National Dog Bite Prevention Week promoted dog safety and successfully brought awareness to responsible pet guardianship. Last year, nearly 5 million people were bitten by dogs in the United States. About a million of those injuries were severe enough to require medical attention.
Earlier this month, two East Bay toddlers were mauled by dogs. Both children were seriously wounded and required surgery. One dog has been euthanized and the other detained.
In each case, the neighbors described the dogs as “good,” “well-behaved,” and “obedient.” When investigated further, it was discovered that both of the attackers lacked socialization and had more than one incident of inappropriate interactions with strangers.
Properly socializing your dog is the best way to reduce the risk of aggression and help your pet become resilient in the face of unsettling situations. Dogs don’t bite because they are mean or bad. Dogs bite when they feel threatened, afraid, uncomfortable and/or overwhelmed. They will defend themselves against things they have not been acclimated to.
In an uncertain world, a guardian cannot always protect their dog from negative and frightening conditions. Therefore, you must help your dog learn how to cope and respond, in a healthy and reliable manner, to the spectrum of people, animals, and circumstances your dog might encounter in his or her lifetime. Socialization is a gradual, positive process of exposure to new experiences that instills confident behavior.
Socialization does not end at puppyhood. Pet guardians should encourage and reinforce social skills throughout their dog’s life. Even the most sociable dogs can become less friendly over time if s/he is isolated during adulthood.
Adult dogs with no history of traumatic or frightening experiences can become fearful and aggressive without continuous regular exposure to new dogs, new people, and anything outside of their routine.
If your dog begins to exhibit undesirable behaviors, all is not lost. Though it requires commitment and time, it is possible to rehabilitate a scared or anxious dog. You can apply canine socialization principles to help a dog’s temperament and overall well-being at any age. So don’t be discouraged from adopting a shy or overeager older pet, because social skills can improve with proper training.
Reward-based techniques are the method of choice when teaching a dog how to overcome his or her fears. For example, take your dog on a walk and every time a person passes by, give your dog a treat and verbal praise. Your dog will begin to associate a good feeling when people are near, because that’s when s/he is rewarded.
Once a goal is mastered, advance the skill. Remember, this is a gradual process. Behaviors will not change overnight. Pushing your dog into overly-stressful situations hastily can have an adverse effect, so take it slow.
Teaching your dog to be people and canine-friendly is your most important job as a pet guardian. The more social your dog is the more likely you will have a stable, happy, trustworthy companion.
It is also important to keep your dog healthy and vaccinations current, because how your dog feels affects how s/he behaves. Choose to spay/neuter your dog, as this often reduces aggressive tendencies.
Activities for continued socialization
- Pleasant encounters with all kinds of people. Plenty of walks in different neighborhoods, frequent guests in your home, outings to parks, and spending time at an outdoor café are great ways to increase exposure to a variety of people. Make sure to introduce your dog to every kind of person from babies to seniors, men and women, people of every shape, color, and size.
- Positive experiences with other dogs. Regular play dates, trips to the dog-park, obedience classes, and vet visits will help your dog learn how to get along with other canines.
- Exposure to new environments. Cars, bicycles, lawn mowers, balls, cats, and squirrels can all excite or frighten a dog who is not used to them. The solution is to expose your dog to as many experiences as possible, and ideally as early as possible. Desensitizing is part of gaining calmness in your dog and building confidence.
As pet guardians, it is our humane responsibility to keep our community safe and protect our four-legged family member from the horrific consequences that result from biting. If you think your dog is timid, stressed, or worried, cautiously work on this problem and always use a leash in public to ensure you are able to control your dog. If you see signs of aggression or potentially dangerous behavior, seek help immediately from a professional trainer, dog behaviorist, or your veterinarian.
The Sacramento SPCA offers low-cost private consultations where you and your dog can receive one-on-one attention to address your dog’s behavior issue(s). Call their Behavior Helpline at 916-504-2848 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call your local PETCO for a free consultation with a dog trainer. They also offer low-cost dog training classes. See link for details: www.petco.com/petco_Page_PC_dogtrainingclasses_Nav_131.aspx
Join 4Paws University Dog Training & Behavior in Sacramento on Saturday, June 2, 2012 from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. They will be having an informative seminar on “Stranger Danger- Helping Dogs Overcome Fear of People.” For more information visit their website: 4pawsu.com/strangerdanger.html.