Let’s talk about puppies.
I often foster pups for the local animal shelter (Central Vermont Humane Society – great place, support them!). We have fostered more puppies than I can count. Sometimes it is simply that there isn’t enough room at the shelter. Sometimes it’s because the dogs aren’t ready for adoption.
The first time was for a dozen (okay, there were only 4, but it sure felt like a dozen) 4-week old puppies. These four were given up for adoption after the owners discovered it would take 25 hours a day to care for them (perhaps another slight exaggeration).
Those pups were a handful, but they were a happy handful. They romped, they howled, they chewed, they dug holes and, in general, they acted like puppies. They were outgoing and curious, they wanted attention. They were sometimes fearful, but it was a healthy fear of new things that would set them back on their chubby little haunches until curiosity took over and they set out, nose first, to investigate.
My first sight of Grady and Benito, on the other hand, was enough to show this would be a different challenge. These puppies looked like a single tightly packed ball of fur, with two sets of eyes darting between me and the shelter worker. Their bodies were tucked as tightly as possible in the furthest corner of the crate. My heart went out to them immediately.
When we first put them outside they just sat, as if they didn’t dare to move. Fortunately, after a day or so they figured it out!
Role of Puppy Socialization
Numerous studies have shown that early development has a large role on adult behavior. Scientists have divided puppy development into 3, sometimes overlapping, stages. The first is known as the neonatal or “stimulation” stage and it generally lasts from 3-16 days old.
This is a time when newborn pups can be gently handled and moved around. You can tickle their toes or gently stroke their ears and tail. Stroking has been found to lower blood pressure in young dogs, and evidence suggests that early stimulation encourages faster maturation. Some of this stimulation comes from the mother and litter mates, but, positive human touch will teach the puppy to have confidence in people. However, it is important to go slowly and not stress the puppy, as over stimulation can be as bad as under-stimulation.
The second stage of dog development is the socialization stage. This begins at around 2 weeks and runs until the puppy is 10-12 weeks old (some experts put it as late as 16 weeks). It is during this period that the puppy begins learning about the world outside its immediate surroundings. Proper socialization involves introducing the puppy to positive environments, different people and unknown dogs. A bit of stress is ok for the dog at this point but it is important for the puppy to succeed in the stressful situation. This success gives the puppy confidence which can continue into adulthood.
Many studies have shown both the positive effects of appropriate socialization, as well as the negative effects of inadequate socialization. Lack of socialization is correlated with fearfulness, separation anxiety, aggression, house soiling and other behavioral issues in the adult dog. On the other hand, positive socialization often leads to greater confidence, less stranger and dog aggression, and a dog that is easier to train.
According to Cynthia Drinkwine, owner of Playful Pups Dog Training and CATCH CTA certified dog trainer, dog expert and, oh yes, my sister, Grady and Benito showed typical signs of lack of socialization. At around 4 or 5 months (their exact age was unknown) Benito and Grady were beyond the socialization stage and into the 3rd developmental stage, the juvenile period. As with human juveniles, this is a time when puppies should be learning to explore on their own. They should be into everything, sniffing and investigating new smells and sounds.
Most of our foster pups, for example, approached visitors (human and animal) eagerly, expecting playmates. They quickly learned that cats required caution, people represent play and food, some dogs are fun and others grumpy. They also preferred to go to the bathroom outside, where they busily explored everything within reach. In a well-adjusted puppy this behavior continues throughout the juvenile stage.
Grady and Benito, by contrast, although already in the juvenile stage, were terrified of new experiences, jumping at even moderate noises, shying from people and moving objects. The challenge with them was to get them to explore anything at all. Many dogs don’t like to be crated. These two wouldn’t leave their crates.
Temperament also plays a role. Benito was shy and timid, but after a couple days he came to trust me and would ask for attention.
Grady on the other hand wouldn’t let me touch him until literally weeks of sitting quietly beside him, ignoring him. I’d read a book and hope he would come out of his crate to explore.
After a month or so of patience Grady slowly began to trust me. He wouldn’t let me reach out to him, but he would come to me. He also learned to play. It was a wonderful day when he finally relaxed enough to smile.
It is highly likely that both dogs will remain shy throughout their lives. Fortunately, the shelter knew that and passed over potential adoptions until they found people with the patience and gentleness these dogs require.
The Moral of the Story
It shows the importance of working with a young puppy and also knowing the history of the pup. In another post I will rant about the cruelty of puppy mills. Until then, please, please, don’t buy a puppy online or in a pet store unless you can first visit the breeder directly. Many online places are scams, where you either don’t get any dog, or you get one that is different from what you expected. But more importantly, it is legal in many states to treat dogs horrendously. They are commodities to be kept just healthy enough to sell. This is cruel to the animals and produces dogs that are both physically and emotionally scared.