I just completed a private consultation with a client whose under-socialized Australian Shepherd recently bit their 6-year-old daughter in the face, and nipped a friend of their 9- year-old son. I’m cursing a world that allows this to happen.
This well-meaning family adopted Blue from a shelter when he was 16 weeks old. He was “shy,” they said – he hid under a chair in the get acquainted room when they met him. He had been at the shelter for two months – half his life. According to his paperwork he was the last of a litter of six and was timid when initially assessed. In fact, all the pups were timid, but he was the worst – which was why he was the last one left when the Petersons went to the shelter to adopt last February. He was the only puppy in the shelter at the time, so they decided to take him despite his shyness. He’d come around, they thought, with love and attention.
Nature Versus Nurture What they didn’t know was that at 16 weeks, Blue was reaching the end of a pup’s most important socialization period – the time in his life when he learns what is safe and good, and what is scary. In the wild, the lessons learned during the first few months of a pup’s life are critical to his survival. As he ventures out of his den he learns to be bold where it counts – pouncing on prey, for example – and cautious where prudent. Pups who don’t learn to avoid poisonous snakes, rushing floodwaters and precipitous cliffs don’t live to pass on their genes!
Puppies who live with humans need to learn, during this period, that the world is a good and safe place. Their general assumption then becomes that people, other animals places and things are okay unless proven otherwise. Puppies who are not socialized are suspicious of everything except for a very narrow range of experiences they encounter in their very limited environment – someone’s basement, or backyard. The rest of the world terrifies them, and any positive exposures they get later in life must struggle against this early, very strong programming. A genetically sound pup has a better chance of recovering, at least to some degree, from a poor start in life. A pup who inherited poor genes for temperament and wasn’t well socialized early is probably a lost cause.
The fact that Blue and all his siblings were shy when they were dropped off at the shelter indicated that they hadn’t received adequate early socialization. Most shelters aren’t ideal environments for remedial socialization, so by the time Blue was finally adopted, he was woefully behind in his “life is good” lessons – the lessons that, once missed, are very difficult to make up, if not impossible.
The Petersons also didn’t know that if they wanted to try to make up for lost time they had to immediately start super-socializing their new pup. By the time they brought Blue to me he was 11 months old, and the prognosis for successful behavior modification was dismal. This dog’s future is unknown. The Peterson’s want to try, and I will certainly try to help them, but they are facing a huge challenge. When children are involved and at risk, tolerance for error is low, and rightly so. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the outcome of this case.
Every dog is a product of the influence of his genes and his environment. If a pup comes from parents who have very genetically sound temperaments, then the pup can get by with an average amount of socialization – or even less. However, if Mom and Pop are genetically unstable, Pup needs to be ultra-socialized if he is to become a safe and friendly member of society.
The problem is, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. If you adopt a pup from a shelter, you rarely get to meet the parents. Even if you buy from a breeder, you can’t tell if Mom and Dad are friendly because they’re genetically sound, or because they were exceptionally well socialized. How do you know whether to give your new pup average socialization or the ultra package? You don’t.
The answer to this conundrum is to socialize the heck out of every single puppy. Then you don’t risk finding out later on that you had a pup who need an extra boost in the social department – you already gave it to him!
Early Socialization The best socialization programs begin while pups are still with their dams. A good breeder begins handling her pups gently and early, just as their eyes begin to open, giving them a positive association with human touch. As they get a little older – 5-6 weeks – they should start meeting more humans – all shapes, colors, ages and sizes – who feed them treats and pet them gently. The breeder will need to supervise these interactions closely, as rough handling at this stage can have the opposite effect, teaching the pups that humans aren’t safe to be around.
The mother dog’s attitude is important at this stage too. If she is stressed about having her pups handled, or aggressive towards humans, the pups can pick up on her attitude and learn this inappropriate behavior from her. If Mom is calm and relaxed around humans, pups are more likely to be, too.
