Puppies Need Socialization
Last week I got a call from a client that was referred to me by a friend that works for a big box store as a dog trainer. Apparently the dog (let’s call her Sasha,) was becoming aggressive with other dogs and people, especially when the male owner was present! Sasha, while at the big box store, got “a little” snarky with another dog and was avoiding all contact with other humans, and even gave a lip curl to one. My friend suggested the owners to me and a private in-home session was set up.
I always try to line out in my mind what I want to cover, prior to meeting any owners (after getting a detailed history and behavioral questionnaire from them) and this time was no different. I planned to cover the optimal socialization period for dogs (3-18 weeks of age) and what to do when that opportunity is missed. Further ideas I intended to cover included a “say please” program, hand feeding, and distance desensitizing as well as a possible slow introduction to a reliable doggy daycare program (to see if being away from Dad would help?). When I got to the house, there was a slow introduction, some treats and mostly calms behavior from Sasha.
We all sat down and talked and it became apparent that this aggressive behavior had been getting worse. From what I was hearing and seeing, my opinion was that the behavior was more fear based than aggression. I also found out the dog actually belonged to the couple’s son, who uses a wheel chair. More sobering was the fact that the dog had lip curled at the son a couple of times, and had even growled without an obvious reason.
About 25 minutes into our hour long session, I was offering Sasha another treat and pet (under and to the side, not on top of her head) which had successfully been done several times prior to this point and Sasha, without a growl, bit me (then ran away). I managed to move my hand almost out of the way as she was biting, and received more of a pinch than a bite, but it did draw blood. Obviously the owners were horrified at what transpired and apologized profusely, but in the end their one real question was why it had happened.
This is a really hard question, and in my opinion, a question no dog trainer should ever try to answer. Dogs don’t speak English and they never will. And getting caught up in the why’s of how a dog reacts, especially if biting, is guessing at best. I refocused the subject on what behavior we did want, but as we delved further into the situation more red flags came up, including Sasha going after my boot under the table two more times ☹. But the 3 most concerning to me were:
• I now knew the dog did not have an inhibited bite threshold (meaning if there was another bite, it would most likely end with an injury and would break the skin)
• Their son, while independent, was in a wheel chair (at a close proximity to face level with the dog)
• The family used an in ground fence for the front and back yard, and at times left the dog outside while they were not at home
In talking training options with the family, it came down to three basic options; management of the dog around strangers, counter conditioning program (with people and animals) and surrendering of the dog back to the rescue group where they adopted the dog. I had some concerns going forward with two of the options. If they chose to counter condition Sasha, unless they were fanatical in their consistency and never let their guard down, it could still result in a bite from a dog we know not to have bite inhibition.
If they chose the option of management (allowing the dog to continue living with the family) they would have to take appropriate steps, including making sure Sasha is put away when strangers are present and given limited exposure to anything that would scare or make her nervous. Again, this could lead to a costly mistake if consistency failed. Another concern is having a son who has seen some increase in aggressive behavior and is directly in the line of fire (on the same level,) due to being in the wheel chair.
The fact the clients use an in ground fence is problematic (no judgment on the device,) because with this type of device, owners cannot leave a dog outside without supervision. This is not only for the safety of their dog, but for the safety of the community as well. What if two young kids on the way home from school decided to try to pet this “fearful” dog with no bite inhibition; they walk into the yard and Sasha now has no possible way to get away? As you can see, this could be a recipe for disaster.
At the end of the session, I stressed to the family that they not make a snap decision, or blame themselves! While some of the things they had allowed Sasha to do were not great, they had not gotten the chance to socialize Sasha during the critical stage of development mentioned earlier. Sasha had been adopted at the age of 6-8 months old. Due to this fact and the others I mentioned, they would need to spend the time discussing the choices with all family members, and make their decision based on what was best for their family. I advised them I would touch base with them in a couple of days, but if their decision was to keep Sasha, it would take lots of time and effort on their part and everyone would need to be on the same page!
I can’t tell you how this story ends because I don’t know at this point, but it brings me back to something I talk to clients about almost every day…puppy training! We only get once chance to start off right with a dog, and that is when they are a puppy! If we would only teach our dogs 3 things during that critical socialization period (approx 3-18 weeks) most, if not all, issues like this and others would never occur.
• People equal good times and fun (Socialized Dog)
• I must be very gentle with my mouth (Soft moth, inhibited bite…Safe around people)
• Only good (wanted) behavior is rewarded…gets attention! (Calm, thoughtful and relaxed)
Unfortunately for dogs, this rarely happens. And problems always seem to crop up in that wonderful world of juvenile adolescence, usually somewhere around 6 months to 2 years. Then trainers like me get the calls. In case you were wondering, Sasha is just over 2 years old. I never like reliving negative experiences but in this case it gave me a chance to reemphasize how important puppy training is. Please pass this information on, because the more people who start understanding and training dogs while they are puppies, the more of these situations can be avoided.
From our furry family to yours, iPetsKC