Helping your fearful puppy become a more confident dog

My jumping off point for this post is a commercial for the California Academy of Sciences in which my dog Otis was recently cast, and my assertion is that it takes time (months and years) for any puppy, but especially a naturally fearful one, to mature into confidence.

First, the 45-second commercial for a new exhibit at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, about how skin (and fur, shells, feathers and other external structures) form the living interface between organisms and their environment:

California Academy of Sciences commercial, starring my dog Otis

The ad is fantastic, and I am proud that Otis was part of the production.  At eight years old, this formerly-fearful puppy aced hours of filming countless takes, surrounded by strangers, cameras, microphone booms, and other objects that would have terrified her when she was my newly-adopted 14-week puppy.  She would not even have been to calmly handle the commotion when she was four years old.  

But at eight years old, Otis has developed the wisdom to filter out stimuli that would have consumed her attention when she was younger. I do not use the term “wisdom” flippantly. What is wisdom except the learned ability to discern what is important enough to pay attention to, and what can be ignored?  The Webster’s Dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment that develops over time.”  My point exactly.

There’s a learning mechanism called “habituation” that is often conflated with “socialization”.  While these two processes are related, habituation specifically means the “diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.”  Most puppies chase after every blowing leaf and are aroused by every dog they encounter, thereby learning about their world by closely observing it.  Otis was extraordinarily attuned to all dogs when she arrived in San Francisco from her rural birthplace, and fixated in fear at loud trucks and in fascination of every bird in sight. Not so any more.

Dog owners often contact me because their dog freaks out while tied up restaurants, or flees from garbage trucks, or refuses to walk down a certain street, or any other situation that can cause a dog to become fearful or aggressive or avoidant. My advice usually involves slowly habituating their dog to the situation, from a distance and over time, by implementing a program of desensitization and counterconditioning.  

But I sometimes have to convey that their dog does not have the temperament or tools to handle the situation at hand—at least not yet—and may never.  I encourage these folks to take the longer view, to not expect everything at once, and to consider what does make their dog happy.  That may never include being tied to a post while you go into Starbucks for your latte.

Another thing happens when a dog reaches full maturity: They learn English (or French or Spanish, or whatever language is spoken in their homes.)   Not in the sense that they can sit down to write dog blog posts, but in that they have observed humans for so long that they understand far more words and contexts than we set out to train. I never taught Otis “you stay here”, but I said it so many times when I did not load her in the truck that if I utter those words now, she happily stays in bed.  

This communication goes both ways, or at least it should.  I recommend that all dog owners “listen” to what their dogs are telling them.  If your dog cowers in fear every time you go to the dog park, the dog park might not be part of your future or hers…and that’s okay. What are alternate ways to physically and mentally stimulate your dog?  

The maturity and two-way communication that allowed Otis to effortlessly follow my direction during the film shoot, assured that she was safe under novel circumstances, evolved over the eight years we have been together, with her listening to and observing me, and me her.  (She also utterly ignores birds, even if they land a few feet from her in the backyard.) This is a point I make over and over with my clients:  Except for the most naturally calm and confident individuals, expecting too much from our dogs too early is frustrating for all concerned.

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My article in Bark Magazine about how often to reward your dog during training

I am thrilled to have my third article published in Bark Magazine, an excellent quarterly for all dog owners.

My article in the January 2019 issue is titled “Reinforcement Techniques in Dog Training”.  It’s about how using FEWER treats can help improve command compliance better than too many (or no) treats.

Reinforcement schedules is a key component in learning theory, and understanding the basics of this concept can go a long way towards improving your dog training skills.

You can read the article in its entirety on the Bark Magazine website:

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Locally sourced: Get to know your puppy or dog before adopting

I’ll start this post by stating the obvious: I love dogs! Like anyone with an obsession for dogs, I wish every single one on the planet could have it as good as, well, as good as my mutt Otis.

I’ll likely catch flack by also stating something that’s perhaps not as obvious: You should absolutely meet your puppy or dog before adopting, which rules out flying a puppy in from another state, or adopting a dog sight-unseen from a rescue in, for instance, Taiwan.


