For the past fifteen months or so, a lot of people have been living a somewhat hermetic existence, with a lot of entertainment venues shut down, and stores and restaurants operating at minimal capacity. Any trips outside the home involved masking and social distancing.
However, now that more and more Americans have been vaccinated — 44.1% fully and 52.59% with at least one shot as of June 16 — things are starting to open up again, with some places now operating at 100% capacity and mask rules easing.
So humans are getting to go back outside and socialize again, although it seems that quite a lot of us have to relearn how to do that. This can make it easy to forget: We’re not the only ones who need to learn how to socialize.
Everything old is new again
For our dogs, in particular, these changes are going to be huge, whether they represent a return to the routine they had before the lockdown or are a completely novel experience for the dog you adopted after it started.
We’ve already discussed possible issues with your dog suddenly being home alone again as their pet parents return to work. But, like humans, our dogs can have issues with going outside and getting close to other dogs. Some will be relearning while others will be doing it for the first time.
If your dog was already socialized with people and other dogs before, just keep an eye out as you return to our new normal for any signs that your dog may have forgotten how to get along with others.
These include timid body language, like ears pulled back, tail and head down, or squinting; signs of fear, like trembling, backing away, or trying to hide behind you; or aggression, like barking, lunging, or snapping at other dogs or people.
If your dog does show signs of having forgotten how to socialize, the next thing to check is yourself. Quite often, a lack of socialization in our dogs is not caused at their end of the leash, but at ours.
Sending the wrong signal
We’ve probably all seen this person while out walking our dogs. The second they spot you coming, you can see them get anxious. They might cross to the other side of the street or pull their dog up onto someone’s lawn. They’ll tighten up the leash and hold their dog back.
“She doesn’t like other dogs,” they may call out in warning and, as if to prove it, their dog barks and lunges at you and yours.
But it’s not necessarily that their dog doesn’t like other dogs. It was just following instructions because everything its human did said, “I’m scared, I need protection. Help me!”
If someone is constantly fearful for or overprotective of their dog, then they’re going to get a dog that is either timid or aggressive. Now combine that with the extra human anxiety of having to get used to socializing again, and it can be a bad combination.
So if your dog does start to show signs of being unsocialized as you both start to get out more, check yourself. Take a few deep breaths, relax your body, and let the leash slacken. If you see someone else with a dog approaching, gently lead your dog to something distracting, like a bush to sniff, and imagine absolutely nothing bad happening.
If they were socialized previously, then it shouldn’t be too hard to get them back on track — and they’ll help you to relearn as well.
First time out
The most difficult situation, though, is going to be the one in which you and your family adopted the dog during the lockdown, and other than walks in which you’ve both avoided everyone for the most part, your dog only knows the people and animals in your household.
When it’s time to go out into the world again, things can get scary really fast. With a puppy, socialization is simply a matter of exposing them gradually to other animals and to people and teaching them that there’s nothing to worry about.
But an adult dog can be a bit trickier. Here are a few steps to take:
1. The walk is your best tool
Even if it’s been a regular part of your routine, you can now focus on it to socialize your dog. Take more walks and follow different routes so your dog can associate the experience with new sights and scents. If you see someone else with a dog, ask if they’re friendly. If the answer is yes, ask if your dogs can meet.
If you have friends or neighbors with dogs, arrange to walk them together. This can be one of the best ways to socialize a dog, because the motion forward together as a group will put them into the mentality of being a pack working together.
2. Invite guests over
Don’t forget that dogs need to socialize with humans, too, and the best way to do that is to let them help you host visitors. It doesn’t have to be some big, elaborate party — in fact, better if it’s not. But just a few friends coming over for lunch and a chat, or maybe a game night that doesn’t get too raucous is ideal.
Remember, too, that being socialized isn’t just about teaching your dog to not be fearful of people. Your dog also shouldn’t be too friendly. While we all appreciate getting attention from a dog, our fur kids really shouldn’t be leaping onto guests’ laps and slobbering all over their faces. Use these opportunities to teach them how to approach respectfully. It’ll probably be the humans that go overboard in showing affection.
The goal here is to get your dog used to visitors and to pretty much ignore them after the initial greeting.
Bonus points: This will make you a better housekeeper!
3. Dog Park
This should be a long-term goal, and it’s also a great test of how socialized your dog is. Once they’ve shown no signs of fear or aggression toward other dogs, bring them to the dog park, but at first, let them experience it from the outside, especially if it has a chain-link fence.
Let your dog see and smell what’s going on and gauge their reaction. If they get too hyperactive or anxious, then they’re not quite ready, but if they seem alert and happy, then you’re close. Also keep an eye on how they interact with any dog that approaches them through the fence.
When they seem ready, it’s time to go in, but remember to calm yourself down first, then approach in a relaxed but confident manner. If your dog is a big fan of retrieving tennis balls or flying discs, bring those along and engage in play. Keep an eye out for any signs of trouble, and always follow the rules of dog park etiquette.
4. Ask For Help
If you don’t seem to be getting anywhere, that’s all right. There are pawfessionals available to help, and you can find them online or by asking dog parent friends. Sometimes, both you and your dog need the training, but if you do it together, you’ll both learn, and it will be a bonding experience.
Welcome back to whatever is next
For almost a year and a half, it’s been rough for everyone. People lost jobs or businesses. They also lost loved ones without even being able to say good-bye. Everyone has been isolated or stressed or both, and for a long time there was nothing but uncertainty.
Is this ever going to end? What will life be like after it does? Do I even want to go out there again when it is over?
Everyone is going through this to varying degrees, even our dogs in their own way. They can’t intellectualize it but what they can do is sense our feelings and take on our anxiety.
The good news, though, is that they can be our barometer, and show us when our own anxiety is dropping. They can also be a pretty good companion as we go back out into the world. We owe it to them to help make that process as stress-free and fun as possible.
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