Getting the most out of human/companion animal socialization
Most animals have a “critical period” in early brain development in which they learn what’s safe and what’s dangerous. Positive reinforcement is vital during this time, as is protection from flooding experiences which can have a lasting impact on your animal’s nervous system. Socialization, though important throughout the life of your animal companion, is especially vital at this time.
We want young companion animals to be relaxed while interacting with as many smiley, happy human faces as possible.
An aspect that is often overlooked in socialization is the importance of grooming. Some people are going to love your animal no matter what, and some people are going to glare at you and your beast with disdain and contempt no matter how gosh darn cute he is. The rest of the humans, which is most of them, are tolerant or even curious about a baby animal but will be totally bored and/or annoyed with him when he’s grown.
Incidentally, included in this category are often the most important groups with whom to socialize: mothers with babies and young children, the elderly, schoolage children, and people with disabilities. In other words, these are generally sensitive groups.
To win these people over, groom well and regularly. Keep your animal clean and smelling fresh. Keep those toenails trimmed, eyes and ears clean, and fur brushed out. Brush teeth, if they have them, to keep their chompers white and smelling fresh. If you have a dog, here’s some guidelines for keeping him or her in tippy-top condition--the guidelines are for service dogs, but we recommend these steps for any dog interacting with the public. If you have a bird, mist him or her weekly or more to encourage preening and keep the toenails trimmed neatly.
As a sidenote, if you have an unusual breed or your animal is intrinsically gorgeous, you may have the opposite, slightly annoying problem that every single person you encounter wants to interact with your animal. Especially if it’s a parrot. Don’t take your parrot out with the intention of getting any errands done because you won’t--you’ll be busy telling every single person his name and whether or not he talks and what he eats and so on. With dogs, this can make training challenging because people are distracting. They will literally call your dog to them even when you're standing right there and he's heeling on a leash and physically cannot come. People lurch out of doorways to catcall your dog, and roll up slow in cars to get a closer look. You will likely both be very distracted by all this.
For those of us with a non-magical companion animal, teach a charming greeting behavior that respects the animal’s boundaries and keeps everyone safe. Some animals love everyone instantly and indiscriminately, but that’s often the exception rather than the rule. Most animals--understandably--don’t like handsy strangers. We realize that times will come where our companion animals don’t get to choose when and how they are handled, but that’s not what we're talking about here. Socialization should be a nice experience for them.
For parrots, teaching “wave” is magic. Parrots love to wave, and people, especially kids, love to wave at parrots. For medium-sized animals, including dogs, cats, goats, and some rabbits, giving a paw or “shake” is a perennial favorite. Or, see what behavior you can capture with your clicker. Everyone loves a “smiling” horse or a cat that can sit up and "beg". Most shy animals will be pleased to say hello in their special way once they understand that they can use the trick to get human attention without petting and touching. If your animal is too shy to even say hello, then just hang out with some other humans who are willing to mostly ignore the animal and cookies for everyone.
Next, exploit the human kryptonite that is eye contact. In humans, oxytocin--the hormone that makes us feel all snuggly and affectionate--encourages prolonged eye contact. In other words, we love to look at eyes on cute animals. Especially prey animals tend to get freaked out by eye contact (horses, parrots, rabbits, etc.), so training them that eye contact leads to nice things happening is a great idea. Take it slow and use a clicker to capture any eye contact and provide a little snack as a thank-you. And while you're at it, take some time to gaze lovingly at your little monster for your own benefit--a prolonged gaze between a human and a dog seems to increase oxytocin levels in both species.
What creative ideas do you have for socializing animals with humans? Tell us in the comments!