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PetPourri: When Fido Can’t Make Friends

Socializing Your Cranky Canine

By Ashlee Verba

Saving a dog’s life through adoption is bittersweet, as even the best ones come with emotional baggage. Most of these animals have been subjected to abuse and neglect from previous owners, and as part of their ingrained survival instinct, their post traumatic stress often manifests in anti-social behavior. In the shuffle from puppy mill to sometimes abusive home to shelter, they simply haven’t had the opportunity to connect with the world in a positive way. While you may not be able to erase your faithful friend’s bad memories, shaping your dog into the well-socialized, happy companion you’ve always wanted is not only rewarding, it’s necessary for the well-being and peace of mind for both you and your pet.

Ready for Action

Socializing an adopted dog is all about helping her make positive associations with people, other animals and new situations. Before you begin, it’s crucial to understand that dogs learn by associating actions with positive, negative and neutral outcomes. For example, if a dog hears a loud, startling sound as she goes to pick up a bone, she may initially associate that bone with fear, not having the cognitive ability to realize the bone and sound aren’t inextricably linked. The same goes for positive stimulus, which is why rewarding your dog for good behavior with treats and affection is a surefire way to help your pup make positive associations. That said, no amount of positive stimulus will be effective without first establishing your role as master and protector as early as possible (ideally, as soon as you adopt) with a few tricks and training tools.

Tools of the Trade

Since so many adopted dogs have been abused and mistreated, showing the dog who is boss must be handled delicately. Just controlling your dog’s food is one way of acknowledging that you’re the “alpha,” but there are plenty more direct ways to let the dog know who’s calling the shots without exerting yourself as a threatening force.

• Leashes and Harnesses: Though both may seem restrictive to your dog at first, with proper training and introduction, tensing and loosening of the leash helps to establish trust between you and your pet, as well as keep her safely away from dangerous situations and frightening stimuli.

• Short, Firm Commands: Unusual commands such as “uh uh” work best, because the average person says the word “no” multiple times per day, which can ultimately be confusing.

• Squirt Bottle: This will not only work with socialization but with eliminating any unwanted behavior, such as excessive barking, begging or taking things without being told. With the setting on a solid stream, aim for the back of your dog’s head between the ears and combine it with whatever command for “no” your dog understands.

• Neck Pinch: The back of the neck is where dogs instinctively go to establish their power among each other. If your pooch exhibits aggression, try a quick, sharp pinch to the back of the neck combined with a firm negative command.

• Kennels and Baby Gates: As den animals, dogs enjoy the security of small spaces they can freely enter and exit, like a kennel. Baby gates across doorways allow animals to see what’s going on and still be a part of the “pack” while taking away the opportunity to misbehave. As long as you do not use either as punishment for negative behavior, your dog will seek them out as a safe haven when anxious or scared.

Whether you select one method of discipline or utilize a combination of many, the point is that Fido knows that challenging your authority will result in an undesirable outcome.

Socializing your Pooch with People

Though your dog may not act skittish around you or other members of your household, solid indications that she is anxious around new people include hiding, shaking, restlessness, crouching and keeping her tail between her legs. To correct this behavior, start by bringing one or two people you know well and trust into your home. When guests initially walk in, they should completely ignore the dog and not initiate any contact until she’s had time to realize that you are okay with this stranger’s presence.

Next, from a seated position, have your guest display a treat in a flat, open palm and say the dog’s name invitingly. After the dog seems more comfortable with creeping up and snagging the treat, have your guest perform the same process but with the treat wedged between their index and middle fingers. With a longer dose of contact, your guest can then make their other hand visible and begin petting the dog gently, continuing with soft-spoken, verbal praise. Your dog may shy away from touch at first, but should eventually come around with repetition. Once this is accomplished, positive association has begun, and you can expose your dog to more and more guests; just make sure they know to take it slow. The dog still may not trust strangers, but she will trust that you won’t let anyone hurt her.

Socializing with Other Dogs

The difficulty in socializing your pooch with other animals depends on where they came from. Dogs from puppy mills have spent their first few years around other pups and get along fine with, even welcome new playmates. Those that have had little to no contact with other animals, or had a bad experience with one are likely to respond to a meet and greet with aggression and fear. As you get to know your dog better, you will learn to feel out the situation based on body language. Lowered head with ears pinned back, baring teeth and/or growling, a fixed stare on the other dog and having all four paws securely on the ground as if preparing to pounce are common signals that a fight is about to take place.

First meetings with other dogs should be short and sweet, and the dog should be on a leash. Allow nose-to-nose contact for no longer than 10 seconds, then lightly tug the dog’s leash and give verbal and physical praise if she continues to walk calmly, without exhibiting anxiety. The next step is to give your pet a treat with another dog within a noticeable 8-10 foot radius, as this will yield a positive experience while another dog is present. A good place to try this is a small dog park, where you may run into just one or two other dogs.


If you’re working with an especially stubborn mutt, don’t worry; there are classes that both modify behavior and serve as terrific mediums for socialization. Maria Hossmer of Dog E Mom (448-5398) is a local pet trainer offering a variety of private and group classes, including Naughty 2 Nice for adult dogs with behavioral problems and Proper Puppy for puppies under 6 months of age. Six week courses cost $90 and adopters get a 10% discount. Young dogs that are better behaved, yet still need help socializing can be enrolled in a PetSmart puppy class. The 8-week course costs $110 and consists of (1) one-hour class per week.

With time and patience, socializing your new beloved pal is a completely accessible goal. Some may catch on quicker than others, but consistency, dedication, timing of the rewards and, of course, TLC are all it takes. Now get out there and start socializing!

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