6 Ways to Teach a Senior Dog to Socialize
By Victoria Schade
Dog socialization isn’t just for puppies. Perhaps you’ve opened your heart and home to a senior rescue and you want him to enjoy all that life has to offer. Or maybe you’ve decided that your beloved but sedentary older pooch needs to get out and have some adventures.
Tackling socialization with dogs who are well past the formative stage of development requires a gentle touch and patience, since older dogs have a well-established pattern of likes and dislikes. But much like puppy socialization, it’s important to remember that your senior sets the pace.
That means that if he opts to hang back from unfamiliar people, or doesn’t want to immediately interact with other dogs, you shouldn’t push him. Forcing your dog into a scenario where he feels uncomfortable or overwhelmed can backfire and derail your dog socialization goals.
Keep in mind that attempting to socialize a dog with longstanding reactivity to other dogs or people requires a more choreographed approach and the help of a positive trainer and/or a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral medicine.
The following tips are geared toward how to socialize an older dog who is appropriate with others, but might need some extra support as he brushes up on his socialization skills.
Host a Low-Key Gathering
Inviting two or three friends over for a calm, dog-centric hang can help kickstart a senior’s inner party animal.
When your guests arrive, give them handfuls of savory dog treats, like freeze-dried liver, and tell them to ignore your dog unless he initiates contact on his own. If your dog approaches one of your guests, encourage that person to give a few treats. If he opts to put a buffer between himself and the guests, encourage them to toss treats to your dog from a distance, so that he begins to make an association between the goodies and the new friends.
The goal of the gathering is to let your dog set the pace for interactions, and help him understand that unfamiliar people bring gentle pats and goodies.
Take a Buddy Walk
Find a friend with an even-tempered dog and go for a hike together.
Before you hit the trail, make time for a proper introduction on neutral ground so that the dogs can acclimate to one another safely. Going to a novel environment with a new buddy combines two aspects of dog socialization: experiencing the joy of unfamiliar territory and engaging in low-pressure canine bonding.
Walking together is a gentle, stress-free way to encourage your senior to socialize with others, as the dogs can stroll near each other without directly interacting.
Run Off-Peak Errands
Consider taking your furry best friend with you for some easy dog socialization time when you need to stop by the bank and pick up your dry cleaning.
Quick trips to dog-friendly spots during low-traffic times are a great way to gently introduce your senior to new sights, sounds and people.
Keep an eye on your dog as you include him in new adventures. If he displays stress behaviors, like yawning, licking his lips and excessive sniffing, finish up and head home. If he seems comfortable and confident in new environments, keep up the good work.
Go Back to School
Even if you and your senior dog aced training classes back when he was a puppy, enroll in something new and fun, like a tricks class or nose work class.
The ancillary exposure to other dogs in the group will provide secondary dog socialization while he reengages his brain learning new skills. And if you’ve got a rescued senior, taking a class together teaches you to speak the same language.
Plus, a fun, positive training class can help speed the bonding process.
Walk a New Neighborhood
You and your senior dog have probably been walking the same route for many years, and while that’s fine for basic potty needs, it doesn’t flex your dog’s socialization muscle. Taking the road less traveled exposes your dog to novel experiences and gives him the opportunity to meet new friends along the way.
Having positive experiences in a different environment helps your dog understand that the unknown can be fun, not scary. Bring a pocket full of treats along and give them to your dog any time he encounters someone, even if they’re just passing by.
If you notice your dog acting nervous around any of the new sights and sounds, like construction noise or garbage trucks passing by, give your dog a treat so that it’s paired with the source of stress. In time, your dog will associate the formerly scary thing with the treat, and it won’t be quite so disturbing to him.
Have a Yard Hangout
Even though many older dogs don’t have the same drive to run, chase and wrestle with their peers, a casual backyard visit with a canine friend or two can grow your dog’s social life.
Find a dog of a similar age and temperament, introduce them on neutral turf and then bring them to a safe yard space. Then, let the dogs set the pace for the play date.
Even if there’s no paw-to-paw play between them, sometimes just ambling around the space and exploring together is enough to grow a friendly relationship. Praise any positive interactions between the dogs, like appropriate sniffs, tail wags or play overtures, and allow the friendship to grow on its own time.