Missed the early socialization window? – There's still hope!
Considering or just adopted a timid older puppy or adult dog that clearly didn't have the best early life socialization? Or recently got a new puppy but were told to keep them locked away and not introduce them to any other dogs or bring them out and about until all of their puppy shots were done and you've now missed their early (3–4month old) socialization window? Sadly, these are scenarios that are (still) far too common. But all hope is not lost!
Yes, there’s no doubt or debate about it … proper early life socialization (i.e., before 16 weeks old) is very important for a dog’s wellbeing and development and, if you’ve missed their critical early “socialization window,” you’re definitely starting behind the proverbial "8-ball." But people have made some pretty impressive shots from behind 8-balls actually, and you can too!
Here’s some information, tips, and resources to help you help your previously under- or unsocialized dog get more comfortable with the world. (And be sure to check out the encouraging and heartwarming video and story at the end to see just how far some of these dogs can come, even when getting some of the worst starts in life possible!)
Keys to Help An Unsocialized Dog
- All hope is not lost - most dogs with early socialization deficiencies are able to make noticeable and important progress
- Prepare that it will take more time and patience – work at your dog’s pace, whatever that may be … don’t force it
- Keep the end goals in mind … (1) to help your dog become more comfortable, less stressed and anxious, and safer in their everyday life, and, (2) to make your life with your dog as easy and low-stress as possible
- Figure out and use the reinforcement that matters most to your dog, but that isn't so distracting to take their mind off their environment
Set Realistic Expectations
Prepare yourself for the fact that you almost certainly will not have a dog that will be as comfortable around and accepting of all the people, animals, sights, sounds, and other things that they’re likely to encounter in their everyday life and environment as they would have been with proper early socialization. But that’s OK, that doesn’t have to be the goal. Every dog doesn’t have to love everything or everybody … they just have to be comfortable enough with enough “things” to feel safe, secure, and happy in their new world. You may not wind up with a “social butterfly,” but so long as you wind up with a happy and functional dog, that’s a win!
It Can Be a Small World ... After All
This isn’t a nod to the Disney tune and ride, but rather a statement that your dog’s world … the world that you’re hoping for them to get comfortable with, can be as small as it needs to be to allow them to slowly, gradually, and safely get comfortable with a progressively larger world. Is your dog comfortable in your backyard, but freezes and gets tense anytime you take them in the front yard? Work with that! Stick with the backyard at first to do your introductory and socialization work there, let your dog start building their confidence in an area they’re already comfortable with before trying to expand and grow those areas. Don’t make the mistake of trying to get your dog comfortable with the whole wide world or “all the things” at once. Think baby steps and build upon successive “wins.”
See our 100 Things in 100 Days list of things that are good to socialize dogs to. This list was originally designed to help people socializing new puppies over the first 100 days of their life, but the people, sights, sounds, and objects on the list can still form a good list of goals for you to try to get your dog comfortable with. Just recognize that you may not ever get through the full "100" — but it's a good list of goals to start with, even when socialization is occurring later in life.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race (Not that socialization is a race)
They say that patience is a virtue and, when it comes to trying to help a previously under- or unsocialized dog, they couldn’t be more right! Pay attention to your dog’s comfort level and proceed at a pace that works for them. Don’t put an artificial timeline on your progress and don’t put too much pressure on your dog (or yourself). With the right guidance and plenty of patience and understanding, your dog will get there … wherever “there” happens to be for your dog (see above re: setting realistic expectations).
Make It Super Rewarding
Find out what your dog really loves, and use that to your (and their) advantage. Is your dog food motivated? And, if so, what are some of their most favorite treats? Those would be their “highest value” food rewards. (Just be careful of anything too fatty or rich, you don’t want to give your dog a case of pancreatitis!) Perhaps your dog is more motivated by play? In which case perhaps rewarding progress with a nice game of fetch or tug will help them find joy and associate something awesome with “expanding their horizons.” It’s not about bribing your dog, but rather rewarding them for making progress and conquering their fears. Just be sure that, whatever rewards and reinforcers you use, that they're not so distracting as to take their mind completely off their surroundings - as they do need to be aware of their surroundings, to some degree, to become more comfortable with them.
Keep Your Eye On the Prize
There will be setbacks and plateaus in your dog’s progress. That’s fine. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t get frustrated or give up. Take a breath and a pause. Maybe reevaluate your approach. Maybe increase the “value” of the rewards you’re providing. Maybe get professional help (which is always a good idea … see more about that below). Don’t forget … you’re doing this work for the long-term benefit of both you and your dog. Some short-term setbacks shouldn’t derail your long-term goals. Watch Coconut's amazing change from nervous "puppy mill" pup to loving life as a rescued dog.
You Need Not — And Should Not — Go It Alone
The video above (and story below) bring up our next very important point ... get help! Working with a dog that has missed their early life socialization can be a daunting task, even if you’ve previously had and helped such dogs before. Every dog, every situation is different. Seriously consider getting professional help early on, as you really want to do everything possible to start off this journey on the right foot. An experienced and good trainer* can be worth their weight in gold when formulating a plan to help with delayed socialization. There are also board-certified veterinary behaviorists that can help a ton, especially if anti-anxiety medications** are indicated (which they very often are, at least in the short-term).
*All trainers are not the same, and neither are all training methods. Even with “normal” dogs and in “normal” situations, dominance- or correction-based trainers aren’t really the best option. But this is even more so the case when it comes to helping previously under- or unsocialized dogs get more comfortable in the world. These situations, even more so than “normal” situations, are definitely not helped by dominating, forcing, or creating pain or increased anxiety in a dog … such methods will only make matters (WAY) worse! Only work with trainers whose methods are based in sound behavioral science, these are typically referred to as “rewards-based,” “R+,” or “force-free” trainers. You and your dog will be much happier using their services and approach. Find a trainer.
** Dogs that are stressed, anxious, or fearful have a hard time letting their guard down and learning new things. These dogs are operating “above threshold” — meaning that their brains are in more of a “fight or flight” mode, and that’s definitely not conducive to good, long-term learning. The proper use of appropriate anti-anxiety medications, supplements, or other aids can help to bring these dogs below threshold, allowing them to start learning and forming better, healthier, happier associations with the things you’re hoping to socialize and desensitize them to. Sometimes it takes a combination of different medications, supplements, and other aids and, because every dog and every situation is different, there can be some trial and error and some fine-tuning needed. This is why, if you’ve got one locally and you are able to do so, engaging the help and guidance of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, and doing so early on, can greatly increase your chances of success with your new dog and also greatly decrease the setbacks and frustrations that may be encountered along the way. You can search for a board certified veterinary behaviorist or ask your veterinarian for a recommendation of one.
Before you go, check out our review of the heartwarming movie, "The Champions." This great documentary about the successful rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogfighting dogs is a great testament to the successful work that can be done to rehabilitate and help dogs that have had poor early life socialization.