After the unexpected loss of my boxer Jazzy this past spring, I wasn't sure when I‘d get another dog. But as a few months went by and my heart mended, I found myself missing having a dog around. So I updated my status to "available" to foster and a few days later I was picking up a furry gal pal.
Meet my newest side kick Gabby! She’s incredibly sweet, adventurous, and well-mannered, and she’s already keeping my parents “wild child” Jack (also a boxer) in line.
Was I worried about getting a rescue during the pandemic due to the limitations placed on socializing? Nope, not at all! Believe it or not, interaction is not required to properly socialize a dog. This is even more true for an adventure dog in the making. A dog can learn a lot about the world by just seeing it, noting it, and moving on.
Here’s my theory on socializing a rescue and how I’ve incorporated it into what I’ve been doing with Gabby since her adoption in July. You guessed it...#fosterfail.
Basically, socializing is the act of making someone behave in a way that is acceptable to their society. Most people think that socializing a dog means letting their pups play and interact with other dogs. While this is true and, in most cases, a good idea, it’s only one piece of the socializing puzzle. In order to be confident and navigate the human landscape, a dog, needs to be constantly exposed to a variety of sights, sounds, people, environments, and situations.
The goal is to have the novelty effect of new stuff – and the craziness that comes with it – wear off. The more your dog goes out and experiences the world with you, the less new-and-exciting things seem. One of the biggest mistakes we make when first getting a rescue dog is allowing our dog to interact with everything. Dogs simply need time to decompress, then be exposed to, not necessarily interact with, things in order to feel confident around them. Same goes for puppies.
Here’s how I like to look at it. I want my dog to be confident but not have an overwhelming desire to interact with every little thing they see. For example, most hikers don’t want to be ambushed by dogs on trails. A mountain biker wouldn’t be happy if your dog made him crash. And you most certainly don’t want your adventure companion feeling the need to play with scary – or stinky – wildlife.
When I take Gabby for a socializing outing, I tuck my phone away, stay present and don't let everyone we come across greet her. It’s hard to turn people away, especially in the face of such wiggling cuteness, but this is an important concept I need my dog to understand. In time, I allow them to greet people but only when I give the OK. This is how I clearly establishes my “Alpha” status.
Simply being around other people, dogs, bikers, and wildlife, and learning to not engage, is an awesome skill to encourage at any age. And the absolute beauty of this time of COVID-19 we’re living in, with its six-foot social distancing requirement, is that it’s perfect for socializing and practicing structured walks.
I do a lot of work with my dogs in stores and urban environments, so it’s also important to sprinkle in some adventure-specific social skills. Here are some of my best tips for getting your dog adventure-ready:
Have your dog wear things. Everything from harnesses and packs to coats and PFDs. I want my dog to get used to the feeling of having something on their bodies. With adventure dogs, backpacks, boots and PFDs will be part of life, so why not take the time now to introduce them.
Get them acquainted with equipment. I want my dog to be calm and collected at the sight of bikes, paddleboards, kayaks, etc. So right from the start, we practice being around the gear with lots of positive reinforcement.
Let them know that unstable surfaces can be OK. Not every dog is a natural athlete, and not every dog has great balance. I like to encourage my dogs to walk on a variety of surfaces. I look for sand, dirt trails, thick patches of grass, mulch, gravel, water, even felled trees – anything they can safely climb over. Down the road we’ll try out a kayak on land. This helps build balance and confidence early on. Note: If you have a puppy don’t let them jump off of objects. Compression is really bad for developing growth plates.
Instill that being carried, and handled, is not a bad thing. In the event my dog gets injured on a trail, I need to be able to carry her to safety. On our walks, I’ll randomly check her paws and assist her over things just so she gets used to it. It’s an exercise that also builds trust.
Don’t forget the sounds of nature. Thunder, crickets, whitewater, and rain on a tent fly. Sounds make up a great deal of socializing. Think about what your dog is hearing when you’re out and about and how she’s reacting. If it starts thundering, go out on your patio for a quick training session so your dog learns it’s no big deal.
Bottom line, don’t let the pandemic stop you from getting a rescue dog or taking him – or her – out to see the world. Social distancing can work in your favor. It’s a great premise for helping your new adventure dog understand boundaries and gain confidence at the same time.