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How to Maintain Social Skills in Older Dogs

Many dogs are socialized when they are puppies, but it is just as important to socialize your dog when they are older. If your dog doesn't continue to have social contact with people and other dogs, they may develop negative behavior patterns. To socialize your older dogs, take them out to places with dogs and people, use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior, and introduce your dog to a variety of people.

Introducing Your Dog to Other Dogs

1. Take your dog to the dog park. A great way to socialize your older dog is to take them to the dog park. At the dog park, they will have an opportunity to interact with other dogs and people. They also can run around and play for their exercise.

  • If you are worried your dog won't feel comfortable around the dogs at first, consider keeping them on a leash until they get used to the people and dogs.
  • You should only take them off-leash if they are not aggressive with other dogs or people. You should also only let them off the leash if they come to you when you call, if they don't run off randomly, and if they will stay with you when commanded. This ensures you can control your dog and avoid any incidents.

2. Walk your dog. Another way you can socialize your dog is to take them for a walk. Walking around a park, neighborhood, or trails with people and other dogs helps socialize your dog. Exposing your dog to these areas puts them in contact with a lot of different people and dogs.

  • After your dog gets used to just being around people, try introducing him to people. Notice the people who pass you. If someone smiles and comments on your dog, ask them, "Would you like to meet him? He's learning how to interact with people."
  • Avoid people who look aggressive or who are walking aggressive dogs.

3. Arrange playdates with other dogs. Dogs are social animals that need to be around other people and dogs. One way to help with this is to let your dog play with other dogs. You can arrange a playdate for your dog and the dog of a friend, family member, colleague, or neighbor. This helps your dog be around other dogs and people.

  • Start with dogs that your dog knows. This may be a neighbor's dog or a family members dog. You may also ask for a playdate with a dog your dog knows from the dog park. You may say, "My dog is learning social skills and really gets along with your dog. Could we arrange a playdate for our dogs?"
  • If you are arranging a playdate with a neighborhood or family dog, ask for the playdate to happen in your yard. Explain to the owner that you are teaching your dog social skills and you think being in your dog's yard will help.
  • Stick to dogs that your dog knows or are familiar with at the beginning. Even if your dog and a dog at the dog park don't know each other well, if they have been around each other and interacted, this makes them familiar enough to interact.
  • Your playdate can be as simple as letting the dogs run around the yard together. You may want to bring out some toys and have them chase balls or frisbees.

4. Introduce new dogs to your home slowly. If you are adopting a dog to help your dog learn social skills, you want to go slow and use caution. This can be a great way to get your dog social with at least one other dog, but this can also end in disaster if your dog never warms up to the new dog. Ask yourself whether or not you believe forcing a new dog into your home is a good way for your dog to become social.

  • If you decide to do this, make sure to introduce the dogs slowly. Put them both on leashes and let them be around each other, sniff each other, and get to know each other. If either dog starts to get aggressive, remove them and try again later.
  • When adopting a new dog, make sure to get a dog who is not dog-aggressive. This will cause problems with your current dog.
  • It may take awhile for your dog to adjust to the new dog. As long as the two dogs are not aggressive towards one another, they may eventually come around to each other, no matter if they are young or old.

Socializing Your Dog With People

1. Let your dog interact with different kinds of people. You may want to make a point to introduce your dog to different types of people. This helps your dog to get used to everyone. Start with your friends and family, then try to walk by different people while out.

  • For example, you may want to let your dog interact with people of different ages. Let your dog see people who use canes or wheelchairs. Let them be around people with facial hair and different color hair. Introduce them to people of different ethnicities.
  • Bring your dog around people who are engaging in different activities, like running, playing sports, singing, or laughing loudly. You may want to let them be around people wearing different clothes.

2. Invite people over. Another way to socialize your older dog is to let them interact with people who come to your home. By letting your dog be around people, they can stay social or increase their social skills as they age.

  • You can ask visitors to give your dog a treat when they come in to help them react positively.

3. Socialize your dog slowly. If your older dog has social anxiety, aggressive behavior problems, or reacts negatively when around others, take it slow. Don't force your dog to interact with too many people or dogs at once. Instead, let them get used to others one by one.

