Posted Thu 23 Jun 2022 at 11:06am
It’s no secret that we love our pets and want the best for them, but when it comes to their social lives, how clued in are we? Animals are social creatures, and while the human-animal bond has grown over centuries, it’s still not in our pet’s nature to live the human lifestyle. This is where the term ‘socialisation’ comes into play – it describes our duty as pet parents to teach our pets to cope with, adjust to and enjoy our lifestyle.
All animals have different social needs – lions live in prides for efficiency and safety, birds travel in flocks for protection, and elephants live in herds to raise young together. Pets, however, aren’t born knowing how to be a pet. Dogs and cats are not pack animals and are content with their human family. So what’s the difference between being social and socialisation?
What’s the Difference Between Socialisation and Being Social?
Socialisation is defined as “the process of preparing a dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places and activities”. But what does this really mean?
Socialisation encapsulates a range of different things, from making them feel safe with day-to-day experiences or teaching your dog:
- How to feel safe in the car
- Not to be afraid of strangers in public
- Not to be afraid of sounds like the vacuum and thunder
- How to play with other dogs
Socialisation can be split into two sections, habituation and being social. Habituation is about helping your dog become accustomed to its environment. The other side of socialisation: ‘being social’ is how your pet interacts with other pets and people—teaching your pet to be social means teaching them to read and respond appropriately to other pets’ and peoples’ body language and social cues. This is especially important for dogs as they need to understand how to play, interact with and listen to other dogs for their safety.
Socialisation is crucial to work on from day one, whether your dog comes into your family at eight weeks or eight years old. Socialising a puppy will set them up to live a stress-free life but socialising an older dog is just as important as it will help them acclimate to their new family much faster. It’s important to remember that suppression is a prevalent coping mechanism for animals, so if they’re not actively tearing up the living room or barking nonstop, it doesn’t mean they feel safe and happy.
Habituation sounds like a daunting term, but the process is straightforward, and once you get into a routine, you’ll have your pup begging to do it. It’s super simple; all you have to do is introduce your dog to something new and use positive reinforcement to make it a positive experience. Treats, praise, affection, toys or playing can all be used to reinforce your dog’s positive behaviours. Find out which reward your dog values the most and use this when doing habituation training. For example, if your dog gets nervous and barks when new people come into the house, put your dog on the leash when new people come into the home and offer rewards when your pup is calm. You can even get guests to offer treats to create a positive association with people coming into the house.
Believe It or Not, Your Cat Isn’t Supposed to Hate You.
Just like dogs, cats also need to be socialised. Socialising a cat is orientated more towards their home environment and helping your cat learn to feel safe with you and enjoy your company. Not only is it essential for your cat to be comfortable being handled by you, but it’s also crucial for other reasons – being safely held at the vet, being able to check their body for ticks and much more. Just like dogs, cats need to learn to cope with day-to-day life and sounds. This is where habituation comes in, which is best done when cats are young.
Successful socialisation in cats means keeping them happy in their home. This includes teaching them how to be comfortable with other people and pets in their home. It is often confused with domestication, which is a process that occurs across generations, whereas socialisation refers to each individual cat.
One theory that helps determine if a cat is socialised is referred to as ‘The Touch Barrier’, which outlines that a well-socialised cat allows and even seeks human touch and affection. In contrast, an unsocialised cat will avoid human touch and affection. While ‘The Touch Barrier’ is a good indicator, it doesn’t encompass all socialisation components, so it cannot fully determine a cat’s level of socialisation.
Their ‘comfort zone’, which determines how long and close they interact with humans or other pets and remain comfortable, is another good indicator. Both theories differ on an individual cat; for example, some cats may be outdoor cats who would be expected to be less socialised. Other components to consider are specific to each cat but can include relationships with other household pets, confidence in their home/space, mental wellness and behaviour.
Take it slow when socialising cats with other pets in the home. Making it super positive is key as cats can be more hesitant than dogs, and it may not be easy to introduce them on neutral ground. Start with exposure, showing them one another’s smells, letting them be in nearby rooms until there are no negative signals, and then begin short and supervised introductions.
