Early Doesn’t Mean Only

Early Doesn’t Mean Only by Pamela Dennison © 2006
May not be reprinted without written approval.

One of the things we hear so often as pet owners or what we tell our students as trainers is how important early socialization is for puppies. The early weeks—from approximately eight to 16 or 20 weeks is really quite critical for the mental welfare of these babies and may directly affect their behavior as adults. Socialization should include careful exposure to many friendly people, dogs, places, weather, all kinds of inanimate objects, kids, noises, different kinds of surfaces, being handled and groomed and the list goes on.

While it is great that many people now seem to understand that early socialization is vitally significant for their puppy, there are those that latch onto the word “early,” thinking it also means “only.”

One of the issues that I seem to run into is that many people think that they have done their job with the process once the puppy is 16 weeks old (one puppy k is enough, right?) and they can stop all training and continued experiences. Quite often their dog is then kept at home, exposed to nothing new anymore and “all of a sudden” becomes aggressive or fearful or shy. Our dogs can benefit greatly from socialization starting at the standard eight weeks of age and extending to at least two years of age.

There has been much debate about comparing wolves to dogs for a greater understanding of our pets, but that isn’t what this article is about. Nonetheless, I think we can learn a lesson or two. Wolf puppies are socialized in those early days and weeks by other pack members. They learn who belongs, what their environment is all about and how to play with littermates and other members of the family unit. They learn proper and appropriate social and hunting skills. At a certain age, they turn from being accepting of everything new, to being suspicious of anything new—new environments, new intruders, new anything. After this time, shyness of new things and “fight or flight” responses are necessary adaptations of the survival of the group. Because this helps to insure group survival, “early” socialization for the wolf puppy, is more than enough to keep the species safe and growing concern.

Our dogs on the other hand, must learn to accept a zillion more things than their wolf “cousins.” The very short list: People of all sizes and colors doing completely inappropriate things to them (petting on the head, pulling their tails, poking them in the eyes, running around and screaming, visiting the vet and groomer), fluffy prey objects (as in cats, ferrets, hamsters, guinea pigs, stuffed animals, etc.), scary as heck things in the environment such as laptop computers, balloons, gravel, telephones and doorbells ringing, pots and pans clanging, plastic reindeer, drainpipes, hanging plants and ceiling fans, loud truck noises, gun shots and many more.

Dogs go through many different “fear periods” throughout their early lives. Some dogs seem to breeze through them with hardly a ripple and with others it appears that “the sky is falling.” If your dog lived in the wild, this would not be a problem. However, in our society, it can become a real issue, as the available information shows that euthanasia for behavior problems is on the rise.

Fear periods are when your young dog all of a sudden is afraid of people, objects or places he used to be comfortable with. Some dogs will manifest that fear into shyness and some into more active “go away” behaviors such as growling or lunging. The time frame I have listed here is approximate, but you’ll be able to recognize those times just by being cognizant of your own dog’s change of behavior.

Between seven to nine weeks of age
Anywhere from four to six months
Again at around 12 months
At approximately 14 to 18 months and with some dogs can even be as late as 2 years
So you can see, working your dog through his first or even second fear period is not enough to get him comfortable for life for the myriad of things he will need to accept. Unfortunately this is the time that many people stop socializing their dog. It is also important to know that when your dog is going through a fear period, how you handle it will set the stage for his behavior for the rest of his life.

If you punish him for the more active “aggressive looking” behaviors, he will think that he was right in thinking that object, person or dog was scary and will continue to display those behaviors. If you coddle and consol him for his shy behaviors, you are actually reinforcing him for being afraid and those behaviors will increase.

The best thing you can do for your pup during these times is to keep him relatively isolated during the week or so it takes to come out of it. In the past you may have heard the advice of “socialize puppies even more during a fear period.” The only problem with that is at these times, your dog is more vulnerable and increased socialization may very well backfire and create problems. You can still go places and see people and dogs he is familiar and still comfortable with, but don’t let him experience anything new—no new people, dogs, places and most certainly, unless it is life threatening, no visits to the vet. (Put off spay and neuter for a week or two!)

During the socialization process (and really during his entire life), it is imperative to make sure that he is around only friendly people and dogs. Sometimes, all it takes is one attack from a not-friendly dog to create a dog aggressive dog or one really bad experience with a person to create a human aggressive dog.

I recently conducted a poll for owners of aggressive dogs and asked at what age their dog’s aggression started. Out of 87 responses, six were under 10.5 weeks, 13 were between the ages of three to six months, 26 were between seven to eleven months, 14 were at one year old, 20 were at 18 months and 8 were between two and two and half years.

Now there certainly can be many causes of the aggression: raging hormones, bad experiences, poor breeding, pain and many other reasons. However, most of these dates are within the “classic” fear period timetable. Without doing an entire case study on each of the dogs that were included in the survey, it would be impossible for me to state as fact that improper handling of the fear period is what exacerbated the problem. However, the parallels shouldn’t be ignored. I see it often in my own school with dogs that come to me with behavior problems. I always ask at what age the problem started and what kind of formal training the dog had. Almost without fail, the issues started within a fear period and almost without fail, the dog had either had no formal training whatsoever or went to only one puppy kindergarten.

So the moral of the story here is to keep on eye on your young dog for “weird” behaviors and recognize that he may be going through a fear period. Err on the side of caution. Continue to socialize way past the “early” stages and well into adulthood and you will have the dog of your dreams.

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