I hear this all the time from pet parents of adopted, foster, and rehomed dogs- in fact, I heard it today. I hear it so often that I wanted to talk about why our pets behave the way they do – it is soooo important. Although abuse does occur, it’s not as common as you would think, in fact, it could just be that he or she was never exposed to the right types of human contact as a puppy. “Oh, but doc- he hates men.” Again, it’s not necessarily physical abuse that occurred, but just a lack of exposure to this situation, causing the behavior. A lack of exposure to a variety of people before 12 weeks of age can result in fear of unfamiliar humans. By the same degree, it is being raised by an anxious or timid mother can results in puppies who are more withdrawn.
What we have learned more recently from the board of Veterinary Behavior, is that socialization plays a huge role in the outcomes of our patients. Doctors often talk about vaccine and deworming schedules, but are we talking enough about the critical role socialization plays in our pets? While I will often bore new pet owners with instructions on how to socialize their pet, I believe Veterinary medicine needs to tackle this even more. The most critical period is roughly 3 weeks to 3 months of age. Let’s say you have a pet with very limited exposure to others or spends all its time with one caretaker – this patient is very likely to shy away from any open hand of a stranger. In fact, it may have a more adverse response to certain body types, smells, or even hats and uniforms (!) depending on its level of exposure or contact.
Dr. Cooper, what can I do?
Positive social interactions during the critical period (often before we get our pets) are crucial. These patients are less likely to be rehomed, less likely to roam or end up at the shelter. This is why service dogs have very intentional puppy rearing programs. If you searching for a new puppy, the ultimate combo is going to be a young puppy from 8-10 weeks of age, with temperament tested parents, selected from an experienced breeder to guide the process of socialization and desensitization from birth. Obviously, this is not how life works out – I have 2 rehomed dogs, both that have had to work through significant socialization issues, but are both have become loving companions in their own ways!
But what about my rescue dog, will he always be scared of strangers?
An older dog that lacks these experiences will often improve when we give them the feedback and positive social interactions that they need. The problem is that there is too much stress, noise, and other factors to accomplish much while they are at the shelter. The result is that often our patients are then rehomed- from there, it is an uphill battle to re-socialize him. It takes time and commitment to help retrain his brain on how they should respond to the world around them. Remember, slow and steady wins the race – you want every possible interaction to be positive, and you want to not overwhelm them with too much stimuli (like a dog park or doggie daycare) at the beginning.
The best tip I give my clients is one that as an experienced owner, trainer, and veterinarian, we all have to work on this one. Remember that saying “its okay, it’s okay, don’t be scared” while petting them, is just like saying ‘it’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to be scared’– which, unfortunately, really is just the opposite of what we want them to learn. Tricky stuff, right?! So instead, we want to gradually redirect their behavior with training while they are given time to gain trust and acceptance to their new surroundings! If you are experiencing a behavioral hiccup with your puppy or adult dog, or you think your pet may be giving off some awkward anti-social ques – please reach out! This is a huge part of my practice, and we WANT to see your pet as happy and healthy socially as they are medically!
Dr. Jenna Cooper