by K Marie Alto April 21, 2022 12 min read
You've probably heard the saying before, "you can't teach an old dog 🐶 new tricks."
It's sometimes used as an excuse to wave away behaviors that have become ingrained over the years, applied equally to dogs and to people.
It had to come from somewhere, but did it really come from dogs 🤔? Do dogs really reach an age where they're too old to learn something new?
While many will wholeheartedly say yes, we’d argue that the correct answer is no. It's never too late to improve social skills or train a dog. I have included a great short video 📽️ where an expert from the ASPCA discusses their experience with socializing adult dogs. It is a great testimonial. This is a must watch!
Whether you want to teach them to shake, or you just want to adjust their behavior to be kinder around children and other dogs.
That said, it will be more difficult for you to socialize a dog once they have reached certain age milestones.
For some pet parents, socializing a dog might sound like training a dog to interact with other dogs, people, or animals.
The truth is dog socialization is more holistic and goes beyond interactions with other living creatures.
"Socialization is getting puppies and kittens used to people, other animals, and experiences that they will encounter frequently in their adult lives. More than just conforming to dog and cat norms, it’s learning to accept everything around them, such as people, car rides, grooming, vacuum cleaners, noises, other animals, and other household pets." - VeterinaryPartner.com.
In general socialization is about helping your dog make positive associations with the world around them.
The process of socialization should include every effort to ensure a young dog is exposed to the great variety of stimuli that they will encounter in their lives.
Some key goals or early dog socialization include making sure a dog:
The more a young dog is exposed to these early stimuli the better the odds for healthy adult behavior free of stress and situational anxiety.
Unquestionably, the best time to start socializing a dog is when they're young, just a puppy, really. Opinions vary, and the true age range varies from breed to breed, but it generally begins around three weeks old.
According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association the best time to socialize a dog is the sensitive period.
"Ideally, socialization should begin during the "sensitive period" which is between 3 and 14 weeks of age for puppies, and 3 and 9 weeks of age for kittens."
At this age, puppies start to get a feel for the world around them. They're viewing everything with wonder and awe; everything is new, and they barely even know what things are.
They don't have an ingrained sense of caution, just rambunctious and youthful energy and a desire to experience things.
As they get older, they start to learn feedback from the things they experience. They know that maybe other dogs are fun to be around, or maybe some of them are rude and aggressive.
The same goes for people; some people fawn over them and give them cuddles and pats; others shy away or even react aggressively.
To a puppy, people are all strange and new (except you, as their parent), so they're still learning how to react around people.
They learn where the boundaries of your property (and thus their territory) are. They learn what they should and shouldn't bark at.
They learn that some of those little things buzzing around are funny little nuggets to eat, and others sting in retaliation. They learn some things they can eat are delicious, and others hurt their tummies.
Over time – and this happens relatively quickly compared to human children – your puppy starts to build a worldview.
Their behaviors start to become "locked in." They are sponges for information, and those positive and negative reactions to their behavior can sink in deep at a young age.
Eventually, the socialization period "closes," and it becomes more difficult for you to sculpt the reactions and behaviors of your fur baby.
Opinions vary on when this happens, but generally, it's between 12 and 20 weeks of age. That's just 3-5 months old!
"Once the critical socialization period has passed after 4-months of age, your puppy's view of the world becomes harder to shift. New experiences can seem far more threatening, doubly so if it involves new dogs or people." – Hound Games.
Unfortunately, many people don't take the proper care to train their fur babies when they're young.
Many young dogs spend the first months of their lives locked away, poorly socialized, stuck in a puppy mill or a pet store window or a kennel at the local shelter.
These formative months are spent without proper socialization, without positive reinforcement, and without care, attention, and love.
You might be surprised to hear dogs that come from breeders can have a similar experience. Often people are into breeding for the money and not the wellbeing of the dog.
Lack of socialization and/or poor socialization may have the same behavioral consequences for an adult dog.
Poor socialization means that a dog lacks information that helps him live in harmony with other animals and humans. And so, the dog lacks a clear understanding about what things are and how to react.
This lack of understanding makes the dog react to stimuli more like a wild animal.
Part of being a puppy is experiencing new things with joy and wonder. But, part of it is also learning when things may be dangerous or scary.
Those big, loud "boxes" on the hot pavement are fine when they aren't moving, and when they get inside, they go to the park or to another new, cool place!
But, those same large boxes can be dangerous when they're moving, and if they get too close, their parents get scared and angry and panic. That's how a puppy learns to stay away from moving vehicles and the road.
These kinds of experiences add up to shape future behavior. Through encounters and the reactions of the people around them, your puppy learns when to react calmly and with affection and when they should be scared or worried.
In a way, overprotective pet parents can do their puppies a disservice. Being overly sheltering and protecting their precious puppy is an instinct, but it teaches the puppy that many things – often relatively safe things – should be viewed with skepticism or fear.
In doing so, your puppy may learn to react with fear to any unexpected stimuli – even benign ones.
A particularly loud car driving by, a stranger walking down the sidewalk, the tapping of a tree branch on a window when it's windy; your poor puppy doesn't know what to make of them – and you might not even notice them since you've been socialized to ignore them – so they react with fear.
"This is actually a pretty staggering fact – nothing "bad" has to happen at all. A simple lack of exposure at the right time can result in an adult dog who is unable to cope with normal life. And in practice, this is one of the saddest things I see." – Dr. Jennifer L. Summerfield, DVM CPDT-KA
This can be more prominent with smaller dogs, particularly dogs with a nervous disposition, but it can happen with dogs of all ages.
To an extent, this is even evolutionarily hard-wired into your dog. Dogs have been domesticated for millennia, but they descended from wild animals.