Common cat signals and what they mean
- Arched back – uncomfortable, frightened
- Tail tucked between legs – nervous or shy
- Tail high and rigid – on high alert, agitated and asking for space
- Hiss or growl – they’re asking for space and telling you to back off
- A purr, chirp or trill – excitement or a happy greeting
Benefits of socialisation for cats
- Raising an affectionate cat
- Preserving their mental health
- Building solid relationships with other pets in the household
Tips and tricks to socialise your cat
- Leash train your cat. This way, you can have better control of them when introducing new people and pets for everyone’s safety.
- Take it slow. Overbearing your cat with human interaction will result in avoidance, so maintain short and positive handling until the cat is comfortable.
- Treats! Cats are just as food motivated as dogs, so use this to your advantage.
Learning to Talk Dog
Dogs socialise very differently from us humans; for them, it’s all about body language. As much as we wish our pups could talk, it’s not how they communicate. Since their interactions differ between dogs and humans, we need to teach them how to stay safe with other dogs. The first two months of a puppy’s life, while they’re with their mother, are crucial to their social skills, but from that point on, it’s up to us to reinforce safe and positive relationships with other dogs.
Think about it this way; if you’re getting tired while playing basketball with someone, you can mutually agree on taking a water break and having a rest. While dogs are playing, one dog can’t just say, “I’m tired; let’s take a break”. They will express themselves through body language, and it’s up to your dog to recognise the signals and respond appropriately; otherwise, the situation may escalate, and one party might get hurt.
Understanding and knowing the importance of socialising your dog correctly is the first step; however, implementing it properly is vital. Here are some essential tips and tricks to get you started:
Successful socialisation factors
- Introduce dogs in controlled settings. Start simple with backyard playdates; don’t go straight for the dog park where they’ll meet 20 dogs in 5 minutes.
- Make everything a positive experience. Use lots of treats and praise to reinforce positive behaviours.
- Create a safe environment. Avoid overwhelming parks or places to prevent your dog from getting overstimulated and overwhelmed.
- Everything in moderation. Start with small short introductions and build-up – don’t go gung-ho and try to get everything done in one session as this can create negative experiences.
Importance of socialisation
- Ensures your dog feels safe in various situations
- Allows your dog to communicate effectively with other dogs
- It helps ensure the safety of your dog, you and anyone who interacts with your dog
- It helps create and maintain appropriate behaviour before you need it
- Strengthens your bond with your pup
Tips and Tricks
- Make playdate pals. Reach out to friends and family who have well-socialised dogs to plan playdates. This will help get your pup used to positive and safe interactions to cement their social skills before introducing them to unknown dogs.
- Use the car for exposure. Once your pup is comfortable in the car, park near new things like the train station or dog park to get great exposure and create positive associations from the safety of your vehicle.
- Focus on sounds! Dogs can’t understand what some sounds are and that they’re not harmful, so desensitise them to things like the vacuum, thunderstorms, and the postie’s motorbike as soon as possible.
Socialisation Creates Happy and Healthy Pets
It’s no secret that plenty of things make your pooch’s tail wag – treats, cuddles, their favourite toy, but how do we keep it wagging? Socialisation is key to raising a happy and healthy pup.
It’s important for your pup to feel safe and comfortable as it affects their mental health. Your pet’s mental health determines their behaviour – if they’re stressed, sad or unfulfilled, they can act out and be destructive. This is why it’s imperative to build up socialisation and habituation. Your dog’s mental health threshold is referred to as the “dog’s emotional cup”, which outlines what can fill up or empty the cup.
While your dog can make efforts to fill up the cup on their own when they’re feeling down by doing things like digging up the yard, it’s best if you can do it for them and provide safe, fun and fulfilling experiences, so they don’t have to resort to the last option out of frustration. Maintaining your dog’s cup is not all about snuggles and tasty treats; it’s about ensuring they act like a dog, get proper nutrition, have a safe, quiet place to rest and much more.
Socialisation has infinite benefits for your dog, but how does it benefit you? Firstly, you get peace of mind that your best friend is happy and healthy because you’ve taken the best care possible. Raising a well-socialised dog helps set you up to spend your life being able to take them on adventures, sharing them with your loved ones and having them grow with you and take on new ventures in life together. A well-socialised pup will be able to grow with you, which could mean expanding your family (furry or human), moving across the country for a new job or a change of routine due to shift work.