Lisa Giroux, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada firstname.lastname@example.org
Socialization. It’s a simple, easily-done thing to do with a dog, and the one thing that every pet owner should know about and take seriously. It is far more important than formal obedience. Before you do anything else, you should thoughtfully plan on socializing your dog, no matter what the age. If you have a new puppy, you have the opportunity to install a learning process that will benefit the dog for its lifetime. Older dogs can be “made” into much better pets through socialization.
The Human Analogy—A Terribly Sad Story
Imagine a very poor man and a woman (let’s call them John and Jane) that live on the ancestral homestead in a rural setting. They farm their land, raise their own livestock, and occasionally go into town for supplies. They don’t have electricity so they can’t watch television. Their home is far from town and they don’t like visitors.
John and Jane have a baby called Jimmy. Jimmy is born at home and spends his first two years only with his parents. No visitors come to call, and Jane stays home with the baby when John goes into town. Because there are no other children, Jimmy entertains himself by playing alone or interacting with his parents. As Jimmy grows older, his parents decide that he musn’t be allowed to go to school. Jimmy spends most of his days helping his parents around the farm and only occasionally goes to town. While there, Jimmy is required to stay right with his parents, and to be “seen but not heard.” He sees other children and is curious, but is not allowed to interact with them. His parents tell him that he must always be careful of any strangers, and Jimmy is taught to be afraid of speaking to anyone other than his parents.
Because they don’t have a television, and also because the town where they shop is very small, Jimmy isn’t aware of many ordinary items that are present in other environments. He’s never seen a blender, never walked in the shadow of a large building, never learned to cross a street using a traffic signal. He’s never heard the noise of a big city and he’s never been to a party. He’s never had to meet someone and make a friend. He’s never even been allowed to shake someone’s hand and say hello.
Then disaster strikes. Jimmy’s parents are struck down by an illness and die when he is 12 years old. Eventually someone comes by the homestead and finds Jimmy alone and frightened and he goes into foster care in downtown Toronto.
Immediately it is obvious that there is something wrong with Jimmy. He is terrified and uneasy in the new home, startled by normal household noises and unable to sleep well, waking as every car passes the house. His new foster parents find him strange, often quite rude. He is unable to process and react to the simple social functions of meeting new people. He often withdraws into silence when confronted with social situations. When Jimmy’s foster parents try to force him to participate, he often reacts with violence, striking out physically or verbally. Although he is interested in interacting with people, and often very excited to do so, usually those interactions do not go well and he offends his new acquaintances with his mannerisms. He entertains himself in bizarre ways, often damaging items in the new home or behaving in a way that is difficult for his new parents to accept.
Jimmy’s foster parents wonder if he has been abused by his parents and think he’s just an aggressive, anti-social kid who was born that way.
Jimmy’s story is a sad one, and you might be wondering what on earth it has to do with your dog. But Jimmy’s story parallels almost EXACTLY what happens to many dogs on a daily basis all over the planet. It is easy to see that Jimmy’s upbringing did not adequately prepare him for a normal life. If Jimmy were a real kid, we would be horrified to hear about his upbringing.
Jimmy’s story was written to nearly exactly parallel the life of a suburban or rural dog. Little or no social skills, no preparation for the “real world,” and then we are all collectively surprised when the dog is not a model citizen.
Often, dogs are brought into homes and kept there almost exclusively from the time they are 7 weeks of age. They rarely get out into the world and they almost never have the chance to interact with people outside the immediate circle of family and friends of the family. If they are lucky they get to play occasionally with other dogs, but all too often the only interaction is briefly passing by on a lead. A suburban or rural dog’s world consists chiefly of the interior of a house and the backyard, with a few human acquaintances. Urban dogs, because of their daily walks in a city environment, usually get socialized pretty well even if their owners never actually intended for it to happen. Just walking around twice a day in a city environment allows the dog to see a LOT. However, urban dogs still need help in learning how to act with people and other dogs.
Every animal on the planet is programmed to be able to accept new things easily during its young life. The period of time varies, but it is present in every mammal. Young dogs can easily accept new things from the time they are babies until reaching maturity. The window of opportunity is wide open at two weeks of age, but then starts swinging shut until it ALMOST closes at around a year of age. It never totally closes, but the gap is not very wide after the critical period of learning!
After the critical period of learning is over, dogs are programmed to be “neo-phobic,” or afraid of new things. This instinctual trait is compounded by the fact that dogs do not generalize well. So just because your dog has seen a bulldozer and is OK with it does not mean the dog is OK with all construction equipment.
So, what does all this have to do with your pet? Basically, it means that you can create a really GOOD pet by showing your dog everything possible, in a pleasant way, during its young life. You can easily create a fearful, dangerous dog by not socializing the animal.