About the Taiwanese rescues: Over the years I have received so many distraught emails from new owners that I’ve lost count. As soon as I see the breed described as “Formosan Mountain Dog”, my heart sinks. The Taiwanese rescue organizations—which it must be said, have their hearts in the right place—send photos and videos of the rescue puppy to excited potential adopters, invariably with description showcasing the dog’s excellent social skills with children, people and other dogs.

And then they meet their terrified, under-socialized puppy at the airport to discover that the he’s frightened of everything and everyone, tormented and confused after a 10-hour flight, with no context to make sense of what just happened to him. And then it’s downhill from there.

With the rescue organization across the Pacific Ocean, the new owners have no recourse. My heart bleeds for everyone involved, but especially the puppy.

Look, I understand the allure of surfing the Internet for a dog. We found Otis on Pet Finder, and fell in love with her (and a couple of her siblings) from the images in our browser. But then we drove four hours from San Francisco to meet the litter, spent several hours interacting with each available pup, decided on Otis—and then drove back to across California to get our house ready (we had been out of town for several weeks), returning the following week to bring her home.

The Taiwanese rescue dogs, in contrast, are essentially feral, most having had no contact with humans during the first 18 weeks of life, the crucial socialization period, nor exposure to buses, cars, traffic, city sounds, skateboards, and everything else a puppy needs to incorporate into their worldview to thrive in our man-made world.

On top of that, my issue with bringing in dogs from other countries is that the shelters in the United States are filled to capacity with homeless dogs, where you can meet, interact with and get to know your dog before bringing him or her home. And if it does not work out for whatever reason, you can work with the shelter to re-home the dog.

We have grown accustomed to buying anything and everything off the Internet, and this makes sense for shoes, computers, furniture and books. But with shelters all across the country filled to capacity, you don’t need to resort to the Web to find your next four-footed companion.

Look closer to home, meet your dog or puppy and make sure it’s a healthy love connection.

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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: Why your dog must feel SAFE

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

I recently fielded a call from the owner of a one-year old male German Shepherd who said that her dog had just shown aggression towards her and that she needed to “fix” his problem, pronto. She had come home to discover that her dog had killed her peacock chicks, so she angrily chased him through her open car door and struck him with her fist, at which point he bared his teeth and growled.

“Your dog showed great restraint in not biting you”, I said. “You should be punching yourself for your aggression, not punishing your dog’s.”


Why did her dog have access to the chicks, allowing this to happen at all? This owner had set her dog up for failure by not maintaining a physical barrier between her birds (prey) and her dog (predator.) From the dog’s perspective, he had had quite the successful hunt!

But the greater issue here is that her enraged attack on the dog made him feel acutely unsafe and vulnerable. I asked the caller how she would feel if, for no reason, an angry, snarling person chased, cornered and pummeled her? She retorted that her actions toward the dog were “justified—he killed my chicks!”

Who knows how long before her arrival the deed had been done? Dogs live in the moment (yes, they really do), and so punishment or reward must be timed within a second or two of the behavior you want to discourage or encourage. In this case, all the dog knew was that his owner had inexplicably attacked him, which frightened him and he reacted accordingly.

Her poor dog did not feel safe.

Safety is Key
Psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) is renowned for his hierarchy of needs in which he placed that for safety above the need for water, sex, shelter—and even food. Think about it: Are you going to stop for a meal while being chased by a saber-toothed tiger? No, because in that moment your need for safety (self-preservation) outweighs your need for sustenance. While Maslow focused on human psychology, this is an area of where our behavior clearly overlaps with that of dogs and other animals.

One of my mentors, behaviorist Suzanne Clothier, reminds owners that if we violate our dogs’ need for safety, we automatically infringe upon their ability to learn, to think and to perform. (Her dog behavior book “Bones Would Rain from the Sky” is one of my favorites.) In her seminars, Clothier points out that, “feeling unsafe is often at the root of failure by our dogs to respond as we think they should. Uppermost in their minds is the need to feel safe. When we push dogs into feeling unsafe, we push them out of balance.”

