This post is in response to Crystal’s thoughtful post on Reactive Champion, Ian Dunbar Seminar: Don’t Waste Puppyhood! It is a great post and stimulated a wealth of great comments.
Early Socialization: Maizey
Since learning from the opposite experiences of Maizey and Magnus I value socialization. I also value balance.
For the first seven weeks of life Maizey was raised with her mom and litter, but I suspect with minimal structured socialization. From seven to nine weeks she was at the home of her mom’s breeder. She was exposed to kids, adults, dogs of all sizes and another litter of puppies just older than her, among other experiences.
But this “socialization” was not done with an eye to fear issues. I suspect many of her experiences were not positive ones. I feel genetics are at play with her, and being removed from her litter too soon also contributed to her issue’s.
After she became my girl I did my best, but was too uneducated to know how to socialize her according to her needs. Herein is one issue I have with the strict socialization rules. Every dog is different. Every dog needs to focus more in some areas of behavior than others. Based on what I know now, she needed much less stimulation, much more protection and much, much more positive reinforcement than I gave her.
Sadly, her puppy class did not help her development. There were too many big dogs, she was the smallest and most fearful. The play time had no structure, the other handlers were given almost no instruction on how to interrupt and redirect unwanted play behavior. There was not enough supervision. And certainly not enough attention to addressing her fear.
That being said, I want to say her instructor tried to give me skills and resources to teach positive reinforcement and I learned a lot from her about clicker training. I appreciate her help, but the class was not a good experience for Maizey.
Still, Maizey’s early people socialization must have taught her humans are the source of good things since she loves people. But her dog socialization was lacking, and poorly handled by her breeder, myself and her puppy class.
Early Socialization: Magnus
Magnus early socialization is the opposite of hers. He spent the first eight weeks in a Missouri puppy mill. He was kept in a small crate with his litter for the majority if not all of that time.
At eight weeks he was rescued and went to live in a kennel area of the rescue with several other small adult dogs. He was there for about 10 days before he became my boy. Since I have covered his socialization journey over the last seven weeks, I won’t go into that here.
What I will say is that he obviously had little to no human socialization for the first 8 weeks of life. When he came to live with me he did not know humans were relevant to him at all. He was not afraid, just not interested. He didn’t make eye contact. I spent at least the first three weeks lying flat on the ground, so my face was on his face level, hand feeding kibble, sometimes straight from my lips.
For him dogs are a different story. He begs to play with every dog he meets, big or small. He has wonderful puppy language. He knows dogs. Dogs are wonderful, humans are slowly becoming wonderful. Although thankfully he loves us now and eagerly makes eye contact.
Hopefully Kathie R’s experience will prove true for him. She says, “I’ve seen puppies come out of puppy mills having had no early socialization be fantastic, well-adjusted pets.”
So is socialization important? Absolutely. But it’s not just a free for all of throwing your dogs into a puppy class or flooding them with stimuli. Each one should have their needs considered. And no matter what their needs are the experiences must be positive.
The Dreaded 16 week “Pumpkin” Theory
In her comment Eliz said of Ian Dunbar: “It was the sense of inevitability of it all that got me. That idea that once puppy hood is over the dog could be static perhaps forever stuck.”
The level of emphasis placed on 12 weeks and 16 weeks as socialization deadlines seems unbalanced to me also. Not that the developmental periods of puppy-hood are not correct, but learning goes on forever.
Any of us who have rescued an older dog knowing nothing of their puppy experiences, but still watched them grow and change in behavioral issues, know that puppies don’t turn into pumpkins at 16 weeks. We have seen the changes that can be made after those ages have passed. Of course it may be harder, but it’s not hopeless.
True, humans or dogs can sometimes only get fixed to the proportion they are broken, but everyone can make some changes in behavior. Reframing negative experiences with positive associations is a big part of this. To present socialization as something that can only be done as puppies is simply discouraging.
In our puppy class I brought this up to the instructors. One said, “Did [Ian Dunbar's] stuff scare you?” I had to laugh because at first it kind of did! It can seem pretty extreme. Especially to those of us that want to do everything perfectly!
Most trainers have something to offer that we can learn from. But I look for balance and practical application. If anything is presented in too harsh of extremes it is hard apply in real life. That is not to say we shouldn’t all have lofty goals, but it is also nice to have goals that are achievable.
So is socialization important? Absolutely! As is balance and achievable goals. And in the end all we can do is our best, based on the knowledge we have at the time. And isn’t that the loftiest goal of all?