Most living creatures require socialization, the concept of mixing with others, and over time, learning the correct behaviours to exist and thrive in a particular environment. This is the second piece in a two-part series on socializing companion animals, in which we discuss some simple methods to help your pet adapt to human beings, in and out of your household.
Part 1: Humans
There’s something special about the feelings we experience when a beautiful animal is near our side. The main reason we bring pets into our homes is to show them love and in turn, enjoy the company they offer, be it a goofy dog, a cuddly cat, or a more unique creature with its own quirks. While the sentiment is nice, getting an animal adjusted to a new place, with new people, requires work and dedication.
Dr. Dawn Spangler, a veterinarian, and Associate Professor at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, has years of experience introducing pets into her own home. It would be difficult to find a vet with a bigger soft spot for pets than Dr. Spangler, who has rescued dozens of animals in need of a home, be it for a temporary stint or a permanent stay. She has had multiple cats and dogs in her care at one time.
“It’s not recommended,” she says with a laugh after explaining the maximum animal occupancy at her house.
But this pet whisperer knows what’s required to get a pet acclimated to the new people in their life. And that information is critical as animal ownership has skyrocketed throughout the pandemic.
The Right Fit
Dr. Spangler is a firm believer in research. For aspiring pet owners, that can mean delving into specific breeds or age-appropriate animals that will potentially thrive in your particular house. For example, a high-energy working dog like a Border Collie likely won’t do well in an apartment.
But the makeup of the humans matters, too. Is it a single-person dwelling, a couple, a big family, etc? The pet you do decide on should be a good fit for your situation.
“Depending on the age, children in a house add a whole new element,” says Dr. Spangler, who recently had to find a home for a cat that was abandoned after scratching a toddler. “Bringing a five-month-old kitten into a house with a three-year-old kid might not be an ideal situation.”
Education is key, especially for children old enough to understand.
“Educate kids on how to interact with the animal appropriately,” she says. “No pulling tails and those kinds of things, so there is less of a chance of the pet biting and scratching.”
The less stress of the animal, the better. And a calm, happy pet will make a better adjustment.
Treats and Exercise 2.0
In the opening part of this socialization series, Dr. Spangler highlighted the importance of utilizing treats and exercise when socializing pets with other animals. It’s the same with humans. Having snacks on hand for your pet while you and the people around you are getting familiar with a new cat or dog helps that animal associate the interaction with a positive experience. And the better the treat, the better the payoff.
Exercise is another valuable tool in helping an animal get to know the new people in its life. Dr. Spangler reminds us that activity (walks, play, interactive toys, etc…) has a massive role in reducing stress in an animal’s life. When a pet is mentally and physically tired, their stress levels go down and they are more likely to be better behaved and respond well to things in their environment. Exercise is key to good mental and physical health – for all of us.
Meet and Greet
There’s a new term that has developed this past year – Pandemic Puppies. The demand for pets, babies in particular, went through the roof. But with less access to training, lockdowns that limited interaction, and the unrealistic experience of owners being home more than usual, socializing animals properly has been extremely difficult. It’s unfortunately resulted in bad behaviour and tragically, many pandemic pets have been returned or abandoned.
“I’m concerned there are more behaviour problems because in some cases, there are people who have never had animals before going to shelters or buying new animals, and they just don’t know how to deal with them,” Dr. Spangler says of the socialization vacuum.
You may be on a walk during the pandemic and rather than allow your dog to meet someone like in the past, you avoid them. The dog could interpret that as a cue that there’s something wrong with that person. One helpful method growing in popularity is meet and greets. Scheduled interactions with friends, family, and neighbours (in some cases with other pets) are a healthy way to expose the newbie to more humans. Have those treats flowing. It’s a win-win for the animal and the would-be petters.
Cats are generally perturbed that we’ve been home for the better part of 18 months. Dogs not so much. They could have a false sense of how much time we spend together.
“Separation anxiety is a real thing,” says Dr. Spangler. “My dog Gooby (a seven-year-old Terrier mix) now gets mad when we leave the house. He never used to do that in the past. He doesn’t destroy anything, but he barks. That could be because we were home so much.”
As more pet owners return to work, the behaviour problems could increase. One useful technique to combat that is crating a dog a couple of times a day so they get more used to being alone. This can lessen the blow when they are forced to be at home on their own.
Another general concept that will help owners socialize their pets is being cognizant of the animal’s welfare. We can get caught up in how an animal’s behaviour affects us, whether it’s barking, urinating in the house, or aggression. Dr. Spangler believes it’s important to consider why the animal is behaving that way, which will help you resolve the problem.
“Bad behaviour suggests there is a welfare issue,” she says. “That animal is not happy, whether it’s a fearful dog or a cat peeing in the corner of a bedroom.
“What is causing that?”
So be patient, calm, loving, and willing to get to the bottom of an issue. Combining those traits with a dedicated approach to socialization will help your pet become the ideal companion.