Why Socialization Is Vital to Canine Wellness

A dog who feels isolated can develop both mental and physical health problems. Here’s how to keep that from happening.

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Are you a big reader? I am. In fact, back when I was a kid during summer vacation, I’d spend a lot of time sitting alone in some sunny spot, reading classic sci-fi novels and short stories. Often, I’d lose track of time completely. But the sound of neighborhood kids getting together for a game of Four Square or Kick the Can usually had me running outside after dinner.

Even when we’re introverted, we humans are still social beings. Often, the perception of basic acceptance just helps us feel more at ease. Our dogs are social creatures as well — though their lives as domesticated pets doesn’t always support this inclination. That’s because years ago, animals were chiefly used for farm and homestead labor. At that time, it was decided that our animals should be categorized as property. And unfortunately, a core subset of these legal definitions still persists today.

That’s why the detached-sounding term “pet owner” is still so prevalent in our culture. In many areas, from a purely legal perspective, one “owns” a pet in much the same way one “owns” a toaster! In fact, most states require pet parents to exhibit mere baseline levels of canine care and control — i.e., water, shelter, leashing on walks, food, inoculations. These elements don’t account for warmth, praise, or companionship. And when those latter components are lacking, canine wellness can suffer.

Just as human babies and children crave comfort from a trusted parent or guardian, puppies develop a need for pack connection early on. This need is partially instinctive, and remains hard-wired even when pets are domesticated. When it goes unmet — say, with various puppy mill and neglected dogs I’ve adopted — canines are at risk for:

Separation anxiety — As the name suggests, this amounts to an overriding fear of being left behind. Signs of distress may include soiling, excessive barking or whining, object destruction, drooling, constant quaking, and/or pronounced panting.

Regressive behaviors — Once your canine comes to regard you as his/her caretaker, isolation can provoke almost puppy-like vocalizations like keening and yelping. These sounds parallel “distress signals” sent by baby animals when they become separated from their mothers.

Depression — My vet reminds me that pups who feel overly isolated can suffer from depression, just like us humans. Signs may include disinterest in nourishment, which can lead to serious health problems.

Immunity issues — The immune system can actually become “depressed,” too. In a dog who constantly feels distressed or afraid, immune defenses quickly becomes overtaxed.

Repetitive motion — Prolonged social isolation can potentially lead to what psychologists call stereotypic patterns — i.e., unproductively repetitive behaviors. I’ve seen dogs who chew relentlessly, spin non-stop, or pace in circles. You sometimes see similar behaviors in confined zoo animals.

Self-injury — I’ve seen this time and again with anxious rescue dogs. A pup who feels cut off from reassuring connection may frantically try to release energy or escape fear-driven feelings of confinement — leading to physical harm.

Inappropriate social response  Volunteering in shelters, I witnessed this far too often. Over time, unadopted dogs could develop inappropriate “manners” around others — often due to confinement, anxiety, frustration, or unrelieved boredom. Behaviors included pronounced aggression, an overactive fear response, even consumption of inappropriate things like feces.

Dog chasing ball by Shutterstock.
Dog chasing ball by Shutterstock.

Most of us are loving pet parents who don’t want to isolate our dogs. Unfortunately, work and family commitments sometimes intervene — and our beloved canines are left alone longer than we intend. Problems ensue when this type of situation occurs repeatedly. So to help prevent isolation-related issues, remember the following socialization-friendly strategies:

Exercise — Sometimes, adopting a shy or scared shelter pet can lead to an unproductive cycle. We notice existing behavior patterns that seem worrisome, so we avoid trips outside. If you observe such behaviors, enlist the help of a qualified behaviorist — but don’t sequester your pooch. If necessary, write “I’m in training” on a yellow canine bandana so others know to remain extra-cautious during walks.

Praise — Focus on the positive! When your dog engages in friendly and appropriate social interaction with humans or other dogs, reward that calm and gentle behavior with lots of affection and approval. This can help your pup build confidence over time.

Poise — Remember that pack animals communicate via subtle energy. So the energy you channel via your voice — even your pup’s leash — is incredibly meaningful. Remain calm and controlled during walks, especially when others are approaching.

Body language — Pay close attention to your pup’s body language in social situations. If you notice signs of aggressive dominance — growling, snarling, etc.— consult a licensed veterinary behaviorist for accurate assessment and targeted guidance.

How do you incorporate socialization into your dog’s daily routine? Have you ever adopted a pup with behavioral issues due to lack of socialization? Share your insights!

Top photo: Woman with puppy by Shutterstock.

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Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.

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