Socialization: An animal’s guide on how to say, “Hello”
You’ve pulled into the parking lot of the local dog park with your best furry friend, Rover. Rover is in the back seat wagging his tail and crying with excitement. You put on his leash, grab your poop bags and walk him into the gated park. Once you unhook the leash Rover is off! He immediately approaches another excited dog and they immediately begin to sniff each other’s butts. Although this may seem weird to us humans, this is a completely normal way for dogs to say hello! Normal greeting behaviors vary based on the species, but no matter what species you are working with, socialization is a great tool to help animal interactions go smoothly.
So what is socialization? Socialization is the process in which a person learns the social norms and behaviors within a community or society. For animals, socialization is the process where they learn how to appropriately interact with other animals, things, and environments. Why is this important? Socialization is important because it gives animals the skills to better adapt in new or changing situations and feel more confident instead of fear, anxious, or aggressive. To achieve this, it is common advice to take young animals to various places and meet other animals in order for them to get accustomed to how to interact and behave in these situations. This can be done with older animals as well although it might take longer and results will vary based on the animal’s past experiences.
At Zoology Foundation we use socialization to get animals more used to people or the staff, and when introducing new animals to each other. For example, in our latest newsletter there is the story of our newest resident, Priscilla Pig. When Priscilla first came to ZOFO she was shy and did not want to be touched. After a month of the staff hanging out in her yard, feeding her goodies, and respecting her boundaries, one of the staff is now able to pet her!
We are also currently taking steps to introduce two new ferrets (Evie and Nina) to our two current ferrets (Nala and Niko). Sometimes this is an easy process and the animals immediately get along and like each other, but not always. In order to test if the pairs were a good fit, we first brought our ferrets Nala and Niko to the ferret rescue in order to meet Nina and Evie. During this interaction, Nala, Nina and Evie showed normal ferret interactions such as sniffing backends and ears. Nina and Evie would follow Niko as well, who showed less interest but didn’t exhibit any stress or aggressive behaviors. It seemed like a good match, so Nina and Evie were brought to Zoology!
Once at home, Niko began exhibiting more aggressive behaviors towards Nina and Evie. This can commonly happen once at home since animals can be more territorial of their own space and things. To prevent injury, the two pairs are separated except for during supervised meet n greets. Even though they are separated, they still can see and smell each other as a way for them to get used to each other. They also get access to beds and toys the other pair has used to become used to sharing. During their meet n greets, we have them interact without a barrier in a neutral space. A neutral space is an area that is not home to any of the ferrets, so none of them will feel territorial. For us, this is our veterinary office. It is a clean, safe space and big enough where the ferrets can get away from each other if needed. We started with just 5 minute meetings between the three girls and have worked our way up to 30 minute sessions! One reason it may be taking longer with this group, is that Evie is deaf. So when she tries to play with Nala, she cannot hear Nala’s vocalizations telling her whether or not she is willing to play. This leads to some mild squabbling. But overall, the girls are doing great!
When we are confident the girls get along, we will start the same process with Niko. If they all get along in the office, then we will start having meet n greets in the ferret house. We did the same thing when introducing our newest rabbit a couple years ago. It took about 6 months, but the rabbits are happily living together. This is what we hope the outcome will be with the ferrets too! Even though this seems like a long process, it is important to us that animal introductions are done in a manner that is the least stressful and safe for all of the animals involved. Just like people, not all animals get along at first. But socialization has helped us overcome some initially unsteady relationships. If you have any questions about socialization or have your own stories to tell, please reach out. We would love to hear from you!
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