Groomer to Groomer

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Socialization Need It or Not?


By Gary Wilkes

I have a brand new puppy. He’s almost four months old. Ask anyone in dog training or behavior, and they will tell you that I must “socialize” him now or I’ll be in big trouble later. Maybe, maybe not.

Petey is a normal four-month-old Queensland Heeler. He loves people. He did from the moment I saw him at about six weeks. He has not changed at all regarding his social nature and is unlikely to waver throughout his lifetime. Why? He has been bred for specific traits, including his relationship with people. His innate abilities include things that are welcome as-is and some that have to be nurtured or suppressed. He heels. He chases things. He kisses faces. He squiggles. If something startles him, he moves back a short distance and observes. If there is no immediate consequence, he will approach again.

As Petey will be my wife’s third service dog, he will have to be extra-cordial in public. I have to make sure that happens. I will have to teach him behaviors and inhibitions that will make him dependable. What I do not have to do is get him out in public to allow him to experience lots of people or other dogs. His behavior spins based on his breeding. That’s what I paid for. That’s what I got.

If my belief that socialization isn’t automatically necessary or beneficial sounds like heresy, it shouldn’t. Pointers point. Retrievers retrieve. Cane Corsos bark wildly at the sight of strangers. Presenting them with more birds, Frisbees, or strangers does not lessen their reactions to these specific events. Innate behaviors are not influenced by triggering the behavior any more than tapping your patella with a rubber mallet eventually stops you from kicking your leg. According to the rules of socialization, putting a cattle dog puppy around a lot of cattle will decrease the pup’s likelihood of heeling cattle as an adult. Not likely.

One reason that lots of early exposure doesn’t always change behavior is that some behaviors are developmental and wink on later in life. If early socialization lessens a dog’s natural behaviors, a Cane Corso should lose its territorial aggression and a scent-marking dog should become complacent about guests.

The concept that a nebulous exposure to people or dogs removes instinctive behaviors is a fantasy. On the contrary, when presented with the trigger for each specific instinctive reaction, the behavior winks into existence. Once it wakes up, it happens predictably for the rest of the dog’s life. If increasing exposure does not modify a cattle dog’s intensity toward cattle, why would it change a lap dog’s friendliness? If cordial behavior exists in the dog, repeated exposure triggers the existing cordial behavior. Either the core behavior exists or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, presenting a fear-causing event will simply continue to trigger fear.

Three Different Things: Socialization, Habituation, and Active Conditioning.

The concept of socialization actually contains two opposing beliefs that cannot be demonstrated in the real world. First, lots of handling equals cordial behavior. If that were true, every pet shop dog should be a perfectly social dog. Second, the absence of handling causes irreparable damage. Again, the puppy-mill, pet shop dog should be a basket case. I can truthfully tell you that in more than 25 years of training and behavior work, I cannot tell a puppy mill dog by its behavior in a blind test. I don’t think anyone else can, either.

Not all fearful or crazy dogs come from deprived environments. Not all confident dogs are the result of handling. The only truth at the bottom of socialization is that feral puppies are crazy-wild because of a complete lack of handling as infants. By three months, they are effectively wild and compromised for life. So, yes, very early handling is important. However, once you have achieved an acceptance to humans, additional exposure doesn’t change much of anything.

Habituation: More than simply “getting used” to something

The actual processes that can influence a dog’s future behavior are habituation and active conditioning. Habituation refers to a very controlled exposure that includes close monitoring of the dog’s reaction and terminating exposure when it approaches a specific level. For instance, if a pup is terrified of vacuum sweepers, you put a vacuum at a distance that does not trigger the fearful reaction. The next day, you put it a little closer. If the puppy becomes anxious, you move the vacuum back to the last acceptable distance. Repeat the process and gradually bring the vacuum closer to the pup.

Active Conditioning: More effective than habituation

In contrast to habituation, active conditioning changes the way the ball bounces. Respondent conditioning deals with basic internal responses such as triggering the parasympathetic nervous system. Operant conditioning can best be understood as “obedience behaviors” and should be part of teaching a dog acceptance of unusual events.

To use respondent conditioning, one makes a simple pairing of two things: an event and something that influences the dog’s physiological state. For instance, putting food in your mouth triggers salivation and then a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. Think of it as an organic tranquilizer. Almost any environmental cue that consistently precedes food will be able to trigger the response.

If I wanted a puppy to learn to accept strangers, I would start saying the words “nice people” just before I put down his food bowl. Repeat at every meal for a couple of weeks. Take the pup in public and say, “Look at all the nice people,” and have someone walk forward and stop at a respectful distance. Put a treat in the dog’s mouth. Ask the “nice people” to move away or hide behind a wall so they are no longer visible. Say, “Look at all the nice people” loud enough for them to hear. That is their cue to approach. Put a treat in the pup’s mouth and repeat the sequence. Pavlov said it took him between 20 and 50 repetitions to make a simple association between the sound of a bell and food. You can expect this to be about the same, with individual variations based on the dog’s unique tendencies.

This same process can be done for dogs that are afraid of vacuum sweepers, whizzing traffic, or any other fear-inspiring event. There are a few rules to keep in mind, but the process is simple and straightforward. One caution – there are limits. The limitations on this type of training can be the dog’s breeding and/or your skill applying it. Just follow the rules and see how far you get. If you hit a wall, you may need to seek behavioral help from an expert.

  1. Make sure your catchphrase occurs before the dog perceives the thing you wish to associate with food.
  2. Present the people, noises, or events at an intensity that is unlikely to trigger a fear response. Over a series of repetitions, decrease the distance. Eventually expect the dog to approach voluntarily the thing that formerly scared it.
  3. Once you have accomplished a general passivity, you can include operant conditioning to complete the task. Start asking for obedience behaviors during the conditioning event. For instance, if you are trying to get the dog comfortable with people, start asking for “sit” as the “nice people” approach. You can actually transfer control to them – have the stranger ask the dog to sit and deliver the treat. ✂