NOT feeling safe underlies behavior issues that owners, trainers and behaviorists face every day:

  • Separation anxiety: Fear of losing the dog’s most significant social bond (to the owner); panic-inducing for some dogs.
  • Leash aggression: Tethered to a lead that eliminates the possibility for “flight” from a scary dog or person, the dog reacts out of fear to make them go away.
  • Aggression towards men or children: Not properly socialized to them as puppies, dogs perceive these individuals as threats to their survival.

In all of these cases, we humans can rationalize how the dog’s safety is not threatened—but the dog’s emotion (fear) is very real to him.

In the case of separation anxiety, feeling unsafe can cause a dog to go “over threshold” very quickly, making it impossible for him to learn how to be alone. Once the dog’s safety is breeched by being left alone without skills to handle it, progress becomes impossible. This is why protocols for addressing separation anxiety begin with very short planned departures that increase in duration only very slowly. Ramping up the duration of absences too quickly will backfire: the dog’s fear of severed social bonds becomes overwhelming. As long as fear is the dog’s overriding emotion, alone-time duration cannot increase.

Likewise the fear of men or children is—to the dog—very real, and from his perspective, not at all baseless, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to us. My life’s work is to instill in puppy owners the importance of exposure to all sorts of people (to at least 100 individuals) before twelve weeks of age, when the socialization period ends. Yes, twelve weeks, not twelve months.

Positive exposure to babies and children is especially important because a puppy not thusly socialized may grow up to fear them. As with separation anxiety, dogs leery of children experience real fear, and the erratic movements, high voices and peculiar (pre-pubescent) odors represent a menace to survival. Any program of desensitization and counter-conditioning (to babies and children, or to anything else for that matter) must take into account the dog’s fear and the need to feel safe.

About Those Sleeping Dogs
About once a month I get a call from an owner reporting that their otherwise gentle dog had “out of the blue” bitten a family member, usually a child. The child had quickly approached and touched their sleeping dog, and the dog had “without provocation” bitten the child.

Evolution has enabled the survival of the fittest to live, reproduce and pass along superior genes. This is true of behavioral traits as well as physical traits, and one instinct that serves an animal well is to lash out with tooth and claw when abruptly awakened. Fear of perhaps being under attack translates to instantaneous retaliation, ergo, the bitten child. In such cases, people ask if I can “train out” the behavior, and I tell them no, I cannot train dogs to not feel fear when suddenly awakened. This is not about training per se, but is rather a management issue. The solution is to teach everyone in the household to verbally awaken the dog from across the room before any physical contact.

Similarly, I often hear from folks whose dog has bitten someone while tied up. “I just ran into the store for a minute and came out to discover Fluffy had bitten this nice lady who wanted only to pet her.” Think about this from your dog’s perspective: You’re tied to a parking meter, your owner—the foundation of your safety—runs out of sight (already feeling highly stressed), and then a stranger reaches towards your face. Your dog rightly feels fearful, yet his ability for “flight” has been taken off the table with the leash tied to the meter, so the only other option is “fight”, and the bite ensues.

This is another behavior that I would not attempt to “train out” (an expression I abhor) of a dog. Some dogs can handle being tied up and approached by strangers, many cannot. It is not fair to put them in that position. Solution: Don’t do this! Leave the dog at home or with a friend while you get your coffee.

Innate vs. Learned Fears
My mother was deathly afraid of snakes. She was not alone, and this is not a fear that she had to learn. Rather, fear of animals that might be poisonous is instinctual. While she might have been able to learn to tolerate being in the same room with a snake, it was never important because in our modern world, avoiding all reptiles is quite easy. But let’s say that while Mom was enjoying a glass of wine on the porch, a snake had slithered towards her. Would yelling at her or punching her arm make her feel any safer? No, she would be both afraid of the snake and perplexed by my aggression.

Old school dog trainers often invoke aversive techniques to punish a dog that is reacting out of fear, such as using shock collars on dog-reactive dogs. While this may make it look to us that the problem is solved, the fear will not subside one bit. Instead the dog will shut down due to learned helplessness. Sure, the dog may no longer react, but he is still feeling afraid and that internal conflict can be quite unhealthy in the long run.

