Socialization for Australian Shepherds
Learn how to introduce your Aussie to different people, places and things.
Slipping out the door at every opportunity, a young Australian Shepherd named Baxter loved to "herd” children, cats and the mail carrier in his Dallas neighborhood. During his first year of life, the dog grew from an adorable puppy into a neighborhood terror.
Lucky for Baxter, his owner, Leslie, found help before anyone got hurt. She turned to Australian Shepherd Club of America president Russ Ford, who trained the dog during an intense two-week program at his ranch in Kurten, Texas. Ford focused on socializing Baxter to people and other animals as well as basic obedience training to create a solid foundation of good behavior.
Afterward, Baxter rejoined his owner, who — at Ford’s suggestion — began her own program of obedience training with the dog. These days, Baxter is a well-mannered and cherished member of the family.
The American Kennel Club and ASCA breed standards (written descriptions of the ideal example of the breed) for the Australian Shepherd describe these dogs as energetic "people dogs” with strong herding and guarding instincts. "When you get an Aussie as a pet, you start off with a dog who believes in his heart that his family is his flock, and his job is to protect them,” says Ford, who also is an Australian Shepherd breeder. Protecting the family can be a positive thing, but the Aussie’s fierce devotion to that job means it’s extremely important to train and socialize your dog from an early age.
Baxter’s two weeks of training began with cratetraining. Next, Ford worked on getting and keeping the dog’s attention, creating leadership and control. With Baxter on-leash, Ford taught him to come when called, to sit and heel, and to remain attentive. During Baxter’s second week of rehab, his training smoothed the way for him to learn how to become polite and calm while meeting adults, children and other dogs.
In addition to his training, Ford’s calm confidence helped Baxter stay relaxed. "If you’re nervous while interacting with your dog, that nervous energy travels right down the leash like an electric current,” he says. Instead, try to project confidence and firmness with your verbal cues. This creates a relaxed rapport between you and your Australian Shepherd.
As Baxter relaxed and maintained his good manners around others, Ford allowed him to interact more with different dogs and people and even challenged him with situations such as attending events at local, dog-friendly ballparks. Baxter got a lot of attention from strangers during these outings, providing him with abundant training opportunities. Ford asked anyone who wanted to pet the dog to kneel to Baxter’s level without showing any aggression toward him. He then would restrain the dog and allow him to smell the visitor, who then could pet the dog. Ford’s confident and friendly attitude had a positive influence on Baxter.
For an Australian Shepherd of any age, socialization serves as the critical, ongoing process through which the dog learns to adapt to situations and interact well with people, other dogs and other animals. Proper early socialization requires you to introduce your dog to those different experiences often. Start as early as possible, and continue throughout his adult life. Obedience training remains key to the process.
"I cannot overstate the fact that good, basic obedience is the most important part of raising a well-socialized dog,” Ford says. The good news is that it won’t take long — even with an 8-week-old puppy — to teach your smart, trainable Aussie basic obedience and how to stay calm during new or stressful interactions and situations.
"When these dogs are little puppies with their eyes closed, their mother becomes their first role model,” Ford says. "Her reactions to different situations rub off on them.” Because the mother has so much influence on a puppy’s earliest lessons in socialization, Ford recommends obtaining a puppy from a reputable, small-scale breeder with calm Australian Shepherds and puppies raised around household noises. A good breeder will begin socializing the puppies from day one.
With vaccinated puppies or dogs of any level of training, Ford recommends taking age-appropriate obedience classes on a regular basis. "I’ve been training Australian Shepherds since 1978,” he says, "but even I take a dog to one of those classes from time to time.”
Group obedience classes lay a great foundation for socialization: dogs who are under control in a supervised, neutral environment. This offers a good opportunity to socialize and work your Australian Shepherd and to receive professional instructions about training and socialization issues, Ford says.
Strategies for Successful Socialization
If more dogs were appropriately socialized, fewer would get euthanized, theorizes Steve Dale, a certified dog behavior consultant, board member for American Humane Association in Chicago, Ill., and author of "Good Dog! Practical Answers to Behavior Questions” (Tribune Media Services). Unsocialized dogs can end up with serious behavioral problems, which might lead to a one-way ticket to a shelter and even euthanasia.
"Australian Shepherds are given up all the time because they herd kids,” Dale says. "When kids are young, an Aussie can nip at their heels or knock them over. It becomes a game to them.” Avoid these problems by proactively training your dog to interact politely with people of all ages. Find other things for him to herd, too. If you don’t have sheep, you can play with something as simple as a flying disc, Dale suggests.
Properly socializing your Australian Shepherd means exposing him to everything available to you. Begin with dog-friendly adults and children, and then move on to more challenging situations like parades, a crowd of children around an ice-cream truck, a group of inline skaters whizzing by or construction workers in hard hats at a noisy building site. If you have more than one dog, take each one out independently so he learns to cope on his own.
Dale suggests the following specific strategies for socializing your Australian Shepherd.
Take him on daily leashed walks. "The most enriching thing you can do with your dog is to walk him on-leash,” Dale says. A dog left in a yard will get bored and develop bad habits like digging or barking. "Just being out in the world with your Aussie and experiencing normal, everyday encounters together as often as you can is a wonderful gift for him.”
For puppies or adult dogs, invite dog-oriented friends to visit in small groups. Encourage your guests (one at a time) to ask the dog to sit or lie down. Reward him with pieces of his daily kibble ration.
Supervise play, and never let your Aussie nip at anyone’s heels. A cute puppy barking at a person’s heels might be funny, but it won’t seem so humorous when he’s a 50- or 60-pound dog.
If your Aussie seems afraid of a person or situation, don’t force him to engage. If he’s afraid of the vacuum cleaner, for instance, remove it, and turn it on in another room. If someone else is home, have that person turn on the vacuum cleaner while you give your dog treats so he develops a positive association with the noise.
Expose your dog to a variety of surfaces on which to walk and climb.
Your Aussie’s intelligence and work ethic demand a job — a job that will keep him mentally stimulated and out of trouble. Give your dog work, and make it fun, even if it’s something simple like fetching a newspaper, flying disc, stick or squeaky toy every day.
"Your Australian Shepherd is a sponge who’s learning all the time,” Dale says. "Start teaching him the moment you get him home.” Whether he’s an 8-week-old puppy or an adult dog, develop the relationship, and teach your Aussie what you want him to learn rather than allowing him to pick up bad habits. The more you expose him to a variety of new sights and sounds, the more comfortable your dog will feel with new experiences throughout your life together.
As for Baxter, Ford considers him a true socialization-success story. "Even now that he’s trained, socialized and busy being a wonderful dog, Baxter still feels like he’s the guardian of his flock,” Ford says. "Think of socializing your dog as an investment in his future as a happy, easygoing dog.”
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