The one thing that every new puppy owner dreams of is having their pup grow up to become an adoring, confident, people-friendly dog; just like the good old-fashioned all-American Golden Retriever that dotes on its human family members, loves all visitors, and is long-suffering to a fault (even when besieged by young children). So how does one wind up with a super mellow dog like this, one’s own personal Lassie?
Not by luck, that’s for sure, especially these days. Good judgment, a proper understanding of the issues, and proper management are all involved. Judgment is involved in selecting the right genetic stuff. While there are stable individuals in all breeds, some breeds do appear to have higher proportions of skittish, overly anxious, anti-social individuals than others.
The Center for Disease Control’s dog bite demographics provides some indication of problem breeds, especially when weighted to account for breed prevalence. Even more important than breed tendency is the individual’s genetic propensity for anti-social behavior as determined by the behavior of other dogs in the family line. When selecting a new puppy, it is important to obtain an honest account of the behavior of the dog’s parents and grandparents before making a final commitment.
Assuming all is well with the pup’s genetic stock, and that the playing field of life is even, it is now the responsibility of the breeder and the new puppy owner to make sure that the early environment is optimal for development of full confidence and sociability (this plus a modicum of respect).
If the first 8 weeks at the breeder’s kennel is not optimal, irreparable damage will likely be done to the pup’s psyche, leading to all kinds of problems down the road. The extent of the problems depends on the extent of the shoddy treatment. However, a perfect pup handed over to a new owner at 8 weeks of age can have its good start wrecked by improper training and management from that time forth.
At the Breeders
The optimal way for a young pup to be raised is within a family unit, in the kitchen or living room so that it spends its time with the family members and exposed to the comings and goings of a normal home. This way, during the first half of the sensitive period of the pup’s development, it will be a) with its mother and littermates, and b) continuously exposed to the benign presence of its human caregivers and their guests. Passive and active learning experiences will anneal a trust of mankind onto the pup’s bosom. To emphasize the point further, let us consider some less optimal and even adverse circumstances in which pups may be raised. They are:
a) To be raised in a wire run outside the house
b) In the basement
c) An isolated room in the house
d) In the garage
Things get even worse if the pup is plucked from a suboptimal situation such as this and deposited in a halfway, house kennel-type situation prior to adoption. The worst possible arrangement in terms of sociability, and therefore friendliness, for the pup is to be raised in a puppy mill and then shipped to a pet store. Puppy mills are the hatcheries for all sorts of anti-social behavior in dogs and, no doubt, contribute in a major way to the current epidemic of dog bites that is now occurring in the United States.
In the New Home
If a pup is acquired at 8 to 9 weeks of age, it is still only half way through the sensitive period of development and will still require nurturing, coddling, and socialization, even assuming that it got the right start at the breeders. Of course, if the start it got at the breeders was less than optimal it is even more important to treat the pup properly during the first few weeks at home and the means of repairing some of the damage that has been done. Socially acceptable behavior, a.k.a. friendliness towards strangers, is no accident. It must be worked for if it is to be achieved. The Smith Barney advertisement says, “We make money the old-fashioned way, we earn it.” Similarly, for dogs to acquire a trust of strangers, they must learn it.
One of the first dogmas of medicine should be the first motto of raising a new puppy.First, do no harm. This adage could be modified slightly to be: First, allow no harm to come to your puppy. This means protecting it against the unwelcome advances of bawdy people and unruly children so that it does not form a lifelong impression that certain people are bad news and are to be avoided or driven away (that comes later). Assuming this one premise can be upheld, the next, which is really the corollary, is that pleasurable, or at least neutral, exposure to an assortment of guests should be arranged so that the pup can learn to like people. It is not enough to protect the pup against unwelcome advances by shielding it from exposure to people; there have to be some positive learning experiences, too.
Pups should learn that strangers are benevolent and often come bearing gifts. One way to achieve this end is to arrange “puppy parties” in which you invite a few kindly dog-friendly persons to visit for a pass-the-puppy session, involving their gentle handling of the pup coupled with petting. Sessions like this should be conducted once or twice a week during the critical first 4 to 6 weeks of puppy ownership. They are the responsibility of any new puppy owner who wishes to end up with the dog of their dreams.
The challenge to the pup can be increased incrementally over the ensuing weeks to include an eclectic bunch of strangers: short people, tall people, people with high voices, people with deep voices, clean- shaven people, people of color, Caucasians, people with hats, and people with beards. The common factor is that all the people speak kindly to the puppy, handle the puppy gently, pet it, and offer food treats. By the time the pup is 14 to 16 weeks of age, exposure to strangers will have become an accepted part of its life. The pup will have learned that strangers are not to be feared and that exposure to them is likely to be rewarding. Trust so garnered can be reinforced as the pup gets older by implementing a slightly less rigorous, yet systematic, exposure of it to strangers under a myriad of different circumstances.
The same technique works to alleviate potential mistrust of other dogs though any dog engaged in such socialization with your pup must be healthy, vaccinated, and well behaved, or the mission can backfire. What many owners and some trainers fail to appreciate about desensitizing a pup to strangers or other dogs is that involves a systematic approach, not a precipitous one. Anyone who hears advice like, “If your dog’s nervous around children, bring him to a Little League game,” or “If your dog doesn’t like people, take him to the shopping mall and he’ll meet thousands in one afternoon,” must know, right off the bat, that this approach is incorrect. It is not desensitization, but what usually turns out to be a failed attempt at “flooding” (and often does more damage than it does good). Follow the yellow brick road outlined above and you should have no problems.
As with everything else in animal behavior, its not nature or nurture, it’s both. That’s why it was so important to point out the necessary of obtaining the right individual (genetically speaking) as the substrate for your dreams and aspirations. It is also important to choose the right type of breeder and to socialize your pup intensively in the first few weeks after adoption.
With real estate it’s “location, location, and location.” Well, with puppies, it’ssocialization, socialization, and socialization. If you, the owner, are able to bring all these components together then you will have that all-American, old-fashioned Golden Retriever of a dog when your pup grows up. You will have that Lassie or that Rin Tin Tin, and you will be able to have guests come over to your house without having to put your dog in another room or putting it on lead. All this can be achieved. You can even improve a dog that has not had the most ideal early life experiences by employing the spirit of socialization alluded to above, even into the juvenile period. And, if the worst comes to worse, even a cantankerous anti-social older dog can be turned around, to some extent, if the right approach is used.
You can teach an old dog new tricks – it just takes longer. But the “unlearning” of fears is never complete so it makes better sense to start out right at the beginning with the easily malleable material that is your new pup and to shape it, as if out of clay, into the confident individual that you hope it will become.