A better option for some (but not all) fears is a program of desensitization and counter-conditioning: Exposing the dog to the source of his fear from a distance that he can handle without going “over threshold”, and moving closer each training session while providing a high-value reward for staying calm (the counter conditioning part.) The reason I say not all fears will respond to this is that some are so ingrained from a lack of exposure—for example, to other dogs during a puppy’s short socialization window when the brain is undergoing physical changes unavailable later in life—or a traumatic “one-time learning” event.

Be Your Dog’s Advocate
I have had two cases where young puppies were leashed to chairs then, frightened by a loud noise, took off running with the chair bouncing and chasing endlessly behind them. In both cases, heretofore confident puppies never fully recovered from the trauma. The event was so terrifying, and occurred during the ever-important fear imprint period, that they never felt fully safe again.

I bring up the puppy-tied-to-chair scenario to plead for owners to fully think through all experiences to which they subject their dogs and puppies. Your job is to show your puppy or dog the world, to keep them safe from things you can, and let them slowly acclimate and absorb this crazy mixed-up manmade world. Of course this is not always possible—sometimes unanticipated events occur—but we must all try to put ourselves in our dogs’ shoes and to be compassionate about their trying to make sense of the world in the only way they can: mostly through their noses, without words and sentences to express how they feel, and from about two feet off the ground.

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Realistic expectations: The semantics of “fixing” your dog

By Jeff Stallings

Animal behavior science has advanced a great deal in recent decades. We now understand more about canine cognitive development than ever, thanks to researchers such as Alexandra Horowitz, John Bradshaw and Brian Hare. New discoveries into how puppies develop and dogs think have brought about proven methods for behavior modification. What we humans have not achieved is an instant “fix” for undesirable behaviors—in people or in dogs. (Adult humans who have spent years in therapy to rectify troublesome childhoods will attest to this.)

I receive emails and phone calls daily from dog owners seeking to remedy problem behaviors. These sometimes-desperate pleas for help, and the compassion behind them, speak to the devotion and love people feel for their companion animals. The quandary for dog trainers and behaviorists comes when owners speak in terms of fixing problem behaviors, in the same way one might repair something mechanical, such the cracked screen of an iPhone.robot_dog

The term fix implies the dog is broken. A more constructive way of thinking is that the dog, being a dog, has a utterly different way of experiencing the world than you and is behaving in unacceptable ways due to genetics, early socialization (or the lack thereof), prior training (ditto), or traumatic events, otherwise known as single event learning.

Most people have reasonable expectations, but words are powerful. A red flag goes up when I see the word fix in an email (unless of course it’s used as a euphemism for neuter.) While inventive management solutions can produce immediate results—for instance, removing window access for a dog who goes ballistic at passersby—behavior modification takes time, persistence and patience.

I don’t mean to come across as pessimistic about prospects for changing unwanted behaviors. Quite the opposite: a combination of tools, training and (sometimes) medications, can usually help to make life more bearable for our dogs and for us, but we need to get away from speaking in terms of fixing a problem behavior, as if we can push a button to make our dog with separation anxiety, for instance, suddenly not be terrified of being alone. Speaking and thinking in terms of gradual, effectual change takes the pressure off you and your dog.

Sometimes the behaviors that we think of as abnormal—the dog who freaks out when left alone—are anything but. Dogs are a social species, and being alone is not a natural state. We must teach our charges that being alone is a good thing, and the sooner we begin teaching these life lessons, the better. In my 12-step “new puppy” program, the process of teaching your puppy to be alone clocks in at number three.

With so many compassionate people adopting rescues, some dogs are bound to arrive in new homes with separation anxiety, leash reactivity, resource guarding or other undesirable behaviors. Many of these behaviors are instinctual, so the challenge becomes altering the dog’s intrinsic impulses to better fit into our manmade world, a process that takes time. For instance, resource guarding of food is a normal offshoot of an animal wanting to protect that which is rightly theirs: If you kill a rabbit, you want to eat the rabbit, so keeping others from eating your rabbit advances your chances for survival.

