By Tracie Korol
Dogs aren’t born “man’s best friends”. They grow into the honorific through time and the experience of experiences. As with all baby animals, there is a period of time in a dog’s life where they must learn about their world in order to survive. This critical period of socialization is when a puppy learns what is safe and good and what is not. This window falls somewhere between four weeks and 20 weeks. After the window closes, anything not previously identified falls into the “unsafe” category. Dogs must be socialized to the alien human world during this time or they will forever be anxious, at the very least, about new people, sounds and sights. How many of us know the precious tiny pet whinging in terror when friends come to visit or the big barker who lets loose with a barrage of noise every time a pinecone hits the ground? They are canine misfits.
The best socialization procedure I’ve ever seen is what dogs receive when they are in training for Guide Dogs for the Blind or other service dog organizations. Those dogs receive gentle human handling and contact from the time their eyes open until adulthood. Tiny service puppies travel everywhere with their trainers. As they grow older they are given careful exposure to stimuli they would encounter in a day-to-day working life: visits to offices, shopping centers, walks in town, rides on elevators, sounds of cars, motorcycles, people of different ages, sexes, ethnicities, people who dress, talk or move in different ways, people who use crutches, umbrellas and wheelchairs. Penny, one of my Couchtime dogs, is a retired guide dog. On her initial visit, she hopped out of her owner’s car, happily trotted into my house and never looked back. We had a great adventuresome week and when it was time to go home, she hopped back into her owner’s car and again, never looked back. A dog with that level of confidence is a pure pleasure. Your dog can do the same.
One category of the dogs I work with, behaviorally, is the result of benevolent neglect. There is no doubt their owners love them but in loving them too much have prevented them from experiencing normal day-to-day life. They are the dogs that never leave the yard, never run on grass and have no dog friends. Their owners do not anticipate that sometimes life doesn’t always go along as planned and when it doesn’t, it’s the poor dog that suffers. Another group of dogs I work with in this category are the ordinary dogs whose owners simply never knew about or never bothered with this important aspect. These are the dogs that live with Gram and Gramps and that freak out and bite when the grandkids come to visit. Or, they are the dogs of families who live in the country, then move to an urban (or suburban) environment where then the dog overreacts to the increased neighborhood activity. These are the dogs causing the neighbors to complain about incessant barking. I have three in my ‘hood.
It is a good owner who will enroll his pet in a puppy class for socialization and basic training. Almost all the dogs I work with have been to class, however. Why they now are my best friends is because their socialization ended when the class ended. Learning about life is an ongoing process. To put it in perspective, imagine sending your child to kindergarten and then never letting her out of the house again. In human terms, that’s child abuse.
However, if you are the owner of an unsocialized adult dog, don’t despair. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks. There is hope. Steps can be taken to make their worlds a less terrifying place. The quality of their life can be improved with desensitization, and with training they will gain confidence to make sense of the world around them. It should be no surprise that methods used to rehabilitate an unsocialized dog must be positive ones. The poor guy is already terrified of the world so it will be up to the owner to be patient, sometimes progressing at what might seem glacial pace. Pushing an unsocialized dog too quickly can destroy weeks, even months of painstaking progress. I remind my owners that their perfect canine companion takes time to develop, often years in the making.