…remember, your dog thinks you are god!
Much like a child, the early part of the life of your dog will be spent learning and deciding about the world. Those first months and years, will determine whether your dog sees the world as safe and friendly or hostile and scary, reliable or unpredictable. Clearly these factors will go a long way toward earning the title “good dog”.
Even older dogs, like older people, can have this perception impacted by effort and caring, but to get it done right in the beginning is easier and far less stressful.
So, upon bringing your dog home for the first time, regardless of their age, making an effort to introduce them to as many new and interesting aspects of their new life as possible is critical and invaluable. This is called socialization.
As you direct the socialization process, it is critical that you understand that a frightened or hesitant puppy will not be reassured by your frustration or anger or irritation. If you don’t have the time today to work through an issue as it presents itself, work on something else. If socialization is not pleasant, it will have the opposite of the desired effect.
The process in the mind of your dog, or a hesitant dog is “I don’t know, this doesn’t look right or feel right, I bet something bad might happen…” then you get upset. your dog was proven correct and you will be hard-pressed to change their mind in the future. Do not fall into this trap.
So, as you introduce your dog to a new situation, item or experience or thing, take the time to only praise the desired response and to sit patiently and ignore undesirable ones. If your dog should panic, try to remove as far from the stimulus as possible while your dog is still aware of it and ignore the tantrum. Do not make the mistake of attempting to reassure your dog. This may seem an unkindness but there is no evidence that dogs grasp the concept of reassurance. They do understand reinforcement however, and if your consoling makes them feel good about anxiety and panic, you can actually train your dog to be anxious and worried!
For example, your dog is on a leash and you are approaching a fire hydrant. your dog is unaware until you are about five feet away and then, they panic! Try quickly dropping back to ten or fifteen feet and assess how your dog relaxes. Don’t say anything and don’t touch your dog. Watch for indications that they are calmer. Once they have their composure, step closer to the hydrant and get their attention. If they will look at you (and thus see the hydrant in the background) praise that and step back to them for a pat or other reinforcement. As they recognize they have control (you will back up again if necessary) they will usually deem to investigate. This process may take several visits, until one day, you can sit on the hydrant while they come up and sniff, unconvinced but not panicking. After that, regular exposure as you just walk past it, ignoring it (some of the time) will help them recognize it is an unimportant land feature.
Giving your dog the opportunity to deal with their anxiety on their terms and at their pace accomplishes a number of things. It helps them trust you, as you are not forcing them into terrifying situations. They gain a sense of their own judgment as they weigh and determine how to approach new and potentially dangerous things. They gain coping skills as you don’t let them use their panic as a way to escape. Finally, they gain confidence as their experiences prove positive and their judgment proves sound.
Now that you know how to address the responses of your dog to novel experiences, it is time to compile as extensive a list as possible of places, people and things to see. Don’t overlook minor experiences like umbrellas and hats, don’t forget noises (trains, planes and automobiles), don’t overlook pet friendly places like shopping centers and pet supply shops and feed stores. Definitely think of people you know, big, small, loud, quiet, those with crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, big flapping coats and more. All of these things, while they may seem similar to us can seem dramatically different to your dog. Their sensory skills process things very differently.
You may even want to keep a journal of your efforts with your dog. It will be entertaining to reminisce when your dog is older about some of the funny things they did when seeing an aquarium for the first time. And it will also help you keep in mind experiences that you want to revisit as your dog finds some things more challenging than others.