Canine Socialization: Tips to Help Fearful, Shy, Scared, and Abused Dogs

Updated on August 5, 2019
agilitymach profile image

Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.


The Fearful Pound Puppy

Over 13 years ago, Tom and Kristin visited a local animal shelter to find a new dog. Huddled in the back of one of the crates was a blob of shaking white fur. After opening the crate's door, a fearful, pure-bred American Eskimo Dog emerged. She looked at the couple with eyes that told them shelter life was more than she could bear.

So they adopted her.

Upon taking their new dog - now named Laika - home, the couple found the fear she displayed in the shelter was present to almost every stimuli in life. She was afraid - deathly afraid - of everything but her crate. It became vastly apparent that the beautiful, white dog had never been socialized.

"Socialization" is simply the act of giving a puppy or dog positive exposure to the world. While professional dog trainers disagree on many topics, almost all agree that socialization of puppies and dogs is of utmost importance. Dogs who are properly socialized tend to be confident and comfortable in new situations and environments outside of the home. Dogs who are not socialized can develop fears and aggressions, and sometimes these can becoming debilitating. Under-socialized dogs can also appear as if they have been abused, cowering and crouching when scared as if they have often been beaten, even if they have never been physically struck.

Owners must intentionally "socialize" their dogs to help the dogs build confidence and avoid fears. This is done through positive exposure to new experiences, mostly outside the home. Socialization may include taking the dog to new places such as parks, homes of willing friends, obedience training classes, enjoying walks. joining in supervised puppy playtimes with other puppies. closely supervised visits with other well controlled and well trained adult dogs, visiting different environments that are not common in the areas the puppy usually finds itself, etc. A list of socialization ideas will be given below.

The best age to socialize a dog is when they are a puppy. The exact age to start taking a young puppy out beyond the home is controversial in the training community, but a good rule of thumb is to wait until all of the rounds of puppy shots have developed the appropriate antibodies in the puppy's body to help the puppy avoid any lethal viruses. A discussion with your vet will clear up the timetable for this to occur.

As with all socialization it is extremely important that the experiences the young puppy receives are positive. As such, it is the owner's responsibility to make sure the pup isn't scared during socialization. All stimuli presented to the puppy should be as controlled as possible to help teach the puppy that the noises and experiences in the great world are not to be feared, but tackled with confidence. At this stage of life, frightening experiences during socialization can have the opposite effect, causing fears and aggressions to increase.

Owners should be vigilant for potential for frightening noises, out of control dogs, falling objects, or any other stimulus that a puppy might find scary. An owner should also take into consideration a puppy's individual temperament when deciding what might be frightening. For some puppies, a motorcycle going by at close range might cause extreme fear, while for other puppies, it might elicit a desire to play. It is up the each owner to quickly learn the limits of their individual puppy and pay strict attention to keeping the puppy's socialization experiences as positive as possible and within the fear threshold of their pup.

When socializing, always keep in mind you are making a positive impression for the dog. As such, be ready to HAVE FUN!!! Bring along treats, toys, your best "let's play" attitude, lots of scratches and tons of excitement. Socialization time isn't work - it should be play. So bring anything you know your dog loves, and go see the world.

Doing daily dog socialization work allowed Laika to earn her first blue ribbon!
Doing daily dog socialization work allowed Laika to earn her first blue ribbon! | Source