You might be able to fix a dog guarding his food with a jolt of electricity, but you run the risk of his becoming even more agitated or worse: If he happens to be looking at your child when he receives a shock, he could become fearful of and aggressive towards children. Resource guarding is better addressed by clearly demonstrating to the dog that humans control resources, that plenty is available, and that he’s always going to be well-fed, so no need to growl, lunge or bite. You’d probably introduce better management as well, such as isolating your dog at mealtime.

Certain devices can, in fact, hasten behavior changes, but these must be used correctly and in tandem with positive training methods. Because they promote immediate control over a dog’s attention and focus, I often employ head collars in training programs to address leash reactivity. But this “quick fix” is paired with positive reinforcement by rewarding the dog for not reacting once the trigger (other dogs, usually) is no longer present.

Celebrity dog trainers on television have contributed to the idea that dogs can be fixed overnight. In a fifteen-minute segment, right before our eyes, with seemingly magical powers, the host rehabilitates a dog, transforming him from dangerously aggressive to sweet as pie. What people fail to realize is how little footage is cherry picked and how much ends up on the cutting room floor. This does real dog trainers operating in the real world—who do not have the luxury of a video editor—a great disservice because it implies that behavior modification is fast and easy.

I encourage you to approach the process of behavior modification with optimism and an open mind. But remember that you and your dog are in this for the long haul, and be realistic about the time and effort it will take both of you, as a team, to figure out what’s possible, focusing on all the positive aspects of your relationship while realistically figuring out how to make it even better.

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Train your wee, little dog as if he were Cujo!

By Jeff Stallings

Small dog breeds and mixes are more popular than ever, in part because they fit well in smaller homes and urban environments. I was always more fond of larger dogs until I volunteered for a few years with an organization that rescues small dogs, where I came to better appreciate the personalities and antics of these miniscule mutts.

Some folks assume that their eight-pound Chihuahua or Yorkshire terrier doesn’t need to be trained because of his diminutive stature, but this mistaken notion does a huge disservice to the dog and the owner alike. If anything, training is more important for small dogs because, unlike a big lumbering Newfoundland for example, they often have energy to burn, and exercising their impressive canine brainpower is exhausting. But, of course, train that Newfoundland, too!


Start early with socialization
How many times have you seen someone scooping up their tiny dog every time another dog enters the picture, in an attempt to stop her from lunging, barking and freaking out? When I see this, I can pretty much tell you this dog’s early history: As a puppy, she was not taken to puppy socials, not given opportunities to play with other puppies, and not allowed to methodically learn the ins and out dog language. Keeping in mind that the primary socialization period ends at 12 weeks of age—go to puppy socials early and often!

The lack of early socialization is potentially tragic for any dog, and no less so if she’s a pipsqueak instead of a pit bull. Oh, and your little rascal should meet 100 people of all sorts before she is 12 weeks old, especially babies, children and big men with tattoos, beards, glasses and hats—like me! (And don’t forget the skateboards, bicycles, buses, trains and wheelchairs.) Did I mention children?

Potty training is a piece of cake
I sometimes field calls from exasperated owners telling me their eight-month-old Chihuahua mix is still peeing and pooping all over the house—and chewing up their furniture, shoes and everything else in sight. I just about scream when I hear this, because it means they have read not any book published in the last 20 years about potty training a puppy.

Puppies, large and small, EARN the privilege of having unfettered access to your entire home—once they have mastered the art of eliminating only in the great outdoors. Until then, they are in a pen area or small room unless they can be watched like a hawk. You must strive to set your puppy up for success, and extending full and unfettered access to your home is a recipe for an exasperated owner and a confused puppy. Each time your puppy “goes” outside, a small but tasty treat is in store. Click here to read my blog post on potty training.

Obedience training for the teacup tailwagger
Nothing makes me happier than watching a calm, well-behaved small dog happily following the lead of his responsible owners. Just because your dog is small, it does not mean that the ability to follow cues is any less important. All dogs—and I do mean ALL dogs—should at least know how to sit, lay down, stay and come when called. I am shocked when I meet older dogs who have not even been taught to sit!

