The Right Start: Puppy socialization

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I recently received a call from a pet parent who wanted to enroll in my puppy preschool training class.  This was great! I’m always happy to get a new dog started in class.  So I gathered the information I needed to complete her registration.  Both she and I were so disappointed when I had to tell her that at 16 weeks, her puppy was too old for the class. Her puppy was now a juvenile, beginning to become sexually mature and also becoming more reluctant to approach novel experiences with the same ease that occurs before this age.

...the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive socialization

The news that socialization is best when a puppy is between 8 and 12 weeks, with 16 weeks as the final upper limit, is surprising to many pet parents.  It is unfortunate this information is not more common knowledge.  Of course, 16-week old puppies are still very young, look adorable and are very “puppyish” in their behavior.  They will certainly benefit from a training class and continued socialization with friendly dogs and people. Yet, the best time for socialization is well defined in research.  The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Position Statement on Puppy Socialization is clear in its recommendation for providing safe socialization opportunities during the most critical period.  Between 8 and 12 weeks is the best time to expose puppies to the great variety of sights, sounds, surfaces, people and other dogs they will encounter later in their lives.  This is when they are the most open to new experiences and when they can most easily learn good social skills with other dogs.  They do this by learning how to play with a variety of different dog breeds and dogs with different play styles.  Puppies' willingness to explore slowly begins to decrease after 12 weeks.  For this reason many puppy preschool classes, like our San Antonio Puppy Start Right Preschool, limits participation to puppies between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks.

I am most dismayed when students tell me they have been discouraged from participating in puppy socialization classes when their puppy is younger than 16 weeks.  Sometimes this recommendation is due to health concerns from their veterinarians or well-meaning friends.  Occasionally, puppy parent students hear an outdated myth that puppies cannot learn before they are 6 months of age.  Both of these cautions seem to be based in obsolete or invalid information.

The recommendation to wait until a puppy is 6 months old before training is certainly a misunderstanding of how dogs learn.  Puppies are learning a tremendous amount from the moment they enter the world.  Those who research puppy development have found strong evidence puppies learn extensively about how to live in the world before they are 6 months of age.

Precautions about health risks to puppies should certainly be considered.  Puppies have not yet been fully vaccinated while they are participating in a puppy training class prior to 16 weeks.  But research shows that these risks are low when a class is well run and the trainers are taking disease prevention measures.  

Results indicated that vaccinated puppies attending socialization classes were at no greater risk of CPV [parvo virus] infection than vaccinated puppies that did not attend those classes.

It’s also helpful for pet parents to balance the risks of potential health concerns against the risk of behavioral concerns.  Very young puppies who miss the critical socialization period are at risk of developing fears of common family life experiences, having limited friendships with other dogs, or developing a behavior problem requiring professional behavior modification.  One of my own dogs had to be hospitalized during the critical socialization period.  She missed the opportunity to explore many new environments during this time. She had debilitating fear of common neighborhood sights and sounds, such as leaves blowing across the sidewalk or cars passing on the road.  She would flatten herself on the ground and not move.  Although I was able to help her overcome these fears so she could enjoy a neighborhood walk, this took great effort.  This situation most likely could have been avoided if she had been pleasantly exposed to these common occurrences during her critical socialization period.  If she had rather been available for adoption at a shelter, she might have been difficult to place in a family that wasn’t prepared for a great deal of remedial training.

Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters.  Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.

After making sure a trainer is properly qualified to train you and your puppy (see the articles on the “Choosing a Trainer” page), find out what precautions the trainer takes to minimize health risks in her puppy training classes. Our San Antonio Puppy Start Right Preschool class is held at a facility that houses only mature, fully vaccinated, healthy dogs.  The floors and play area are cleaned thoroughly before class and all toys are cleaned thoroughly between class sessions.  Each puppy must be healthy to participate in class and must have received at least the first set of puppy shots before starting class.  These precautions help ensure your puppy will have a great socialization experience with low risk of exposure to disease.

Not everyone has the opportunity to take advantage of the sensitive socialization period in puppies.  Dogs sometimes come into our lives when they are much older.  But if you have a puppy coming into your life in the near future, plan ahead.  Make sure you can enroll your puppy in a puppy training class during the critical socialization period.  Learn how to make the best use of the latest research on how dogs learn to introduce your puppy to new experiences.  Give your puppy the best chance to be a behaviorally healthy adult who will be your confident companion in your life’s adventures.

Sources:

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (2008). AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization.  Retrieved June 30, 2014, from http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/puppy_socialization1-25-13.pdf

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Stepita, M. E., Bain, M. J., & Kass, P. H. (2013). Frequency of CPV Infection in Vaccinated Puppies that Attended Puppy Socialization Classes. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 49(2), 95-100.

