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Socializing your dog PDF Print E-mail

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 2/8/09
By: Gail T. Fisher


A friend is getting her first dog. Actually, their daughter is getting her first dog, but of course the adults need to be on-board. My friend has never had a dog, and she is soaking up information like a sponge. In one of my emails, I mentioned “socialization,” and she wrote, “If socialization means playing and hugging and kissing, don't worry, there will be a ton of that.” 

The truth is that most dogs tolerate, but don’t truly love hugs and kisses. On the other hand, play – especially with their 11 year old – will be a given. But love and attention are not socialization.

Socialization is all about the age-old discussion of Nature versus Nurture. Without a doubt both are critically important. A dog cannot grow up to be better than his nature, his genetic temperament, predisposes. A dog that inherits a “shy” gene will be a shy adult. The genetics of temperament is a huge topic (for another article and time).

Socialization is about “nurture” – the side of the coin that we can control: how experiences and the environment impact our dogs. Socialization is about helping a puppy that has inherited the genes for a healthy, normal, outgoing temperament to reach his or her genetic potential.

Think of it this way: In general, genes (“Nature”) supply 20-40% of the adult temperament and personality while external influences (“Nurture”) are responsible for 60-80% of what the adult dog will be like. This means that we humans – breeders, rescue caretakers and owners – play an enormous role, and have a huge responsibility to help a puppy become the best dog he or she can be.

Early in my career I read an interview with a successful, Hollywood dog trainer who had trained many of the well-known dogs we’ve seen in movies. Asked what he considered the most important thing that made a dog successful in films. I expected to read a description of some test he performed to determine trainability, or a specific personality characteristic he looked for. His answer, however, was, “Socialization, socialization, and socialization.”

He opined that the ability to deal with the unknown was the single most important characteristic for a movie dog. Since being able to perform in environments they may never have encountered previously, dealing with the unexpected and unfamiliar was critical to their job description. A movie dog may have to fly in a plane, run under a bus, chase or be chased by another animal, be near an explosion, or perform in a scene we, the audience, take for granted. The only way to prepare a dog to accept something they’ve never come across before, to prepare a dog for “the new” is through socialization. Without it, a dog won’t make it in the movies.

Not just important for movie performances, the process of socialization provides coping skills for all our dogs. Through exposure to a broad range of positive experiences as a puppy, socialization helps a puppy grow up to be a well-rounded and stable dog. Lack of socialization, on the other hand, results in shyness, fear of unfamiliar people, new experiences and different places. Through socialization—nurturing—a dog is able to reach his full genetic potential. Conversely without it, the dog will not become the best dog he otherwise would have been.

This is not just the Hollywood trainer’s opinion (or mine). Scientific studies of canine socialization have proven the importance of socializing puppies prior to the age of sixteen weeks (four months) of age, and have well-documented the results of lack of socialization.

What does socialization entail? Socialization is safely exposing a puppy to wide variety of positive experiences, including different environments, people of all ages and appearances, dogs of various ages and breeds, as well as any other species a puppy might need to co-exist with throughout his/her life, such as cats, bunnies, horses or sheep. Socialization increases a dog's sociability, helps establish a stable temperament, broadens a dog's tolerance for new experiences and increases the dog's ability to handle stressful situations. A well-socialized dog can cope even in environments it had not previously been introduced to. The importance of socialization is that it teaches a dog that “the new” is not frightening, so when a dog is confronted by something unfamiliar, he is better able to accept and tolerate it.

More on this important topic next week.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2009. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.

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