Look, if you want an animal that does whatever, whenever, get a cat. Wait, I take that back: Even cats can be taught those behaviors! If you don’t know how to teach your dog (or cat) these most basic of behaviors, sign up for an obedience class, or hire a trainer to come to your house to show you how clicker training works. If you think your dog is too small or too young to learn anything, take a look at this video that went viral last year, of a tiny young Yorki doing amazing things:

If 20-week old Misa Minnie can learn to play dead and weave an obstacle course, your little dog can at least learn to sit, stay and come. So get cracking on the training: Your diminutive dog will thank you for it!

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Why you should take your urban puppy to socials after just one set of shots

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

(Note from March 31:  Bark Magazine just published this article in the Spring 2015 issues of their awesome magazine.  Click here to view it on their site.)

A few months back I attended a “Dangerous Dog Conference” at the University of California/Davis, during which Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, highlighted a study on the risk of partially-vaccinated puppies contracting parvovirus at indoor puppy socials. The result?

Puppies with just the first set of shots attending puppy socials are at no greater risk of parvovirus infection than those not attending socials. During the study of 1,012 puppies:

  • None of the 15 puppies that contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials
  • None of the puppies that attended socials contracted parvovirus

This UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine study dovetails perfectly with the standard of care recommended by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally encourages puppies to begin socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age and seven days after the first set of vaccines.

It is important to note that structured puppy socials, run by a variety of training and daycare facilities and other pet-related businesses, take place indoors on non-porous surfaces with immediate cleansing of any “accidents” with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as soil, sand and, in particular, dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination!

Some veterinarians, shelters and breeders continue to unwisely advise new owners to wait until after the final set of shots to allow their puppy to interact with others, by which time the socialization period has closed, precluding their best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills. Such under-socialization can result in behavior problems, fear and aggression, which are the primary reasons for relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs.

I do not take lightly that I may be asking you to reject your particular veterinarian’s counsel, but the recommendation that puppies begin socials before full vaccination is supported by the AVSAB as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA and other dog health and behavior experts.


Puppy socials build lifelong skills

Puppy socialization classes do not guarantee that any given dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life and neither are all under-socialized puppies antisocial. In utero experiences, early nutrition and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles in behavior and disposition. But there is no dispute that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves the odds of a raising a balanced, confident dog.

Why is the socialization window so short?
At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human baby counterparts: Puppies walk beautifully at three weeks; babies not so well until after a year. This acceleration affects cognitive function as well, which develops rapidly during a short socialization period that forms the framework for the puppy’s future social functioning. A strong foundation built from a rich set of early experiences gives the puppy more context in which to evaluate and react to future stimuli in the environment, including people and other dogs.

The true socialization period for puppies—during which they readily incorporate new experiences into their developing worldviews that directly effect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Since most puppies remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (that’s a whole other blog post), this means new owners have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunity to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.

Think of your puppy’s brain during these 28 days as a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period”, the first having been the prior seven weeks with the mother and siblings. This is absolutely the most profoundly important period in your dog’s life. Her brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than any subsequent period, and she learns not only to accept being around people and other dogs, but also to enjoy and seek out these experiences.

Learning a new language
While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s openness to learning socials skills is similar to the way young children learn new languages effortlessly. Studies have shown that children younger than seven years old easily pick up new languages because their brains are wired to readily incorporate the words, grammar and structure of multiple languages. Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven years old, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. You can place a 6-year old child in a Mandarin immersion class for a year and she will come out fluent in the language but if I were to attend the same class, I would likely still be struggling with the basics.

The analogy continues in that my Mandarin would improve over time as I became more familiar and comfortable with the language, but I would never be as fluent as my toddler counterpart. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it will take a great deal more time and effort and have a lower chance of success.

For dogs, being comfortable with and understanding our manmade world is a life-long process but the critical socialization period only comes along once.

Socialization…but to what?
The reason I titled this article “why you must take your urban puppy to socials after one set of shots” is that if your puppy is not destined for an urban life but rather, say, the life of a farm dog, socialization to lots of people and dogs is not as important. If your pup’s life will be devoted to managing livestock, this second socialization period would be the ideal time for him to hang out a bit with sheep, goats, cows, tractors, turbines and the like.

