Social Enrichment: Use It or Lose It

Domestic Pet CompositeEven if you are an introvert, I’ll bet there are still relationships you value that enrich your life and bring you happiness and contentment. I’ll further bet that your dog would feel the same. You are likely the center of your dog’s universe, yet he probably has other people or other animal friends he likes to hang out with. After all, dogs by nature are social creatures.
That’s the basis of social enrichment, the fifth of the five areas of enrichment that we have been covering. Having that social circle of relationships provides a level of connection and fulfillment in life. A sense of community, belonging and security. Social enrichment helps individuals be more well-rounded and behaviorally sound.
But there’s a catch.
Social enrichment is most effective when the dog develops his social skills early and has continual opportunities to engage in social experiences. So what does this mean for you and your dog?
Start Young
If you acquire your dog as a young puppy (8 to 12 weeks of age), you are working in the prime human socialization period. So be sure to get your puppy safely exposed to dozens of different people in a range of sizes, complexions, ages, personalities, appearances, gaits, and so on. If your puppy shows any hesitation, don’t force the interaction, but let your puppy take his time and realize that the stranger is friendly and comes bearing gifts (yummy treats!). The more people of great diversity your puppy experiences during this period, the more likely he will be to readily accept new people in the future.
This holds true for experiences with other dogs, cats, and other species of animals. It’s very important that this circle of interactions not be limited to only those animals with whom your dog will have daily experience. We want your dog to learn how to relate to animals they don’t see regularly, adapt his interactions to new friends, and learn how to be comfortable with them. See if some friends can help you out with introductions to their pets of all species.
Keep It Going
Social skills need practice, so don’t stop giving your dog these opportunities to engage in social interactions. Don’t like dog parks? They aren’t required for keeping social skills strong. Take your dog with you to stores, sporting activities, parks, picnics, friends’ homes, to name a few. This is especially critical during the Second Fear Period of development (6 to 14 months of age) when we often see a spike in reactive behavior. Be sure those social interactions — whether human or other animals — go well and are fun for your dog. Remember, not all social experiences are created equal; you are not looking for interaction for the sake of interaction. Know that an interaction will be positive for your dog before exposing him to it during this Second Fear Period.
Dogs hit their behavioral maturity in the 12 to 24 month (longer for giant breeds) age range. It is not uncommon for dogs who have not maintained positive social interactions to become very selective about their social circles during this time. So an ounce of prevention (keeping up social enrichment) is worth a pound of cure (working on reactivity) down the road.
Making Up for Lost Time
Got your dog as an adolescent or adult? You can still acclimate your dog to new people and animals. You will likely need to go a bit slower and pay lots of attention to your dog’s body language to determine when he is comfortable with that interaction and when he needs more space. Some dogs have never had great social enrichment or have lost some of their social skills over time. You can still provide social experiences that your dog will find rewarding. It just has to be carefully orchestrated.
  • 3-second greetings are a great way for two dogs to meet in a way that keeps the interaction low stress (perfect for interactions at any age!)
  • Pair the interaction with something pleasurable to your dog (shared walks, for example)
  • Keep it short to start! Fatigue can often be a trigger for things to go south, when your dog is ready to be done with social interaction, but has no escape
  • Work with dog-savvy people or other dogs and cats who will understand your dog’s non-verbal communications and respect his signals
Feel your dog’s social enrichment will be a challenge? Please work with a qualified positive reinforcement trainer to help you set up your dog’s interactions in a way that will be productive. (We would be happy to help!)
Even dogs who just find it hard to accept new people or other animals can have “pseudo-social” experiences. Check out this adorable Frenchie’s social overtures to his “new friend.”
This concludes our discussion of the five areas of enrichment in our newsletter. We hope you have enjoyed this series and are inspired to provide your dog abundant enrichment of all types! To keep up your enrichment activities, check out the Canine Enrichment Facebook page for some great ideas and discussion.

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