to foster and support positive and high-quality interactions with other dogs and people. We want to do so by prioritising quality over quantity and by being selective in who you decide to introduce them to. Find people and other dogs who are able to listen to what you and your dog are saying.

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Learn Your Dog’s Social Preferences Before you try introducing your dog to another person or dog, have a think about the following:

What does my dog usually do when they are uncomfortable? What does my dog usually do when they are happy and relaxed? How does my dog typically like other dogs to introduce themselves? Do they like a nose-to-bum sniff or do they prefer face-to-face greetings? Are there certain characteristics (i.e. big versus small dog, fluffy versus short-haired etc) that my dog seems to like/dislike more than others? How does my dog like other dogs to behave? Do they have a certain play style that they like?

If you take a moment to have a think about how your dog typically likes to interact and what they enjoy, then we can use this information to help set up successful and positive scenarios for them, and avoid situations which will be too hard for them.

Take Max the whippet as an example. Max gets a little nervous when other dogs' play preference is wrestling and rough play. However, Max really loves chasing games and loves to run around in big open spaces! He loves the company of his friend, Bella the dachshund, who happily runs after him when they are in the park. Taking the time to introduce Max to more dogs like Bella helps build up Max’s memory bank of positive experiences with other dogs. We also would take care to not continuously ask Max to tolerate wrestling or high impact play with other dogs. We can help Max politely move away from dogs who prefer to play in this way!

Take the time to learn your dog’s preferences, and use their behaviour as information which you can use to adjust and tweak future scenarios. Reflect on the information you currently have about your dog, and always adjust according to new information received! Dogs want Information before Interaction

Often when dogs approach us or other dogs, we assume that they must be soliciting an interaction. However, dogs typically approach seeking information not interaction. They are looking for feedback, and are simply trying to work out ‘what do you mean for me?’ The primary ways that they get this feedback is through olfaction (i.e. coming in closer to use their nose for a sniff) or by provoking the environment to see what response they get (i.e. booping an object, or a quick nudge or play-bow to another dog to see what their response is).

Now, if our dog is in a good frame of mind, and generally feels pretty positive about other people and other dogs they will gather this information pretty quickly and maybe even decide to have a play or a cuddle. But what about our more fearful dogs? If we deny them the space and time to gather the information that they need to feel safe and secure, we potentially have a dog who not only feels unheard but is in close proximity to something making them feel quite afraid. This is where we really start to see trouble! For our more fearful dogs, it’s so important that we ensure that they are in the right frame of mind to calmly gather information about their environment, and that we do not misinterpret their initial intentions when they approach us.

Protect the Exit Route

Similarly, much like us, dogs have personal space bubbles, an imaginary boundary outside of which they would prefer another unfamiliar person or dog stay. The only key difference is a dog's personal space bubble is much larger than ours, typically around 3 metres compared to the 1.5 (thanks Covid!). When we ‘pop’ this bubble, one dog may freeze, one may growl and lunge, one dog may ‘fool around’. It's important to note that all these dogs feel that their space bubble has burst, we just happen to label one as socially appropriate and the others as inappropriate. All these dogs are feeling an intense emotion, and using their behaviour to cope with these feelings.

Your job when you are out in public is to protect your dog’s personal space either through management or guiding interactions with others.

Give your dog enough space to move around and use their body language to communicate effectively Be aware of how restrains like leashes and sidewalks can limit a dog’s ability to leave a situation and can increase the social pressure felt Take the time to teach your dog that they can absolutely leave a situation if they want to. You can do so formally by teaching your dog’s certain cues (i.e Let’s Go! Or This Way) and guiding them away Monitor your dog’s body language and help them move away when they show signs of escalating. Do not stay put in the hope that they will get over it. Keep social interactions short and always protect their exit route!

You will find that social tolerance will naturally increase if there is no pressure put on the dog. Leaving a situation that you find stressful is a real skill, one that provides relief and is a marker of a socially appropriate and capable dog. Key Take-Away Points

Avoid groups of dogs Aim for one on one interactions Aim for quality over quantity Keep social interactions short and always protect the exit route

Each dog is an individual and will need a personalised approach to their care. As their caregiver, you also need support too! To best help your dog, please ensure you hire a qualified professional who uses positive reinforcement methods and avoids the use of punishment or verbal or physical corrections. Be wary of those who offer a quick fix or guarantee results, these often lend themselves to a punishment mindset, aimed at stopping ‘bad behaviour’. In reality, dogs don’t have a moral compass guiding their understanding of good and bad. Find a professional who understands that your dog’s behaviour is merely an expression of how they are feeling internally, and just like us, they can’t be wrong for how they feel!

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