  • For example, let them interact with family or friends one at a time. As they get used to one new person, introduce two, then three.
  • Take your dog to places where they will see a few dogs one on one. You may try walking around a city park or your neighborhood. Don't take them to a dog park until they are used to many dogs.

4. Find ways for your dog to meet new people and dogs. To stay social, your dog needs to interact with new people and dogs. Seeing dogs or people they are familiar with doesn't help them socialize more. Look for ways to increase your dog's interactions.

  • This may include going to parks, finding new walking routes, taking your dog with you on vacation, taking your dog for a hike, or bringing your dog to a family gathering.

5. Help your dog overcome any social fears. Some dogs end up scared of some people, like men or people wearing hats. If this is the case for your dog, you need to help socialize them with whatever scares them so they can get over the fear. However, you may need to tell people that your dog is fearful and to take caution around them.

  • For example, if your dog is afraid of men, invite men over to interact with your dog. Give them treats to give your dog, and encourage them to give lots of praise and positive reinforcement.
  • You may have to tell children to be quiet or gentle with your dog because they get upset around loud screaming or when handled too harshly.
  • Do this slowly. Start with one man, then a few, then more to help your dog get over their fear.

Encouraging Positive Social Behavior

1. Touch your dog often. Sometimes, older dogs get antisocial because of reduced contact. To help prevent this from happening, touch your dog. Go beyond simple petting. Touch all parts of the dog to make them feel comfortable with physical interaction. Make sure to praise the dog and give treats for good behavior.

  • Touch the dog's legs, back, tummy, head, muzzle, and tail. This helps keep your dog comfortable with touch.

2. Take your dog to obedience classes. Your dog is never too old for obedience classes. Plus, they are a great way to help your dog socialize. They will be around other dogs and people, which can help them become more comfortable.

  • The trainer may be able to help you figure out ways to socialize your dog.

3. Keep socializing your dog. Even if your dog doesn't immediately warm up to others, don't quit. Be patient and keep at it. The best way to socialize your dog is to keep giving your dog contact with others. Don't give up. Eventually, your dog will learn.

  • If your dog is hesitant, then keep the socializing small. But keep letting them interact with people. Isolating your dog is one of the worst things you can do.

4. Use positive reinforcement. If your dog growls at people or other dogs, try using positive reinforcement to adjust their behavior. Instead of yelling at your dog or punishing them for barking, tell them in a firm voice, "No." If you have to, move them away from the source. When the dog stops growling, provide treats and praise for them to associate with the new dog.

  • You can also associate new dogs and people with treats and positive reinforcement. For example, if a dog starts to approach you and your dog, give your dog a treat before they start growling. This helps them start to associate new people and dogs in a positive way.
  • When your dog acts in the way you want them to with another dog, give them a treat.
  • Pet or praise your dog when another dog walks by. Use a happy tone of voice when talking to the dog.

Troubleshooting New Behavior Problems

1. Consult a vet about changes in your dog's behavior. An aging dog can develop problems with its senses, memory, and awareness of its surroundings. This can make the dog irritated, restless, anxious, and sometimes even aggressive. In many cases, there is an underlying disease or health problem making this worse. If your elderly dog has worse social skills than it did before, it's worth a visit to the vet.

2. Make life easier on your dog. Once you've identified some of the issues your dog is having, whether through observation or a vet checkup, try to reduce the animal's stress however you can. If the dog is experiencing less pain or confusion, it will have an easier time in social interactions. Here are a few examples:

  • If your dog bumps into things or whines at night, its vision or spatial senses may have declined. See if its behavior improves if you leave dim lights on.
  • If your dog has trouble reaching its usual spots, help it out. Maybe it needs a step stool to reach the couch, or a wider pathway between its bed and its food bowl.
  • Many older dogs develop different sleep schedules and energy levels, and may be restless at night or slow to move during the day. In both cases, it helps to spend more time on activities that are not physically taxing, such as longer walks, indoor games, and food puzzle toys.

3. Consult an animal behavior expert. If the vet rules out a medical cause or the dog's social skills do not improve after treatment, visit an animal behavior therapist for advice and training. This is especially useful if you think your dog might have one of these behavior problems:

  • Separation anxiety, leading to destructive behavior or panic when you leave the dog alone
  • Excessive howling and barking
  • New fear responses to certain sounds or objects
  • Aggression