How to Socialize a Rescue Dog: 7 Steps

how to socialize a rescue dog

When you adopt a rescue dog you often won’t have any idea on what their background is. They might have been rescued from the streets and have an unknown history; they could have been trapped in a puppy mill. Regardless of the dog’s background, many rescue dogs have hard time socializing with other dogs, children, and strangers.

If you’ve got a timid and shy rescue dog who is having trouble adjusting, you will find this real-life account of how to socialize a rescue dog really helpful. It’s been written by one of our guest writers who adopted a rescue dog from a shelter and had to go through the same challenges of getting them properly socialized.

How to best socialize a rescue dog with other dogs and people

The vacuum cleaner is on. It’s one of those space-age ones – large, with flashing lights and an otherworldly whirring noise. I truly think in the right conditions, it could whisk you away to another dimension.

I turn the corner of the hallway, and there is our 4-month-old rescue puppy, Blue. The whirring had woken her up and she was crying. To the neighbors, it must’ve sounded like we were terrorizing her!

Fast forward to years later, we still have the same vacuum cleaner (yep it’s a good one!) and Blue is completely composed, eerily unruffled by the noise.

Indeed, almost nothing ruffles Blue the rescue dog anymore. The delivery guy, school children with sticky hands, and poking babies are all met with a calm, friendly nonchalance. Loud noises are met with slightly cocked ears.

We took great care to socialize our rescue dog Blue to this level of zen confidence.

By following the same 7 easy steps we did, you’ll discover how to socialize your adopted shelter or rescue dog too.

1. Know your rescue dog’s warning signs

You are probably well aware of these but if you are a first-time rescue dog owner, let’s run through some easy dog body language:

How dogs show anxiety

The common tell-tale sign (see what I did there?) is when your dog tucks their tail between their legs. It is a pretty universal symbol of fear and anxiousness, but to be honest, this depends on your dog’s personality.

Blue was always a confident, proud puppy that grew into a gentle, unflappable adult. You would rarely see her tail between her legs even if she was afraid. Other signs could be:

  • Aggression.
  • Shaking.
  • Walking backward.
  • Crouching down.
  • Flattened ears.
  • Pacing.
  • Panting.

Aggression is, of course, the most serious and you should decide a solid course of action with your veterinarian. Try not to worry too much if the other signs present themselves in the beginning.

According to the American Kennel Club, desensitization is a valid training method. This means you slowly introduce the stressor to your dog until it becomes normal to them. This is what socialization is all about.

Handy Hint: If your rescue dog struggles at night, here are some ways you can calm a dog after dark.

How dogs use their voice

It may seem that dogs have very few things they want to tell us. Depending on your rescue dog’s personality and breed, however, they can have a whole lot to say.

Excessive barking can equally be a sign of anxiety or excitement. Shorter, lower-pitched barks are more likely to indicate fear or aggression. Whimpering also lets you know that your dog is feeling fragile.

2. Start with brief interactions with other dogs and humans

In the beginning, the trick is to keep it short. This is where we went wrong with Blue. As a pup, the neighbors loved Blue and her happy-go-lucky demeanor.

She brightened everyone’s day, but all that excitement was tiring. We would go back home; she would eat and then fall asleep for hours.

Handy Hint: If your rescue dog is refusing to eat, here are some tips to get them back interested in food again.

New experiences are overwhelming to everyone, including your new rescue dog. They are getting used to you whilst also getting used to their surroundings.

Therefore, it’s super important you keep the early interactions with dogs and humans relatively brief, and in a safe environment that you can leave quickly if need be.

Your adopted dog may love the attention, as Blue did, but trust me, it’s for their own good!

3. Take your rescue dog on daily walks

Daily walks can seem like one of the easiest ways to socialize your rescue dog, but in fact, you need to be fully prepared for mindful, attentive walking as an owner. The daily walk is not just about introducing your rescue to other sentient beings, but also cars, bicycles, motorbikes, lawnmowers, school buses, ice cream trucks, garden hoses, and fire hydrants.