In the wild, those first initial weeks, while a newborn is finding their legs and learning about the world, they're kept under the watchful eyes of their parents and their pack.
As they get older, though, those parents and pack-mates have other duties to handle, and the puppy gains strength and independence.
When that happens, the little one needs a healthy dose of fear. In the wild, approaching another animal or a strange person could result in being injured or killed. Afterall, a curious young wolf approaching a pasture is viewed as a threat to livestock.
Your dog may not be considered to be a threat to the local sheep, but those evolutionary instincts are still strong.
At a certain age, your dog transitions from youthful joy to skepticism and fear. And that, friends, is where poor socialization comes from.
Even though young dogs are evolutionarily hard-wired to start reacting with skepticism and fear, that doesn't mean they're crystallized in their behavior.
In fact, you've seen it before. It seems like every few months there will be a viral story about a stray picked up off the street and given a new life.
It's heartwarming to see the transformation from a fearful, aggressive stray to a smiling, happy, loving, and healthy fur baby.
Check out this terrified rescue dog that goes from snapping and crying to loving rubies from his rescuer:
What are your thoughts after watching this video?
This dog isn’t a puppy, but through the careful attention, love, and tender patience, this adult dog was able to transform from sad and fearful to kind and loving.
What is that, if not socialization?
Sure, there's a difference between a dog in a stable living situation with poor socialization skills and a stray experiencing love and kindness for the first time.
The latter is an extreme case of the former. Still, though, it's a change in behavior, which supports the notion that change is possible regardless of age.
Now to answer the question: Can you socialize an older dog?
The answer is yes and no.
In most cases, it's never too late to socialize an adult dog. It just might take more effort, more patience, and more training with a very vigilant eye. Positive reinforcement is a very powerful motivator when used properly.
The trick is just that: it must be used properly, consistently, and with the right kind of motivation for the dog in question.
Need more proof? Check out the amazing turnaround of the pups rescued from a dog fighting ring.
“Their amazing resilience — and journey back to health and happiness — proved there's no such thing as "too damaged" or "beyond hope," that no dog is inherently vicious, no matter his or her breed or background.” - Best Friends Animal Society.
Here's the perspective of Kristen Collins; Director of the Behavioral Rehab Center at The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA):
Sadly, there is one exception and it's extremely old dogs. Dogs nearing the end of their natural lifespan, particularly if they have certain health issues, can experience something known as CCD.
CCD is Canine Cognitive Decline and is somewhat similar to dementia in humans. Dogs already this far into their lives will be almost impossible to train simply because their aging brains don't retain information properly.
Of course, generally once they reach that point, it's more about making them comfortable for their last years to months.
If you have adopted a puppy that has already passed the “ideal” socialization period, or even an adult dog, and you want to socialize them and improve their behavior, we truly believe it's entirely possible to do so.
Socializing an older dog will be a long-term undertaking but nothing that cannot be achieved with love and consistency.
Consider the following:
Watch your dog’s body language and do your best to identify his/her personality traits. Write them down in a journal. Is he shy? Adventurous? Feels comfortable around people? Afraid of noises? Curious? etc.
Your dog’s personality will set the tone for and focus of your efforts. For example, you can't simply take an anxious and fearful dog to a crowded dog park and let them go.
At best, they'll cower away from everything and try to find a place to hide. At worst, they can react with aggression and even injure other dogs or their humans.
Instead, take them to an isolated location, a park with no other attendees, a parking lot, somewhere unfamiliar but safe. Keep them on a leash and let them experience the area for a few minutes, rewarding them frequently as they handle the new experience.
Every day or so, repeat the process, gradually increasing their exposure to new things. Take them to new places (that are relatively well-controlled and safe) and gradually introduce them to other dogs and other people. Keep sessions short, reward them for good behavior, and bring them home.
"Do not let your puppy interact with another dog that does not have advanced social skills themselves. A dominant, overexcited, or reactive dog can do massive damage to your puppy who doesn't yet understand how to interact with other dogs." – Hound Games.
At the same time, work on obedience training. Train them to sit and stay, to come when called, to heel. You want them to be in control of their physical actions, even if their mind is screaming at them to run or snap at a perceived threat. Praise, treats, and pets all help.
One of the last things to do is introduce your fur baby to a more chaotic environment. A dog park with other dogs, a puppy or litter of puppies, small children; these are all unpredictable.
A less controlled environment makes it more difficult to regulate behavior, but not impossible. That's why it's like a "final exam" for training and socialization.
If you aren't sure how to do this, talk to local pet agencies and vets, and look for obedience training and socialization programs. You can attend these classes with your fur baby, learn new skills, and transfer them to your home training routine.
The key here is that training doesn't end simply when the classes end. Far too many people take their dog to an obedience class but don't uphold the training when at home, so their dog never learns how to behave in general, just how to behave at the class.
As we’ve covered, adult dogs can be socialized. However, it can take a lot of time and patience, depending on many factors. Dogs with nervous dispositions, dogs that were abused or neglected, dogs with significant bad experiences; these can all become ingrained and be very difficult to overcome.
The key here is "very difficult," not "impossible." You can always, always socialize an older dog. It's just a matter of time, patience, and consistent reinforcement. You can do it, and you'll end up with a happy, calm, and well-socialized fur baby.
Have you attempted to socialize an adult dog of your own before? How did that process go? Were the results what you were hoping for? Additionally, do you have any questions about socializing your dog, whether they're a puppy or an adult? If so, be sure to leave them in the comments section down below! I'd love to hear all your thoughts and stories, and would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have on the topic!
Are you looking for more dog care guides? My blog is packed📚 with resources!
Additionally, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA, 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 22K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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