How to Socialize
USE CAUTION. Your goal is to give the puppy a PLEASANT EXPERIENCE. Do not allow your puppy to become overwhelmed. Short (5 minutes or less), laid-back exposures are best.
1) Get yourself to a friendly obedience class! Group classes are a GODSEND for socialization as they allow lots of contact with people and dogs and everything along the way to the class.
2) Walk your dog in urban and suburban environments. Go to the strip mall. Hang out in the Wal-Mart parking lot letting people greet and pet your pup. Let your dog see car traffic and all kinds of other “city stuff.”
3) Take your dog with you everywhere you go, whenever possible. Allow your puppy to see and experience many and various environments. Feed your puppy delicious treats in new places. Give people treats to give your puppy when they greet him.
4) Allow your puppy to meet and greet many and various types of people. It is extremely important that your puppy meet and learn about all ages of children, from babies to teenagers. Do not think that your dog “likes kids” if he gets along with your children. He needs much more than that. Use treats/allow kids to treat the dog when they meet him.
5) Your demeanor is extremely important when socializing your puppy. Present a calm, blasé attitude toward everything. Do NOT act “jumpy” or attempt to reassure the puppy by saying, “it’s OK, sweetie” and petting him if he gets scared. If your puppy get startled, then looks up at you and you are looking at him with a concerned look, he will think that there is a very valid reason to be frightened. Even if you FEEL concerned, PRETEND you are calm. Look at your watch, fiddle with your hair, dig around in your purse, read a bulletin board, whatever! Do something that shows the puppy “nothing is wrong.” Don’t freak out, or your puppy will, too! Also, if you pet him, he might interpret that as PRAISE for how he is behaving.
6) Do not “point out” things that you want your puppy to see. Often dogs seem to interpret this as a warning! For example, there’s a funny looking clown at the soccer game. The puppy is interested but a bit wary. Don’t drag the puppy over there and then point at the clown and say “go see!” To the puppy, this probably means, “Have a look at this, remember this one in the future, very scary and dangerous clown!” Imagine how it might feel if someone forced you to go near something you were frightened of! Instead, get “casually close” to the thing without paying particular attention to it, feeding the puppy at the same time. Keep your back to the thing, or side-on, never straight on.
7) If your puppy must be groomed by a professional on a regular basis, get the pup to the groomer you plan to use and allow the puppy to have several pleasant experiences there.
8) End socialization sessions prior to seeing stress signals.
Signs of Stress
Most people can identify major fear signals such as bolting, yelping, or crouching down, but will often say the dog is “fine” when in reality the dog is showing many signs of stress. Human example...I don’t have to scream in fear and try to run away to be very, very afraid and to show signs of that fear. Screaming and running away are END STAGE fear behaviours. Think about all the ways a person can look or sound scared before they actually get to the point of screaming or running. In dogs, bolting, yelping, or crouching are also usually end-stage fear behaviours. By the time the dog actually does those things, he has usually shown many different signs that such a fearful reaction is coming.
A good way to be able to read your dog well is to watch your dog at home when they are very relaxed and content. Particularly study their FACE, the area around their lips and eyes.
· Lip Licking
· Shifty Eyes/Glancing around a lot
· Wrinkled lips/muzzle
· Wrinkled/tense forehead
· Change in ear position/shifty ears (does not have to be the overt “ears back” of fear). Can be simply a CHANGE.
· Change in tail position (higher, lower, tenser).
· Change in posture (higher, tippytoe, tenser, lower, tentative)
· Change in Pace (suddenly pulling hard on lead, slowing way down, etc)
· Over-Excitability or Lethargy (if your puppy is getting hyper, time to quit. Same if the puppy is getting floppy. If you see either of these things, remember that next time you need to stop before it gets to this point)
· Avoidance (can be as subtle as not looking at something or only glancing quickly, or as obvious as actively trying to get away)
· Redirected Behaviour such as scratching, sniffing a lot, attention seeking behaviours, etc.
If you see some of these signs of stress, first of all BE CALM. Don’t freak out yourself! Look around the environment and see if there’s some way you can reduce the intensity of the environment. If you are at a soccer game and there are loudspeakers and shouting players and a car or two driving in the background and five kids surrounding your dog, try to take one or more of those things “out of commission.” Maybe ask the kids to back off, or get a bit further away from the loudspeaker or shouting players. Reduce the intensity! Feed your dog often, tasty tidbits. Sometimes it might be necessary to remove yourself and the dog from the environment entirely…if so, do this calmly and try not to appear to be reacting to any particular thing.
Remember, socialization is the single most important thing you can do for your pet. Make it the first priority! Older dogs can also be socialized but it takes longer and the dog needs more exposure than a puppy would.