If you have an adult rescue dog, they may be familiar with quite a few of these things or conversely have a fear of all of them.

socialize shelter dog
Your rescue dog could soon love social meet ups with other dogs.

My top tip for an effective daily walk with the intent of socializing is to vary your routes. Perhaps choose two walking routes that you alternate every other day. If they meet a person or dog, first identify if your dog is safe to approach (the person/owner will tell you) and reward your dog after the interaction is over with their favorite treat.

Become that calm, cool, collected owner, and your dog will soon feel at ease with you whilst exploring the spice of life.

Handy Hint: Walks are just one way you can bond with a rescue dog. Here are some more tips to help you and your adopted dog build a relationship.

4. Be wary of bad past experiences

Remember I said almost nothing ruffles Blue anymore. Yeah, well… this is the one thing.

When Blue was a puppy, she pulled me across the road via her lead and bounded up to a gate. A herd of cows had silently gathered to watch her with fascination. She pushed her tiny round nose to meet the wide, pink, moist one of the head cow, who had come to investigate.

In the process, she kicked a bucket accidentally, tripped, and sent the cows into a frightened mooing frenzy. She cowered between my legs in fear. Everyone involved was thoroughly traumatized. I managed to calm her down as we walked back home.

She has been terrified of cows ever since.

Now this story is much lighter than most traumatic experiences that your rescue dog or puppy may have been through. Your rescue center may have told you about your dog’s background before you adopted them, but some things you’ll discover during the socialization process.

They could be frightened of bearded men. They may shiver at the sight of a broom.

A dog’s history makes them who they are, so be particularly sensitive when it comes to humans, other animals, or objects that your rescue dog fears.

5. Join a puppy class or agility class

There are many great reasons to bring your rescue dog to a puppy or agility class. Puppy classes are excellent for first-time owners and their pups, to interact with other dogs in a safe, controlled setting.

It’s probably the best way you can socialize a rescue dog with other dogs.

You also have the benefit of having a professional on your side. The trainer will give you expert tips on your dog’s behavior and they’ll encourage interactions between the four-legged students.

Agility classes are great for adult dogs with a lot of energy. Blue, as a heavy-footed flat-coated retriever, with an affinity for sitting, was not made for agility. Your dog may love it though and make lots of friends in the process.

Please note that classes are not ideal if your dog or puppy is showing signs of aggression with other dogs. Shyness, however, may be helped by a professional trainer in a class setting.

6. Socialize your rescue dog to household items too

As I mentioned with the daily walks, the road to successfully socializing your rescue dog goes far beyond babies, businessfolk, and border collies. It involves more than the outside world too. Your home is also part of this.

Say your rescue dog’s former owner was a quiet, suburban grandma, who played her favorite radio soap every afternoon with a cup of tea.

How much of a contrast would this be to your millennial smoothie making lifestyle, with the constant buzz of your blender making your dog want to jump out of their skin?

You still need to live your life, so keep using the blender, but affirm your dog by talking to them to let them know everything is okay. It’s a safe environment – they just had a fright.

7. Stay consistent and positive

A common question is how long does it take to socialize your adopted rescue puppy or dog? It’s kind of like asking how long a piece of string is.

How long should you give a rescue dog to adjust?

A lot of factors go into this, such as your dog’s age, personality, personal history, and even their breed.

Normally puppies socialize quicker. Their young minds are like sponges, with inherent curiosity about the world. An adult rescue dog may take longer to adjust as they will be a little world-wearier at best or traumatized at worst.

It could take quite some time to fully socialize your rescue dog. The truth is, often, zen mastery isn’t completely achievable. There may be things that your dog never gets over, and that’s okay. The most important thing is that they can handle their everyday life without major upset, anxiety, or fear.

Consistency, positivity, and perseverance; that is how you’ll succeed in socializing your new rescue dog.

Handy Hint: If you are struggling to house train your rescue dog, read these 5 steps to successful potty training.


It’s never too late to socialize a dog but adopted shelter dogs do tend to be more challenging than most. Typically, they will be older and will have more experiences in their memory banks that will give you challenge to overcome with them.

But it’s not impossible as you can see from the tips given above!

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Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

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