Yes, I’m writing again about the all-consuming, cuddly child, for whom I have an affectionate love and unfortunate language barrier. He turns 6 months in about 2 weeks and I wanted to share one of my failures in raising this little guy. My intention is to be good to the world by sharinh my new found knowledge by experience with others (karma, right?), and, secondly, to keep record of my misfortunes so as to not commit them again myself.
Failure #1 – Human Socialization
One socialization philosophy supposes that if you expose a puppy to enough people and situations before a certain age, he’ll accept these situations as normal when he is older. This article in particular promotes this method. And it sounds like it makes sense, right? Take him to the markets, the masses of people, the off-leash dog parks, the busy streets, and he’ll get used to it as normal. And the threat is that if you fail to do this, you’ll end up with a dog that barks, snaps, growls, or cowers to your embarrassment in normal situations.
Well, the truth is that this way of thinking doesn’t always work. Our dog was naturally shy. Even at 12 weeks of age (the apparent ‘immune to fear’ period) if we’d take him outside and when he’d hear an unfamiliar noise, he’d give a little whine and run straight to the door. It was partly the breed (American Eskimos are known to be weary of strangers) and partly his temperament (on this temperament test he was mostly neutral but showed passive tendencies when cradled).
Thinking that our shy dog needed more exposure, we plunked him in the hands of hoards of hyper children and cuddly strangers, expecting that the ‘socialization’ would show him to not be afraid and that there was nothing to worry about. All the while not knowing his puppy brain was saying, “That was a scary experience” and, “I’m so relieved that they’re gone.” Eventually, as our pup began to move into adolescence, he has begun experimenting with taking control of the situation. When people approach, he barks and growls. “There!” he says, “That’s how to make sure they don’t come near me!”
The truth is that the simple fact of exposing your puppy to unfamiliar situations (even at a young age) isn’t always going to create a good socialization experience. In fact, sometimes the very act of trying to prevent misbehaviour in your dog’s adult life can actually create it.
Proper socialization requires assessing the exposure and changing the intensity of the stimuli based on your puppy’s reaction in order if need be in order to provide a positive experience. This should be done in three parts:
Take time to learn your dog’s body language to determine his fear threshold. Essentially, you need to find out what makes your puppy afraid, and, secondly, note how his body posture changes when he is afraid.Like the article says, expose him to strangers, children, a busy street. Have fun in the situation and be confident. He’ll pick up on your attitude. When he’s afraid of a situation that’s too much for him, he’ll let you know with his body language. For our dog, we learned to watch for hesitation in his step, ears back, not wagging his tail, and more obvious ones like tail in between his legs. The important part of a positive socialization experience is in the next two steps.
When you get your dog in a situation where he’s unsure, try to turn his reaction from, “I don’t know about this” to “This is actually not bad.” See if you can direct his response away from fear to fun with treats and play. You’ll probably make a couple mistakes and put him in situations that are too intense to overcome while you’re learning his body language, but that’s okay–as much as puppies are impressionable thankful they are also teachable.
If the situation is too much for him to overcome, then calmly remove him from the situation and try something less intense. Sometimes dumping the dog into a situation does not give him enough of a chance to overcome the fear because the fear becomes overwhelming. So try a less busy street and walk further away from the cars. Or if that’s too much, try walking by an idling or parked car. When your dog can get through what used to be an overwhelming experience without showing any signs of fear or intimidation and actually enjoys it as something fun, rejoice because you’re on your way to a more calm, open-minded, and confident pup.
When you remove a perceived threat you’re actually teaching your dog that you can be trusted because you will protect him from real threats. And helping overcome situations where he’s uncertain teaches him that you are know enough to guide him through things when he doesn’t actually need to be afraid about.
So, consider this situation. You’re on a walk and three kids approach. They’re excited at how cute your dog is. They begin to circle him, crouching with their hands stretched out while trying to pet him, “Can I pet your dog?” Your dog’s ears go back and he doesn’t know where to look. He isn’t wagging his tail. What do you do?
Since you’re a keen person, you’ve perceived that you dog is unsure. You know he wasn’t picking up on your energy because you were both having a good time before these kids approached. You can tell that now your dog feels surrounded and unsafe. He doesn’t know what to do.
Based on what your perceived in step one, you know it’s time to intervene. We want to turn this into a situation that he thinks is not all that bad. Ask that the children back away and give the dog some space. You can explain that he’s never met someone their age before, so he’s a little afraid. You’re protecting your dog, not strangers’ feelings, so don’t feel bad about controlling how they approach him.
Take note of your dog’s body language. If relaxes again, instruct one of the children to approach and give the child a treat to give the dog. The goal is to control the stimuli enough that the dog can overcome it and have a delightful experience. When the dog accepts the situation (maybe indicated by a tail wag, ears up, or even just by eating the treat) end it with the success and move on.
And what do you do if this situation happens again? (And believe me, if your dog is cute enough, it will – haha).
Now that you know that three children is too much stimulation for your dog, the next time a group of children approach, start at the next step.
Be assertive enough to stop them even before the dog even gets overwhelmed. You do not want to reinforce through repetition that a group of children elicits fear.
Then have one child approach, just like last time, and give your puppy a treat and move on.
Do this a number of times until you see that your dog is no longer unsure when a child approaches (possibly indicated by a wagging tail when approached by a child). Once he knows that when one child approaches, it is a good thing, increase the stimuli by allowing for a second child to approach as well. Keep doing this–control, overcome, and increase–until your dog is comfortable in the full experience of having three children crouching around him.
If you are able to consistently control the situation, overcome uncertainty, and increase the stimuli until the initial fear is overcome, you’ll teach your dog a lot more than you would by just throwing him into new situations for the sake of exposure.
And the magic about this is that when your adult dog finds himself in a situation that he is unsure about, even if he’s never experienced it before, he’ll find reassurance in knowing that you are in control and that you know what’s safe and what’s unsafe for him.