 

 

I've never met a stubborn dog

This is probably a shocking statement to many pet parents, so I’ll explain. I often hear from clients and friends that their dog is “stubborn” or some other variation on that term—“headstrong,” “willful,” “pigheaded." This always gives me pause. One definition of stubborn is “having or showing dogged determination not to change one's attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.”

But then dogs, as we know, are one of the most successful species on the planet when it comes to worming their way into people’s lives, and onto our couches and our beds. The Humane Society of the United States notes that 47% of households in the U.S. now have at least one dog. And increasingly, evidence shows that the domestication of dogs has resulted in animals that are remarkably cooperative with humans (see The Secret Life of the Dog). So why do so many pet parents see their dogs as stubborn?  

Whenever a client tells me a dog is stubborn, I always ask for some explanation, and inevitably what I discover is the dog isn’t complying with some command for some specific behavior. Believe me, I’ve seen many dogs not comply with what their human was asking of them.  But my first thoughts when a dog does not comply with a command or cue go somewhere other than “stubborn.” 

Is the dog afraid?  The most common reason for a dog to hesitate when asked to do something is fear, so I look for fearful or submissive body language (they pull back their ears, lower their bodies, tuck their tails, and avoid eye contact).  I’m often surprised to hear this described as “stubborn” when the dog is clearly showing that he is afraid.  It’s not always clear why he’s afraid. The client may be calling Fido to do something that he finds unpleasant or scary (like get in a car).  Or they may be calling Fido using a tone that is disapproving so that Fido is anticipating punishment (and usually without any understanding that this punishment has anything to do with something he just did – an entirely different article).  Maybe I see more dogs that are fearful because I work with many dogs who show more than the typical common misbehaviors (jumping, digging, running away).  The dogs I see often show a variety of fear-based behaviors, like fear of unfamiliar people, phobias, separation distress or fear-based aggression.  Calling a fearful dog stubborn in these cases is a clear miscommunication between dog and person.

Is something more interesting?  This is usually my next thought.  Is there something in the environment that is more compelling for the dog than doing what the client is asking him to do? It seems that many people forget dogs are ultimately self-interested little beings.  Dogs do what seems to be most interesting to them at that time.  I would not call this self-interest stubbornness because I can usually make a “good argument” or provide the “reasons to do [what is asked]” in a way that a dog can easily understand.

Remembering that dogs are ultimately in it for themselves is the most useful to me when I think about training something I know my dog will be reluctant to do because it may end something fun he is doing.  For example, one of my dogs loves to run and bark after the neighbor’s lawn mower.  I give him a very good reason to come inside when I call him at this time.  When he comes in, he gets to have his special treat, some freeze-dried liver.  Even when he is in hot pursuit of the lawn mower on the other side of the fence, he will respond to my recall cue because my argument or reason for doing so is compelling to him.  Explaining that he has to do it “because I said so” is not likely to get much traction from a dog’s perspective.

Is the dog confused?  My final thought about why a dog is not responding to an owner’s cue is confusion.  This is usually the most fun to fix.  We humans often believe we have been clear in our communication (don’t we do this with people too?)  So I’ll ask a client to explain the cue to me.  Once the client has to think about it, she is not always sure what the cue is.  She thinks it might be the word she is saying or maybe the hand signal she is giving.  We often “speak” to our dogs casually without really considering if specific words or signals have been taught to them. 

Usually clients will show me that they “speak” to their dog with multiple cues, a word and a hand signal and usually some other movement like bending at the waist.  When I ask them to separate these three to see which the dog responds to, they are usually surprised to find out that the dog is responding to a part of the signal that they didn’t even know they are doing.   For example, I recently watched a woman ask her dog to sit.  She said the word “sit” at the same time that she raised her hand and then bent forward to her dog.  Her dog stood wagging happily at her but did not sit.  The woman paused for a moment, then said the word “sit” again and touched her dog’s rear.  The dog immediately sat.   She called this dog “hard-headed.”  From what I could see, the dog was perfectly willing to comply with the request to sit.  The request from the dog’s perspective was a touch on the rump.  The dog clearly did not understand the word “sit” and he did not understand the hand signal or the forward leaning movement the owner was also doing.  But that was not a stubborn dog, just a dog that needed a little more education.

So whenever I meet someone’s “stubborn” dog, I consider the answers to the questions:  Is the dog afraid? Is something more interesting to the dog?  Is the dog confused?  If the answers to any of these is “yes,” I can fix those problems.  I can teach a clear cue, make a compelling argument and change a dog’s fear. So far I’ve never met a “stubborn” dog, and I hope I never do. Let’s face it, if being stubborn was a common trait in dogs, the dog training profession would be in serious trouble.