Not so long ago, no one used the word ‘socialization’ in dog training circles. Dogs were allowed more freedom to wander, followed kids to the school bus, hung out with their canine friends, chased critters, and encountered a variety of new experiences every day. They were naturally socialized to their world. Yes, there were downsides to this existence, but there weren’t as many behaviors that humans perceived as problems either. Unfortunately, in our quest to make our canines happy, healthy members of the family, we have imposed human behavioral norms on them. As a result, we are actually causing many of the so-called behavior problems we are desperate to eliminate.
Step one in creating not only a happy family member but also a happy dog is socialization. The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life are crucial. During this time, puppies learn what is safe and what is scary. Some pups are more resilient than others, but this early socialization period is absolutely critical.
Every dog is the product of nature (genes) and nurture (his environment). If a pup comes from parents who both have good, sound temperaments, then an average amount of socialization might be okay. If not, it will take considerably more effort to adequately socialize the pup. The problem is that it’s usually hard to know the difference. In the case of puppies adopted from shelters, you may never get to meet either of the parents. The best defense is to socialize every puppy as though they will be easily scared of new things.
The first rule of socialization is to be sure every new experience your puppy has is a positive one. This sounds easy, but it can be tricky when dealing with loud or fast moving stimuli, such as vacuums, snowblowers, skateboards, or children. Carefully plan the introduction and be sure you can control the circumstances. Arm yourself with plenty of tasty treats, a favorite toy, or anything else your puppy loves. Using a vacuum as an example, start the introduction at a low level of intensity, perhaps behind a door, and gradually move into the same room. Once in the same room, begin a fair distance away and gradually move closer. Remember to constantly feed the puppy wonderful treats. Your goal is to create a positive association with the loud, scary vacuum. Every puppy is different, so watch closely, make adjustments as needed, and don’t move too fast. Pretty soon your puppy will look at you expectantly whenever the vacuum comes out.
What if instead of a young pup, you’ve just adopted a grown dog who landed in the shelter because of ‘behavior issues’? Most problems can be dealt with using a behavior modification program that is solidly based in learning theory. Many of these dogs make miraculous improvements once they are in a home with structure, leadership, and an owner who has taken the time to learn about dog behavior and training.
~ Carla Brown is a certified pet dog trainer and the owner of the newly opened Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. Her column on nurturing a well-behaved pet will appear bimonthly. Comment on her column online at moonshineink.com, and suggest future topics if you have a problem pet.