How to Socialize a Nervous Dog

  • Visit a local pet superstore that allows canine customers. Many metro areas have several of these stores, and frequent visits will expose your puppy to new smells, different surfaces, people and other pets.
  • Visit your vet without an appointment. This will teach your dog that not all trips to the vet involve needles and examinations. Plus your pup will meet new people and animals.
  • Visit your local parks. Parks can provide your pet with a wide array of new experiences, including discovering how much fun children can be. However be warned, going off leash in a park is a very bad idea. You lose control of the environment, and your puppy could soon find itself dealing with a very scary and emotionally scaring socialization time instead of a positive, happy one.
  • Obedience classes are great places to socialize puppies. Chose a class that caters to your dog's specific age group. Puppy classes are great for the young ones while the older dogs can benefit greatly from a basic obedience class, even if they already know some of the commands. Also be sure to chose a positive reinforcement trainer so that training class is full of fun - not scary corrections.
  • Visit the country. Farm smells, horses, cows, different surfaces to walk on and unique plant life to explore are all great socialization opportunities. Remember, always do this on lead. Don't succumb to the temptation to let the dog go free, as danger lurks just around the bend, ruining all of your good socialization attempts.
  • Visit the city. Walks in urban areas are also great opportunities for puppies to get out and about and learn how to handle the big world. Traffic, people, dogs, different surfaces such as concrete, asphalt or gravel are only some of the thousands of new stimulus that await your dog on a walk in the city. A note though: A walk in the city might be left best to the bold, confident pups. The high level of activity in the urban core might overwhelm the emotionally softer puppies. And, as always, keep the pup on-lead.
  • Visit the suburbs. Again, a different environment that provides a different experience for a new puppy, a walk in the 'burbs is a great way to introduce new things in a calmer setting.
  • Hardware stores often allow people to bring their well behaved dogs into the stores. These places offer unique smells, people and surfaces.
  • Willing friends' homes and back yards are great places to socialize the pup. Enclosed, safe back yards also allow the pup the opportunity to roam and learn off-lead. Make sure that all dogs with access to the home and yard are up-to-date on vaccinations before letting your pup explore.
  • Supervised visitation time with vaccinated, well-trained, friendly adult dogs is a great way to let your pup learn about other dogs. It is recommended that these visits be on-lead unless an experienced dog trainer is present to watch and control outbursts before they happen.
  • Set up play dates with children. Many puppies who are not raised around children can develop a fear of them. It is wise to socialize your puppy to youngsters who are old enough to play properly with a puppy. Of course, the visit will need to be supervised by an adult, and while a puppy is generally safe with children, an older dog may not like children.
  • The one place that should be avoided when socializing a pup is dog parks. Unfortunately, a dog park leaves the owner with little control over the environment. A puppy can be overwhelmed when quickly surrounded by other rambunctious dogs. Also unfortunately, owners with dogs with aggressions often think dog parks are a great way for them to socialize their dogs. This falacious thinking has cause many, many terrible incidents to occur in dog parks. It is recommended they be avoided during socialization, if not all together.

 Laika with her first competition ribbon .
Laika with her first competition ribbon . | Source

The Shaking, White Dog

Laika, the pound puppy that Tom and Kristin adopted, was fearful of everything. Since she had not been exposed to anything but her crate and her back yard in the dark of the morning and then again late at night, she didn't have a way to understand that the world was full of wonderful things. To her, even sunlight was to be feared.

Fortunately she found a home with two loving owners who took her out almost daily on excursions to learn what was out beyond her crate doors.

"I remember telling our vet on our first visit that I hoped to show Laika in obedience," said Kristin. "The vet said, 'I've seen miracles happen.' And after years of hard work socializing and training Laika, she did compete in obedience and agility, earning several ribbons, placements and a title.

"I'm still extremely proud of her," Kristin said.

Are You a Good Socializer?

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Submit a Comment
  • agilitymach profile imageAUTHOR

    Kristin Kaldahl 

    7 years ago

    Thank you, CyberShelley!!! Laika lived a very long and happy life. She was my dog, and I had to put her to sleep in May. We all miss her terribly. Thanks for dropping by and voting!!

  • CyberShelley profile image

    Shelley Watson 

    7 years ago

    Laila is a beautiful dog and I'm glad she came through. Nothing more heartbreaking than a frightened cowering dog. Happy, curious and confident is wonderful . Enjoyed the read and the suggestions were excellent. Voted up, interesting and useful.

  • agilitymach profile imageAUTHOR

    Kristin Kaldahl 

    7 years ago

    Thank you!! Cavies are very cute dogs, and so loving to their owners. I'm sure he's quite the character as well. And grats on socializing Angus, too. :)

  • Thelma Alberts profile image

    Thelma Alberts 

    7 years ago from Germany and Philippines

    Welcome to HubPages! I have a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dog name Angus. He is a lovely dog and we socialize him by playing with our Filipino dogs. Thanks for sharing this very informative hub. Your dog Laika is very beautiful.

  • agilitymach profile imageAUTHOR

    Kristin Kaldahl 

    8 years ago

    Thank you for checking it out!! No vid for this one, but I'm planning lots of video for future hubs. Video and dog training articles go hand in hand. I thought I'd start with something a bit easier and work my way up. :)

  • hscchemistry profile image


    8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

    Any videos possible? It looks great and reads well. Thanks very much :)

  • agilitymach profile imageAUTHOR

    Kristin Kaldahl 

    8 years ago

    Please leave me a message and tell me about your dogs. How did you socialize them? Did you get an older dog that lacked socialization, and if so, how did you help him/her? I'd love to hear about your dogs. :)


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