All dogs should be properly socialized. Having a well socialized dog in your home means your friends and family will enjoy coming over and look forward to seeing your dog as well as you, while your furry friend can enjoy the company of other canines and go out into the world with a relaxed attitude.
On the other hand, a poorly socialized dog can intimidate visitors and make going places a hassle. If you don't socialize your dog, both of you will endure a more stressful existence.
Why Socialize Your Pit Bull?
Socialization is particularly important for pit bulls. The reasons for this can be divided into three categories:
- Strength and speed.
- Tendency toward dog aggression.
- Breed reputation.
Strength and SpeedThe pit bull is possibly the champion athlete of the dog world. Without question, it's one of the breeds capable of doing the most damage in the shortest amount of time to a perceived enemy. As with all large, powerful breeds that can do a lot of damage quickly, pit bull owners have a greater duty to look out for the safety of others.
Tendency Toward Dog AggressionCertainly not all pit bulls are dog aggressive, but the potential exists to a somewhat greater degree than in many breeds. Pits are hardly alone in this, but again, all owners of breeds with a tendency toward dog aggression have an extra responsibility when it comes to socializing their dog.
If your Corgi attacks the neighbor's Chihuahua, or your Cocker Spaniel takes a bite out of a jogger's leg, odds are no one will immediately begin calling for the dog's euthanasia. It's certain no one will succeed in using one incident to launch a worldwide campaign to eliminate Corgis or Cocker Spaniels.
But pit bull owners have to worry about calls to "put down" their dogs even when they are clearly not the aggressors in a given situation, and there's already a worldwide campaign to eliminate our breed. Even aggressive posturing can contribute to the negative perception of the breed as a whole, or put your dog in a bad situation.
Put all these issues together, and it's easy to understand why it's so important to socialize your pit bull.
When to Begin Socialization
In most situations, the correct answer to "When should socialization begin?" is "Right away!"
The period between 4 and 14 weeks and especially 8-12 weeks is prime socialization time, when your dog is focused on learning about the world around her. But all of the first 6 months are extremely important. This is the age at which primary stimulus response patterns are established. Later, it becomes much harder to modify attitudes and behavior.
While puppyhood is the best time to begin socialization, if you've just gotten a new adult pit bull, you should also start socializing him immediately. As part of his learning the rules to his new environment, you should teach him to work and play well with others.
If there are bad habits to overcome, it will take more effort than with a puppy, but the longer you wait the more ingrained the unwanted behaviors become.
How to Socialize Your Pit Bull
Okay, we've established the why and when of socialization, now to the how. The methods will be slightly different for adults and puppies.
Because puppies have vulnerable immune systems and haven't had all their shots yet, you should wait until your vet says it's okay for him to mix and mingle with other canines. Until then, you can invite friends over and let him cuddle and play with them. You can also introduce him to older dogs who you know to be puppy friendly, healthy and immunized.
Once your puppy is old enough, puppy class is a great idea. It's a chance for her to be around other puppies at a similar stage of development in a controlled, supervised environment. In addition to her own training, she will see numerous other puppies being reinforced for good behavior, while learning that humans and other dogs are mostly friendly.
Just because your puppy is going to class doesn't mean socialization stops there. You want her to understand that the rules apply everywhere. Invite people over so she'll know not to guard the house from visitors, or conversely, greet them with a bounding leap that turns into an accidental tackle.
Let her know that she'll always get positive reinforcement for good behavior, and that she can always expect a genial environment.
Whether it's bouncing around the house or going for a walk, expose your pit bull puppy to lots of fun, exciting and different situations. Take him for on-lead walks around the neighborhood, in parks and parking lots. Go to pet-friendly stores and sidewalk cafes. In all these situations, remain calm and in control.
Always let him know he is loved, and be quick to provide positive reinforcement. He will view the world as a friendly place, and in turn, he'll become a more confident, happier and better behaved dog for the rest of his life.
With adults, the situation is a bit more complex, especially if you don't know their history. Gradually introduce them to other dogs in a neutral, safe and controlled setting. Walking your adult dog on lead near dogs you know will have a relaxed, welcoming attitude towards her is an excellent example of this.
Once you've established that your adult pit bull reacts well (or at least acceptably) near other dogs on lead one at a time, try walking him near multiple dogs. A good next step after that might be obedience class. Along the way, you should get a good idea of whether or not supervised, off-lead play makes sense.
Keep in mind that with adult dogs, even if you can't always change the underlying attitude, you can often still change the behavior. Your new American Pit Bull Terrier might look at visitors and think "I want to jump up and lick their face as they come in the door!" or "Men with beards are dangerous," but you can still teach her it's not acceptable to jump up and lick people, and that it's really not okay to bark and growl at your bearded cousin Kevin.
A quick bit of advice about dog parks: don't go there. While the vast majority of the dogs at the park will be fine playmates, it only takes one problem character to ruin the fun for everybody.
And here's the thing: Even if someone brought a crazed killer attack Labrador Retriever that's a known menace, and even if this 90 lb lab sneaks up from behind to attack your 35 lb pit who has been playing wonderfully with every other dog at the park for the past week, it's your pit bull who will most likely be blamed by everyone who didn't see the start of the fight. In this case, "everyone who didn't see the start of the fight" will be most of the people at the park and any responding animal control officers.
A Quick Recap
- Start socializing early.
- Make sure you control the setting.
- Avoid dog parks as a socialization tool.
- Always reward positive behavior.
- On-lead meet-and-greets with dogs known to be friendly and well-behaved are a great way to start socializing an adult pit bull.
- Puppy class and obedience class are terrific socialization opportunities.
- Introduce your new pit bull to a variety of people, dogs and situations.
- Don't introduce your pit bull to a large variety of new stimuli all at once; socialization should be slow and gradual until he is very comfortable.
Follow these tips, and your pit bull will be on his way to becoming a confident, happy canine role model.