But 80% of Americans live in urban areas rather than farms, and since more of us have dogs in our homes than ever before, it behooves us to structure our puppy’s socialization period to take this into account. Our sheepherder probably doesn’t need to learn how to cope with city parks bursting at the seams with dogs. But if you live in an urban area and plan to take your (fully vaccinated) dog to parks, beaches and other dog-friendly areas, you’d best start teaching him early that there are lots of dogs of all sorts in this world. To do this, indoor puppy socials before 16 weeks of age are your best bet.

Puppy socials are just one part of a well thought out socialization plan (I recommend 7-10 socials at three distinct locations from weeks 8 – 16) but they form the cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations are complete per the aforementioned recommendations of the ASVAB. In addition to the socials, a widely-accepted goal is for a puppy to meet 100 people during these same four weeks, including babies, children, elderly folks, men, women, all races, sizes and shapes.  (Make sure a few bearded men in baseball hats gently approach and give your pup a treat!)

One caveat here is that these puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming and not too scary. The actual ASVAB statement reads:

The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.

So while you are your pup’s guardian in these situations and must avoid overly frightening situations (an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance) you must also allow your puppy to venture forth into the mayhem at their own pace. Sometimes a shy puppy will hang back for the first few events, and then become the social butterfly.

Otis emerges on the world stage
My dog Otis was of this ilk as a young puppy, shy and unsure of herself. She had been fostered in a rural area of eastern California, so the sights and sounds of San Francisco were initially overwhelming. At her first puppy social, she hung out under my chair and observed the other puppies playing; I did not coddle or overprotect her. By her second social she was venturing forth, playing for a few minutes, then retreating to her safe place under my chair. By her third social, she was actively seeking out playmates and practicing adult communication behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of these events.

Since Otis was by nature somewhat fearful, I have no doubt that had she not had the chance to come out of her shell among other puppies and to learn and practice social skills, she would be a fearful dog today, potentially aggressively so. Instead she has superb communication skills and is particularly adept at enticing other dogs to play and chase her. She remains cautious around novel stimuli (a strange stack of wood on our street or a kite hitting the beach nearby), but she is most definitely not fearful. Puppy socials made all the difference.

Had I only taken Otis to that first puppy social (the one in which she hung out under my chair, overwhelmed and frightened) it almost certainly would have backfired. She would have learned that being around other dogs was an unpleasant experience to be avoided. She might have become aggressive in trying to keep them away, like the multitude of dogs that have learned to snarl, snap, lunge and bark to keep other dogs from approaching. Instead, by giving Otis numerous opportunities to slowly learn to how to play, she became a world-class communicator.

I bring this up primarily because I recently took a call from the owner of a 6-month old puppy whose veterinarian had advised to avoid all contact with other dogs until fully vaccinated. In this particular puppy’s case, this meant no contact until 17 weeks. With clearance from their veterinarian, the pup finally attended one social, now five weeks past the end of the second socialization period, and it did not go well. The puppy was terrified, so they never went back. Now this young dog’s single point of reference is that new dogs are scary. She trembles in fear whenever in the presence of other dogs, unsure of how to act or react. A desensitization/counter-condition program will take months or years and will never be as effective as if that puppy had been taken to numerous socials while her brain was configured to learn and cope.

Don’t let time pass you by
In the UC Davis study, none of the puppies taken to socials contracted parvo but 15 not taken did. This is not surprising: new owners who are conscientious enough to know about the advantages of early (and safe!) socialization are also knowledgeable enough to avoid taking under-vaccinated pups to dog parks, where the risk of contracting the virus is high.

Conversely, people unaware of puppy socials are more likely to take puppies to places they should not be until after full vaccination, including dog parks, beaches and other porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.

I hope this article sheds some light not only on the advantages of socialization, but also on how such a program can begin early enough to make a real difference in the lives of dogs. In part because the safety and benefits of early socialization are well documented, most urban and suburban areas of the country now have access to indoor puppy socials that require just the first set of shots. This bodes well for the heath and well being of future generations of man’s best friend.

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