By the time a pup is weaned at 7-8 weeks, he should already have a positive worldview programmed into his little puppy brain. When you select your pup from a litter, whether you’re at a breeder’s home or a shelter – or picking one from a box of free puppies on a street corner – choose wisely. Resist the temptation to rescue the pup who hides in the corner. Select, instead, the pup who is outgoing without being overbearing – the one who seems to have a cheerful, “Life Is Good” attitude. Otherwise you risk finding yourself in the Peterson’s shoes, with an 11-month-old dog who is biting children in the face. (See Sidebar: Rescuing the Shrinking Violet)
Okay, you’ve adopted a friendly pup with a sound temperament. Good for you! That doesn’t mean your job is done, however. You must continue your pup’s socialization lessons aggressively until he is 16 weeks old, and then maintain his positive association to the world throughout his life. If you take an 8-week-old well-socialized pup and stick him in your backyard with no outside exposure, you’ll end up with a problem.
The Health Dilemma Puppy owners are often counseled by their veterinarians to keep their baby dogs cloistered safely at home until they are fully vaccinated at age 4-6 months. Looking at the situation purely from a physical health perspective, this makes good sense. You certainly don’t want to risk exposing your pup to nasty distemper or parvo bugs.
From a mental health perspective, however, it’s horrible advice. You only have two to three more months to give your pup an unshakeable faith in the goodness of the world. You cannot afford to wait until those shots are done. During this period, you want to give your pup at least 100 new positive exposures and experiences, to “vaccinate” him against the possibility that he will feel compelled to bite someone, someday. (See Sidebar: 100 Exposures In 100 Days) It’s not a 100% guarantee against biting, but it’s by far your best chance of ending up with an adult dog who is friendly and safe.
Fear Periods At one time in the last several decades, much ado was made about a pup’s “critical fear periods.” Behaviorists attempted to pinpoint those period of time in puppyhood during which a “bad experience” would scar a pup’s psyche for life. More recently, we have come to realize that, although pups do seem to go through periods during which they are more fearful than others, that time can vary from one pup to the next. Rather than wrapping your pup in cotton wool for a designated period, it makes more sense to watch him closely and ensure that he has mostly good experiences, especially if he seems to be going through a cautious stage.
Even if something does frighten him, it’s not the end of the world – you can set up a counter conditioning and desensitization program to restore a positive association with that particular stimulus, and your pup should recover nicely.
Lifetime Socialization Now your pup is 16 weeks old. You’ve reached the end of that magic socialization window, your 100 exposures list is all checked off, and your pup loves the world. Are you done? Hardly. Like your training efforts, which continue on into adulthood and throughout your dog’s entire life, you are never done with socialization. You’ve laid a very solid foundation; that’s something to be proud of. However, much of that will be lost if you toss your 4-month-old pup into the backyard and cease all exposure. He still needs to meet and greet people, go places with you, and continue to share your world and your experiences, if you want him to continue to be the happy, friendly puppy he is today. And of course, that’s what you want!
SIDEBAR: 100 EXPOSURES IN 100 DAYS Giving your pup 100 positive experiences in his first 100 days with you is not as daunting as it may sound. You’ll find many opportunities in your own neighborhood to start your list of 100. You’ll also want to get into the habit of taking your pup with you to as many safe places as possible, to enhance his socialization, and to start him on his path to being your well-behaved companion, welcome wherever you go. We suggest you keep an actual written list of your pup’s socialization exposures, with a goal of a minimum of one new exposure per day until you’ve reached the 100 mark. If you put a little effort into it, we’re betting you’ll get there well before your 100 days are up – more likely in half that time!
Here are some suggestions to start you off:
1. Your mail carrier. Snag him on his daily rounds and ask him to feed your pup a tidbit or two. Start an early positive association with this daily visitor to your home 2. Your UPS or FedEx person. Add a little extra power to the positive association with uniforms to avoid trouble later. 3. Your neighbors. Actually, this can count as several, if you live in a diverse neighborhood. If your neighborhood is homogenous, try a park, or the bench in front of your local library: Tall men, 4. short men, 5. tall women, 6. short women, 7. skinny men and 8. skinny women, 9. portly men and 10. portly women, 11. babes-in-arms, 12. babies in strollers, 13. women pushing babies in strollers 14. toddlers, 15. children, 16. tweens and 17. teens. 18. Men with beards. 19. Men with hats 20. Kids with backpacks. 21. Women with hats 22. People in wheelchairs 23. People on walkers and crutches 24. Kids on bikes 25. Kids on skateboards 26. People with umbrellas 27. Kids playing basketball… …and all of the above in various ethnic groups. Then add locations to your list: 28. Your bank 29. Vet office 30. Pet supply store 31. Copy center 32. Hardware store 33. Puppy kindergarten class 34. On-leash park 35. Any place of business that doesn’t say “No Dogs” on the door. Okay – you’re one-third of the way there. You get to think up the rest. Happy socializing!
