How to Build Your Dog’s Social Skills

By Sarah Hinds Friedl on September 1st, 2021

It’s well known that canines are social animals, but that doesn’t mean that all dogs are born with amazing social skills. While some dogs do naturally get along with everyone, including two-legged, four-legged, or even winged, others aren’t so comfortable in social settings.

If your dog is grouchy, nervous, or downright distressed in the presence of dogs or people, there are ways that you can encourage them to lighten up a bit. With some patience, understanding, and plenty of repetition, you can improve your pup’s quality of life by expanding their social net!

Why are some dogs anti-social?
Ah, the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Are some dogs naturally anti-social or is it something that they learn? The good news and bad news is that it’s probably a little bit of both.

Your dog may have inherited an antisocial personality from their parents, especially if their breed background encouraged them to work alone or guard a flock or family. German Shepherds, for example, can sometimes develop a protectiveness of their owners that makes them wary of strangers or other dogs.

At the same time, past experiences—or lack thereof— can also have a huge impact on how comfortable a dog feels around others. Missing out on the crucial socialisation period in puppyhood or experiencing a traumatic event such as a fight with another dog or overly harsh training practices can also lead a dog to develop antisocial behaviours. The result can be aggression, reactivity or fear.

The good news is that no matter whether your dog’s aversion to social settings is learned or inherited, it’s not a life sentence. You can help your pup break down the walls that they’ve built up against the world so that they can live up to their full friendly potential!

How can you build your dog’s confidence around others?

Here are a few ways that you can go about easing your dog into social settings:

  • Invest in the right gear. As you start social skills training, your dog will need to be fully under your control. Always make sure that they’re wearing a sturdy leash and a harness so that you can safely remove them (we’ll talk more about why choke collars may not be appropriate in a moment) when they’re overwhelmed. A humane muzzle can also be a useful safety measure, given that your dog has had enough time to get used to wearing it. And, make sure that your car is outfitted with BreezeGuard Screens to keep your dog safely inside; this will be especially helpful as you start introducing them to more populated areas so that they don’t try lunging out of the window or escaping. 
  • Find an irresistible reward system. Wait, you’re going to reward your dog for their antisocial behavior? No! Instead, you’re going to use counterconditioning to replace their negative feelings towards others with the anticipation of tasty rewards. You’ll do this by gradually exposing your dog to new people or dogs and rewarding them for calm behavior. If they start to get overwhelmed, you’ll remove them and try again when they’re calm. Eventually, your pup will learn to see other dogs and people in a whole new mouth-watering light!
  • Avoid punishment. Traditionally, it was believed that when your dog acted out with others, they just needed a reminder of their “place in the pack.” But the truth is, forms of punishment such as yelling, physical handling or pain-inducing equipment like e-collars run the risk of worsening your dog’s negative view of others. In fact, recent controlled studies have shown that e-collars are generally less effective than reward-based training. If you have been using some of these harsher measures, it’s worth trying a more positive approach to see if you have better results.
  • Work on counterconditioning from afar. Even with a pocket full of treats, you don’t want to throw your dog into a social setting before they’re ready. In fact, in the first few sessions or weeks, you might not get within a football field of another dog or person if your pup is severely antisocial. That’s okay. The most important thing is that you’re able to reward them for being calm around the things that trigger them. If they’re able to stay calm, listen to commands, and even play a game with you like fetch or tug-of-war, you can gradually decrease the distance. If, on the other hand, they start to become upset or unresponsive, calmly back up to a more comfortable distance.
  • Read your dog’s body language. Clearly, you’ll need to learn your dog’s communication signals to know when to reward your dog and when to take a few steps back. In general, if your dog is in an agitated state, they will stand in a rigid position, perhaps with their hackles raised and tail high in the air. Or, if they are more fearful, they may make themselves look small and try to escape. Overwhelmed dogs typically won’t be responsive to treats or commands, so the best thing you can do is walk them away from the trigger until you start to see calm body language, like relaxed muscles and ear movement.
  • Introduce them to appropriate playmates. When you’ve had some success with counterconditioning, you’ll be ready to introduce your pup to new friends in a controlled, neutral setting. This could include inviting a dog loving friend to accompany you on a walk or scheduling playdates with a dog that you know is calm and friendly. You’ll still want to have your dog on a leash during these encounters to avoid physical conflicts or escapes. Continue to reward your pupper when they show calm behavior and take breaks when interacting with other dogs.
  • Don’t forget to fulfill your dog’s other needs. You’ll find that the more satisfied your dog is overall, the better emotional regulation they have when encountering potentially overwhelming situations. The trick is, of course, finding the right routine to keep your pup satisfied. This will mean giving them enough daily exercise, mental stimulation, naptime, and interactive play to burn off extra energy and lower stress. 

Remember to be patient! Learning social skills takes time!
Working through antisocial behavior in dogs is no easy task! And, there will be times that you wonder whether your pup will ever get along with other dogs or humans. The important thing is to trust the process, go at your dog’s speed, and consider calling in an expert if you’re feeling overwhelmed. 

Remember, also, why you’re doing this! Promoting good social skills for your dog will open them up to so many fulfilling and fun experiences that they deserve to enjoy. As you watch their progress, you’ll know that it was all worth it!

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