How to socialize an older dog is a guide to socializing adult dogs. In an ideal world every Labrador puppy will have a perfect start in life. And every dog ever born will be thoroughly socialized as a puppy.
Socialization is the process that dogs need to pass through in order to become friendly and well adjusted. It’s all about learning not to be scared of ordinary everyday things that happen around them. But in the real world things are not always as perfect as we’d like. Some older dogs were never socialized properly as puppies. And they need someone like you to help them through this process later in life.
Why some older dogs are not socialized
There are a number of reasons why some older dogs miss out on the socialisation process including
- Fear of infection
- Wanting an aggressive dog
Some dog owners do not know how to socialize their puppy. While all good puppy books, reputable breeders, and websites like this one do put out extensive information on socialising puppies, it doesn’t reach everyone.
Some people are still unaware of how important socialisation is, or even that it exists at all. Many people are confused by instructions to ‘keep puppies at home’ until fully vaccinated. They feel torn between the need to keep their puppy safe from disease and the need to introduce him to lots of new experiences. Erring on the side of caution can have challenging consequences, especially for dogs that have a tendency to be more cautious or nervous.
Sometimes disaster strikes a family soon after adopting a Labrador puppy. When bereavements, or serious illness occurs, socialising a puppy may have to take second place to the family’s other needs. A young dog may even be relegated to an outdoor kennel or they yard, or abandoned at a shelter before he is able to adapt to living in human society And finally in some cases dogs are not socialised for anti-social reasons.
People that like the idea of an aggressive guard dog in and around their home may deliberately avoid socialising their Labrador to ensure that he does not become too friendly.
Socializing adult dogs
Whatever the reasons, some adult Labradors have not been properly socialised. And this is a problem that has to be addressed by the family that owns, or intends to adopt, them. You will definitely need to set about socialising your older dog if for some reason he missed out on this process when he was a puppy. The good news is that a reasonable level of socialisation can usually be achieved with an older dog. The bad news is, that it can take quite a long time.
Socialising an eight week old puppy is easy because he has litte fear of strangers and so long as you are near will quickly adjust to new situations. Socialising an older dog requires a lot of patience in overcoming his fears.
How to socialize an older dog
The objective of socialisation is to help the dog feel comfortable in situations that he finds quite scary. These situations will vary from dog to dog. He might be scared of men, of traffic, of washing flapping on the line, of loud noises, or trains, or other dogs. Or all of these things.
With puppies, we tend can socialize them quite quickly, exposing them to many new situations at once. This is because the fear of strange situations hasn’t fully kicked in when most of us bring our puppies home to live with us.
As long as a very young puppy is near to you, he is likely to feel fairly safe. With an older dog it’s different. He is already scared. You being next to him won’t remove that fear entirely. And you may not be able to pick him up in your arms, and comfort him. So you are going to have to take things more slowly
Socialize an older dog one step at a time
Try and pick one thing at a time and work on that. Introduce the scary situation at such a great distance, or at such a low intensity, that it is no longer scary. If your dog is terrified of traffic for example, try to find a park or a large piece of open ground with a road running along just one side.
Spend time with your dog as far away from the traffic as possible, encouraging him to relax and eat or play, whichever impresses him most. Don’t go any closer to the road until he is comfortable at a distance. Don’t rush things. This could take weeks of daily outings.
Socializing an adult dog with food and fun
It is fine to use distractions to take the dog’s mind off whatever he is afraid of. Food is a helpful tool and being regularly fed in situations that used to make your dog feel uncomfortable is a great way to help him overcome his fear. Some dogs respond better to games – if your dog would rather fetch a ball than snack on hot dogs, that’s just fine.
Revisit the scary situation at low intensities (great distance/low volume etc) many, many times and as the dog’s fear subsides you can increase the intensity little by little. This takes a lot of patience.
Socializing adult dogs – safety rules
Fear is a leading cause of aggression in dogs. Poorly socialised dogs are afraid. They are often afraid of so many things that simply venturing outside the home is extremely stressful for them.
Never underestimate the capacity of a frightened dog to bite. No matter how great he is at home with your family. And never throw him in at the deep end of his fear, in the hopes that he’ll ‘just get used to it’. You could end up making the problem much worse, and even tip him over the edge.
Don’t try to overcome aggression using ‘dominance reduction techniques. These can be extremely dangerous and are likely to end up with someone getting bitten and the dog being destroyed.
Help and support
Socialization is about introducing an animal to an unfamiliar or scary world in gentle stages. Severely fearful dogs or dogs that seem to react aggressively are very vulnerable during this process. And so are the people around them.
Unless you are very experienced and knowledgeable it is a good idea to enlist some help at the start of this process. Sometimes a dog is aggressive for reasons other than holes in his socialization. Dealing with aggression and identifying the cause is a specialist subject and if your dog is becoming aggressive you really need to seek the help of a qualified behaviorist. Your vet should be able to recommend one. He will also be able to check your dog over to make sure there are no physical reasons for aggression.
In some situations a muzzle can be helpful, it enables the owner of the dog to relax knowing that his dog cannot bite or hurt another dog or other people. A relaxed owner is in a better position to help the dog relax too. A behaviorist will be able to advise you if this is an appropriate tool for your dog. He or she will also be able to give you practical advice on dealing with difficult situations, and techniques you can use like the following food scattering method.
Deflecting other dogs
A dog that is frightened of other dogs may be helped if you carrying a small bag of dry dog food with you. Not to give to give to your own dog, but to deflect approaches from other dogs You can scatter the food on the ground when other dogs show an interest in approaching yours. This tends to divert their attention away from the frightened dog and can enable you to move your dog further away from the source of his fear.
Planning how to socialize an older dog
It is well worth planning your older Labrador’s socialization in advance, and keeping a record of what you attempt and achieve each day. Not only because this helps you cover all the bases, but because it helps motivate you by letting you look back and see how far you have come.
When you are attempting a long drawn out process, it can feel as though you are making no progress at all. A written record shows you that you are actually doing much better than you were a month or so ago. Write down all the things your dog is scared of. Anything that makes him ‘stiffen’ , growl, cower, hide, should be noted. Tackle his fears one at a time. It is a big task that you are undertaking but in many cases you will see steady progress as the weeks and months pass by.
How to socialize an older dog – a summary
It isn’t unusual for an older dog to have missed out on some aspects of socialization when he was growing up. Helping him to feel comfortable in situations that were once stressful for him will improve his quality of life. It will also enable you to take him with you more often and to have more fun together
Socializing adult dogs can be challenging. It takes time and patience and you may need professional help at times. But the rewards are well worthwhile, and in the weeks to come you will have a great sense of pride in what you have achieved for your dog.
Have you socialised an older dog? A rescue dog perhaps? Let us know of any tips and advice you have for others in the comments box below.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website