How to Socialize a Rescue Dog

Considering adopting a rescue dog? Rescue dogs can be the most loving and amazing pets. Nonetheless, shelter dogs can sometimes suffer from social anxiety when encountering other animals, which in turn can cause extra stress for the dog owner. Our goal is to help you prepare so that you know exactly what to do. This will set a solid foundation for you and your pup. Read on if you want to learn tips on how to socialize a rescue dog!

What is dog socialization?

Socialization, in simple terms, involves making your dog feel comfortable around other animals, humans, and any unfamiliar, new settings such as a new dog park. A socialized pet is a pet that enjoys social engagements where they don’t feel threatened or intimidated.

For a pup, the ideal socialization period begins at three weeks of age. Like young children, puppies are very responsive to their external surroundings as they have not developed any negative emotional responses.

Not all dogs are naturally social animals. Pet owners may face more challenges when it comes to socializing an adult dog, however, it’s still very achievable if you follow the right steps.

Benefits of socializing your adult dog

How to Socialize a Rescue Dog

Proper socialization empowers your dog to gain confidence, enabling them to navigate through everyday life without challenge. By gradually exposing your rescue dog to more positive experiences you’re putting your dog’s mind at ease and making their life much more enjoyable.

Through time, your furry friend will understand that just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s a threat. The socialization process will help prevent your dog from reacting negatively in a variety of situations because they have been acquainted with them before.

A well-socialized dog that can confidently venture anywhere gives its owner the best peace of mind. Visiting the dog park while having to worry about your dog’s behavior is no fun. By teaching your shelter dog how to properly interact with others, you will be a much happier owner in return.

The challenge with rescue dogs

How to Socialize a Rescue Dog

When socializing a puppy, you start with a blank slate. Broadly speaking, puppies are a lot more receptive as they don’t have preconceived notions about their external environment, whether something might be startling or threatening. No precedent from the past that could make them wary of new interactions.

On the other hand, adult dogs have most likely gone through countless social experiences, some of which could be traumatic. You may ask why my adult rescue dog is so scared. The reasons could vary, they may have grown up in an abusive household or were not socialized inadequately as a puppy. Worst yet, they might not even have any positive experience being close to a human. This all makes it stressful for adult dogs with such backgrounds to adapt to their new home.

Using positive reinforcement and training, you can transform your adult dog's social life and unlock a world of new possibilities.

Best practices to socialize a rescue dog

Without understanding the adverse conditions your pooch has come up against in the past, it can be challenging for new dog owners and parents to navigate through this phase. This is why it is key to follow the tips below to optimize your outcomes.

Keep it positive

Make your pup feel encouraged and supported by giving them positive reinforcement and plenty of praise and treats. Good behavior such as non-reaction when encountering a new pet or person should be rewarded! Make sure to prepare a pocketful of treats when you’re heading out with your dog.

Slow and steady

Start the socialization phase at a distance by bringing your dog to a spot where they can stay calm while observing other dogs from afar. Gradually move closer as they grow more comfortable.

Avoid introducing too many new things to your dog at once. For example, start by familiarizing them with other dogs at dog parks before taking them to doggy daycare, once they begin showing more positive associations with other dogs.

By maintaining in controlled environment, you’ll help them build confidence over time, and aid in relaxing their mind.

Keep encounters brief

As your pup is ready for more up-close interactions, keep it brief in the beginning. Allow your dog to sniff another (friendly) dog, give them praise, and move on within 30 seconds. You can reward them with a treat after they finish their walk past the other dog, to avoid any unnecessary squabbles.

Set realistic expectations

You may envision your pup to be highly sociable and interactive with all kinds of people and dogs. However, this is not the case with many dogs, as dogs can be selective in who they love and don’t love, and that’s okay!

Your goal should be making them feel safe when handling new experiences that come their way such as being able to enjoy playdates with best friends, cooperating with the vet or groomer, or simply staying calm when passing other dogs or people.

Counter conditioning

Positive Reinforcement

Dog’s emotional response patterns to different environments and situations can be altered through training. Counter conditioning helps dogs overcome their fear and anxiety. This process involves pairing a worrisome stimulus with something positive for the dog. The key is repetition: by repeating the association of the stimulus with enjoyable experiences, your pup can learn to overcome their fear and develop positive reactions.

The process of counter conditioning can be achieved through the following steps:

  1. Identify what type of situation causes anxiety in your dog. This could be anything, from meeting other dogs, and being in certain places, to sudden movements or loud noises.
  2. Know what motivates and comforts your dog. Perhaps it’s their favorite treat or toy. Use them as high-value reinforcers to reward your pup when going through training.
  3. Set a threshold. Determine the distance and intensity at which your dog starts to show signs of overwhelming. Some baseline includes maintaining distance from other dogs while on a leash, acquainting your pup to fireworks sound at a controlled level, or more frequent visits to the vet.
  4. Start exposing your dog to their triggers during training sessions at a low level. Over time, slowly decrease the distance or increase the intensity between your dog and the trigger.

  5. Reward your dog if they show no reaction to the trigger. Do not reward them with reinforcers until after their trigger shows.

How to Socialize a Rescue Dog Counter Conditioning

Common behavioral issues from missed socialization

Lack of socialization early on in a dog’s life might cause them to display nervous, aggressive, and frightened manners. A new person, such as a vet or groomer, could trigger an unwanted reaction from your pooch.

Shelter dogs that lack adequate socialization and older dogs might show resistance to commands during training, as well as display hostile and hyperactive behaviors even while on a leash. They may start barking and growling when around other dogs, and in some extreme cases, biting.

With dedication and the right approach, you can help your dog overcome these hurdles to encourage fulfilling social connections and positive interactions.

Signs of fear

How to Socialize a Rescue Dog

Dogs communicate their emotions through various signs. Paying attention to your dog’s body language will aid in identifying when they are feeling anxious or uncomfortable.

When your dog’s afraid, you may notice your dog showing signs such as tucked tail (the classic), flattened ears, crouched body, hair standing on the back, shaking, trembling, pacing, trying to escape, whining, yawning, or licking lips. These indicators may vary based on your dog’s breed and behavioral patterns.

Take a slow and cautious approach when you sense that your dog is fearful to avoid any fear-based reactions.

Does my rescue dog need to be socialized?

Socialization constitutes a vital aspect of any dog’s development. While it is extremely important for your dog to have interaction with the outside world when they are still puppies, many dogs unfortunately did not have that luxury.

The extended period of the COVID lockdown put a halt to all social events, preventing many dogs (and their human friends) from gaining crucial real-world experiences. Isolation could have a profound impact on socialization as it diminishes the opportunities for meaningful connections, an important element for the well-being of your pup.

Seclusion can progressively hinder the development of social skills and thus make the process of bonding with other dogs and humans difficult. The longer the isolation, the harder it becomes for most dogs to re-engage socially.

Hence, as a dog owner, you should make it a priority to provide your pup with a healthy amount of exposure to foster a productive life.


Remember, no two dogs are the same. Don’t be deterred by short-term setbacks. When feeling frustrated, take a break, tweak your approach, or consult with a professional trainer. Success is a journey, not a destination!