Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Puppy Socialization

It seems like in the last week I've heard the phrase "puppy socialization" a dozen times.

Trainers advertise it.

Veterinarians recommend it.

Bad dogs seem to be missing it.

And oh how owners love to tell me how much of it their dogs got as puppies.

But just what kind of puppy socialization did those dogs get? Does socialization mean you have to take your dog to a special class? Does it mean you take your puppy to the dog park every week? To doggy daycare? Puppy play dates?

It could mean all of those things. Or none of them.

Let's think about this from human terms. Which one of these statements seems a little strange?

1. Humans (much like dogs) are social animals with social rules.
2. Humans (much like dogs) learn how to 'behave' from other humans.
3. Humans (much like dogs) learn their best behavior from other humans at Chuck E. Cheese and in McDonald's McPlayPlace.

Hmmm. It does look like there is something wrong with that 3rd statement, doesn't it? And yet, the type of 'socialization' that a lot of dog owners are giving their dogs is the same as children running wild in the play tubes and ball pits of popular kiddie restaurants. (Yes, I'm picking on dog parks again - as the doggie equivalents of Chuck E. Cheese.)

So...Where did you learn to be polite? I bet you learned in lots of places, in lots of ways. Usually from older, well behaved adult humans. And I bet those teachers, pastors, parents, grandparents and other well behaved adults tried to steer you clear of 'bad influences' - whether the bad influences were adults or kids. They taught you that there was a time and a place for play, and a time and a place for manners - and usually, those times and places are very different!

Where does all of this leave us when it comes to dogs? In a pickle, I'm afraid. Because we have a lot of opportunities for dogs to get together and learn bad habits, but not a lot of opportunities for them to learn good ones.

You must even beware of those popular 'puppy socialization classes.' Too often they are really the same as the dog park - all rough-house play, no rules. Sure, dogs need to get out and have a good time. So do humans. But they still need to follow some basic rules of etiquette. And some (or most) of what proper dog socialization looks like might surprise you!

Here are the most common rules dogs & their owners break when it comes to canine socialization:

1. Greetings: Many, many dogs are guilty of being too intense when greeting new dogs. "Intense" can mean too playful, too dominant and pushy, too submissive, simply 'too much!' About the only thing a dog can't overdo when greeting another dog is be too aloof! Aloof dogs avoid a lot of trouble.

TIP: Polite dogs do not strain and pull to get to each other for face-to-face greetings. If your dog or puppy is doing this, get some training now! And please, for the love of Pete, when the other dog snaps at your dog don't say "It's the best thing that could have happened to my dog. He's so pushy with other dogs! He has to learn his lesson." Newsflash: It's not other people or other dogs' job to teach YOUR puppy manners. It is your job.

2. Play: Many dogs do alright with the initial greeting, but then their play actions get out of control.

TIP: Polite dogs do not always control the play. They know when enough is enough and take frequent breaks. They don't body slam other dogs. They keep 'four on the floor' - they keep all four feet on the floor when playing. They don't hump other dogs. Humping is NOT play - it is dominance.

3. At home: Sometimes even dogs who live in the same household are not being polite with each other. A lot of owners shrug at fights over toys, food, sleeping space, and human affection as "just being dogs." I say, not so! TIP: Polite dogs co-exist peacefully within their pack. All of the rules of appropriate play apply to dogs that share the same home. No mounting/humping behavior is allowed. The play should be balanced and not dominated by one dog. Play sessions should be short - 10 to 15 minutes at a time, with frequent breaks.

In a dog pack as puppies get older, play sessions should become less frequent and of shorter duration. This is enforced by the older dogs. But if you socialize your dog with older dogs that aren't polite, they will teach your puppy bad manners!

This is important to prevent problems later on. One of the most common stories I get from dog owners whose dogs are fighting each other is: "They used to play all the time, all day long...and just suddenly they've started fighting."

Dog are like kids - they need supervised play and it's all fun and games until someone gets tired and cranky. Your job as a responsible owner is to teach them how to have fun appropriately!

Well, that's it from this end of the leash.

Jennifer Hime is the owner of Front Range K9 Academy and Horsetooth Whippets Kennel. She can be reached at http://www.k9counselor.com/ or 720-839-1102.