Socializing Older Puppies and Adult Dogs

Lucy the mastiff
Socializing adult dogs

One of the main reasons for your dog’s bad habits or unwanted behavior is his/her lack of early socialization or lack of properly done socialization techniques. Once your dog has reached the age of 15 weeks, early socialization methods are less effective because the dog is becoming more fearful. At this point, the best way to introduce your dog to new things and to modify his reactions is thru desensitization and counter conditioning.

Genetics can also play a large role in behavior especially when it comes to fear, anxiety and aggression. This surprises some people, especially owners of breeds that are stereotypically friendly. While breed doesn’t necessarily determine their genetic predisposal of these types of behaviors the specific lineage within the breed absolutely can.

When you are thinking about modifying these behaviors it is important to have realistic expectations. A fearful or aloof dog will likely never become a social butterfly, that solicits attention from every person or can’t wait to play with every dog. That doesn’t mean you can’t teach them how to relax around new dogs and people.

Don’t start the first day on behavior modification. You want to prep your dog and start to prepare him for learning. This prevents both you and your dog from getting frustrated in the process. Follow the “Learn to Earn” handout for the first two weeks.  This allows you to build a relationship and bond with your dog before exposing your dog to new and scary things.

Learning the lingo and the methods,

Desensitizing: This is a training technique used to introduce your dog to new or frightening things while still maintaining his level of comfort. If your dog is calm ( also known as “under threshold” ) then it is much easier for him to learn new ways of dealing with his environment. If you can slowly and gradually introduce the dog to things he finds frightening then the lines of learning remain open and his reactions are more likely to be successfully modified. This approach is safer and provides more reliable results than FLOODING.  (see below )

Counter conditioning: Counter conditioning replaces the fear response entirely.  It is not just about changing the way that the dog behaves.  It is about changing the way that the dog feels.

Successful counter conditioning will enable the dog to be happy and relaxed in the presence of the previously fearful stimulus

Counter conditioning,  also referred to as stimulus substitution, simply means the training of a pet to respond to a certain stimulus in a different way than it currently does. A stimulus can refer to any number of things such as people, events, substances (like water), animals, machinery, nail trims, door bell, noises (car alarms, thunder), and much more. Should your pet display responses of fear, aggression, and anxiety to certain stimuli, counter conditioning is an effective method of adjusting his or her behavior.

Flooding: Flooding is a full immersion training technique applied in both human and animal psychology. It consists of forcefully exposing the dog to the stimuli that triggers its fear and provoked the original trauma. This method of behavior therapy may bring fast results, but most often will be traumatic and comes with certain risks. A common example of this is taking a dog that isn’t comfortable around other dogs to the dog park. While flooding may help in some mild cases, when it does not, the dog may turn into an emotional wreck and be prone to sensitization, which causes an increase in fear or aggression. There are, therefore, far better approaches with higher rates of success.

Threshold: In order to determine threshold, you need to be able to “read” your dog well. In other words, you need to be able to constantly scan those subtle signs of relaxation, alertness and stress so you can intervene accordingly. Different trainers have different “interpretations” of over or under threshold. For some, a dog is under threshold when it is calm, almost sleepy, for others a dog is under threshold when the dog is stressed, but not stressed enough to react by barking, lunging etc. In my opinion, you definitely do not want a dog so on edge that is too stressed to learn and cognitively function, but you may want a dog that acknowledges the stimulus without growing overly concerned about it.

Starting the training;

Make sure you have been following the Learn to Earn method for the last two weeks, so your dog is prepped for great learning.

Desensitizing: Take your dog to a place where he can observe his triggers, like other dogs or people, but won’t have to interact with them. Practice getting your dog to focus on you during this time.  Don’t allow triggers to approach your dog, so if your dog is afraid of dogs then don’t allow dogs to approach.  This will set your dog’s progress back if you do it too soon.  They should be able to totally ignore the trigger before working closer.  Gradually work closer each day until your dog can stay focused on you. Always make sure your dog can escape the triggers. Once your dog is doing really well at this you can move on to the next one.

Counter conditioning: After the dog is comfortable ignoring the triggers (scary things) than then start counter conditioning. When your dog even looks at a scary thing, say “yes” or use a clicker then give a treat.  You want to put the treat into your dog’s mouth within 3-5 seconds of seeing the scary thing.

If your dog doesn’t accept the treats, make it easier by moving farther away from the trigger. (REMEMBER YOUR THRESHOLDS) Continue this training until your dog is happy to see the trigger, then move a little closer.

Be sure that you are using very high value treats like diced chicken or hot dogs diced up. Make it worth your dog’s while to encounter something that might be a little scary. Think of it like this, would you go parachuting for $10? What about $1000? What about $10,000? If you answered no to all of these (sometimes dogs will too if the trigger is scary enough) maybe you could do something easier… like indoor skydiving.

For dogs treats have monetary value.

Repeat this step until your dog seems happy about the trigger, if your dog is regressing instead of improving you need to go back a step and /or contact a professional trainer.

2 thoughts on “Socializing Older Puppies and Adult Dogs

  1. Where can I get more training like this at home? I have a four yr old German shepherd who is smart as ever but has used that smartness and turned it into smart butt (sorry but true) it’s my fault he’s craving knowledge that I dont have

    1. Hi Kelli,
      Is there a few specific things you are wanting to work on with your super smart dog? I am always looking to write new blogs so depending on what you are looking for I could write something up. I also do virtual training lessons that you can do from home.
      There are some really good online resources too. I like books like: Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out: Training Crazy Dogs from Over the Top to Under Control Book by Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP and When Pigs Fly! Training Success with Impossible Dogs
      Book by Jane Killion

      I know they carry the first at my local library.
      You can also check out YouTube, I have a channel on there (Ahmialeeann) also Kikopup and Michael Ellis are great to follow online. I hope this helps you out.

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