Home   |   Members Only   |   Contact Us   | 

Early Socialization = Healthy Dogs
Tips from the CMTC Blog

By: Jennifer Legere

You’ve probably heard the same story from every corner of dogdom: early, positive, vigorous and ongoing socialization is critical for your puppy’s good development. So just what exactly is meant by socialization?

While a puppy is riding the rollercoaster of learning and growing it becomes increasingly important to expose her to situations, people and objects that she is likely to encounter in her lifetime. It’s not as difficult as you may think, really. We can assume that most dogs will experience many of the same things: the vet, the groomer, Aunt Zelda and her walker, little kids with cookies in their hands squealing, “Puppy!”, men in hats, women in flowing dresses, cars, plastic bags, recycle bins, skateboards, wheelchairs, bicycles and so on. That’s just the variety of life in a human’s world.

Once a puppy leaves for a new home at 8 weeks of age the momentum of socialization can slow down while the new owner struggles to get a grip on toileting, puppy teething and all the day-to-day things that raising a puppy entails. But this is the worst time to become complacent! Physiologically a puppy is perfectly designed to learn new things before the age of 12 weeks. Her natural curiosity coupled with soft jaws and undeveloped motor skills offer a window of time where new experiences, good and bad, are easily learned and often last a lifetime. With a little planning, owners can set up safe and positive situations where a puppy can learn about the world around her.

Years ago vets discouraged owners from taking young puppies outside at all in the misguided view of protecting them from transmissible diseases. New research indicates that as long as the puppy has received its first set of vaccinations, the benefit of socialization outweighs the chance of infection if certain precautions are taken. Keeping the puppy away from areas used by many dogs, inviting guests and safe dogs to socialize in your home and yard and toting your pup in your arms are ways to minimize the dangers of infection and still accomplish your socialization goals.

Certain dogs need more practice at socializing than others while some dogs benefit from occasional “tune ups” from time to time. So just how bad can it be if socialization is allowed to slide? Well, that depends upon the “plasticity” of the dog. A dog’s plasticity, or bounce-back-ability, is dependant upon many factors including breed, age, health, previous experiences, temperament and history of socialization. For example, a dog which was bred to be an independent thinker with quick reflexes and a natural wariness may not as easily adapt to varying environmental conditions as, say, a dog which was bred to accompany his master for hours at a time on a hunt or while fishing. It should come as no surprise that a Manchester Terrier is a breed that will likely require more intense, careful and ongoing socialization than your average Labrador Retriever.

What happens if you’ve adopted an adult dog who hasn’t received adequate socialization as a puppy? This is very often the case with puppies that have been removed from the litter too early in life or that have grown up in a kennel environment. Often these dogs will respond with barking, lunging and biting when surprised, pressured, cornered or while on lead. When a dog’s “plasticity” is very low, even a seemingly small event can trigger an outburst. Sadly, this is the fate of many dogs surrendered to shelters throughout North America. Dogs that cannot tolerate people have far worse outcomes than dogs that dislike the company of other dogs or animals since too many “mistakes” with people can label a dog “dangerous”. In this very litigious society of ours, that label can be a death sentence for the dog. For an under-socialized adult dog, improving her opinion of the world can be difficult and, in some cases, very little can be done. With the guidance of a qualified trainer, desensitization and counter-conditioning of the feared stimuli can help a dog learn to relax and trust that she’s safe. Although painstakingly repetitive and slow, remedial socialization is possible with a carefully thought-out plan.

A dog’s health can affect her behaviour and ability to cope with the rigors of modern life. Painful skin conditions, joint, dental or muscle pain, thyroid and other hormone disorders and wounds can make a dog very touchy and unlike her normal self. Often it is a behaviour change that signals a decline in health so watching your dog for signs of out-of-character behaviour can often lead to an early diagnosis.

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, something comes along and scares a puppy during the socialization phase and we find ourselves dealing with a dog that’s scared of the strangest things. I really don’t know when or how but I have a beautifully socialized, athletic, healthy four year old Toy Manchester Terrier who shrieks if he sees the bottom of a foot. He certainly wasn’t intentionally kicked but somewhere along the way he generalized the sight of a lifted foot with a frightening situation. Although he is always going to struggle with formal obedience heeling exercises he never runs away from us or bolts at the door.
Socialization ideally will continue for the life of the dog. If you stop taking your dog to places and exposing her positively to a variety of situations you risk losing ground. By making the most of that first year, your dog will reward you with great behaviour for years to come. Living a life rich with variety, companionship and security are basic rights that every dog deserves.

Home   |   Members Only   |   Contact Us   |