SIDEBAR: PLACES NOT TO TAKE YOUR PUP While socialization is a wonderful thing, it’s important to avoid places that pose a risk to your pup’s physical and mental health and safety. Here are some important places to avoid:
1. Off-leash dog parks, until he is fully vaccinated 2. Any place where he is likely to encounter stray dogs 3. Any place where he is likely to encounter sick dogs 4. Any place where he is likely to encounter aggressive dogs 5. Any place where he is likely to encounter aggressive/rowdy/drunk humans 6. Accumulations of feces from unknown dogs 7. Any place he is not welcome 8. Any place where he would have to be left unattended, or in a hot car (no tying up outside the grocery store!) 9. Any place where he will be uncomfortable (sitting in the full sun while you watch your son’s Little League game. 10. Any place where you won’t be able to devote enough attention to him to ensure his safety, security and well being.
SIDEBAR: RESCUING THE SHRINKING VIOLET Cautions and common sense aside, it’s human nature to want to rescue the doggie in distress – the pup who shrinks away from human contact and looks at the world with fear in her eyes. If you are the rescuer type, you have my respect and admiration. I know of many poorly socialized pups who are rescued and go on to live happy and normal lives because their rescuers recognized the daunting task they faced, and made a solid commitment to do the work. Here are some tips for you if you know that your heart will someday be captured by the challenge of an unsocialized pup:
1. Get her as young as you can. The benefits of staying with her litter until 8 weeks of age are outweighed by the benefits of getting started with socialization. 2. Or, give her the best of both worlds: take the entire litter, or at least several of the pups, and start them all on the road to a happier life. Then be sure to find capable, knowledgeable adopters for her siblings when they turn 8 weeks – adopters who will continue with remedial socialization. 3. Avoid the temptation to keep more than one pup. They are likely to bond to each other more closely than to you, which makes your socialization challenge many times more difficult. Even well-socialized littermates or same-age pals can have separation problems if raised together. 4. Have a solid understanding of counter conditioning and desensitization, and make a strong commitment to practice this with her every single day. 5. Read “The Cautious Canine” by Patricia McConnell, and “Dogs Are From Neptune” by Jean Donaldson. 6. Be prepared to assertively protect your pup from unwanted advances by well- meaning strangers who want to pet your puppy. You must not let people pet or harass her until she is well socialized enough to tolerate petting and harassment. 7. Know that love is not enough. Many well-meaning rescuers think that giving a psychologically neglected pup a home filled with love will be enough to “fix” the problem. Don’t fool yourself. Love is an important part of the equation, but it will take a lot of work as well. 8. Be prepared for heartache. Some poorly socialized pups – most likely those who are genetically sound – do respond well to remedial socialization and grow into reasonably well socialized adult dogs. Others don’t. If you don’t succeed in enhancing your pup’s social skills, are you prepared to live with a fearful dog who may be at high risk for biting – you, visitors, children…? Or to make the difficult decision to euthanize, so she doesn’t have to live a life of fear and stress?
WHAT YOU CAN DO: 1. Have a concrete socialization plan in place when you prepare to adopt your next puppy. Make a commitment to follow through with your plan – and then do it. 2. Let friends and relatives know about the importance of socialization so their next pups get the full benefit of a solid socialization foundation. 3. Sign your pup up for a good positive puppy class – a great place to expose him to good socialization experiences. 4. If you have a poorly socialized puppy or adult dog, seek the assistance of a qualified, positive behavior consultant to help you implement a plan for remedial socialization.
Peaceable Paws LLC Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC 301-582-9420 www.peaceablepaws.com
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (US), and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses, a donkey and a potbellied pig