Teen Fears Don’t be surprised by sudden changes in your dog’s reactions. The “fear of the familiar” is not an uncommon syndrome: suddenly, something the dog has seen many times seems frightening to him. Your dog may suddenly develop “teenage shyness,” or what seems to be a phobia, in which he growls or barks at a new object. This is probably a result of adolescent hormones galloping through his system. Teenage shyness can lead to fear-driven aggression in some dogs, so you need to continue his socialization education so that he can overcome a cautious, worried attitude toward new experiences.
Your Reaction Matters. The way you react to any inexplicable behavior on your dog’s part has a direct effect on his developing personality. You will only serve to reinforce his bizarre fears if you are solicitous and reassuring. When the dog is acting out this new terror, your positive attention for a negative action is a reward for it. Instead, just go about things as normal. Use a pleasant, conversational tone to tell him to knock it off if he barks or whines at some familiar object. Your casual attitude neither punishes his irrational behavior nor rewards it with comfort or praise. Dog owners need to ignore the canine melodrama of puberty and look forward to the return of normalcy.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIALIZATION
Early socialization of puppies — getting them exposed to as many sights and sounds as humanly possible — is fundamental to raising a well-balanced dog. A puppy who is kept isolated will miss that developmental period and may grow up fearful of strangers and the world around him. There is also an entirely canine form of socialization that needs to take place at this tender age. Appropriate positive socialization has to happen during the window that opens at three weeks and is at its peak between twelve and sixteen weeks. It is known that between the twelfth and sixteenth week the puppy’s short-term memory starts crossing over to long-term memory and the puppy begins to retain what he is taught — which makes that period the perfect time for puppy kindergarten. There are many behavioral skills that dogs can only learn from other dogs, so puppies need to hang out with others of their own kind. Meeting members of his own species is vitally important before sixteen weeks of age, because those weeks are followed by a “fear period” in dog development that interferes with adaptation and learning.
Pet Store Pups
The puppies that have the most to gain from puppy classes are those purchased at pet stores, which come from wholesale brokers and breeders who raise them like livestock in puppy mills. A puppy raised in that environment has rarely been touched by a person, and if so, it was certainly not with the gentle care that pups need and deserve. Employees cleaning and feeding hundreds of puppies in a farm environment are neither taught nor motivated to treat the dogs any differently than they would chickens or pigs — and yet there is a delicate foundation that must be laid for the powerful relationship these puppies will one day have with people. So if the pups miss it in those vital early weeks, it has to be made up as soon as possible.
ONE TO FOUR YEARS — MATURING AND REACHING ADULTHOOD
Dogs reach maturity at different times, ranging from one year up to four years depending on their size. The smaller the dog, the sooner he enters each phase of maturity. Until dogs are four months old they all follow pretty much the same growth patterns. After that the periods of development vary slightly, with smaller dogs graduating to the next phase of development before the larger ones.
Once a dog reaches full maturity, there is a reorganization of the pecking order: during this final phase of growth the dog tries to show her identity within the pack once and for all. The way your dog reacts when she reaches full maturity will be the sum total of how you and she have handled issues and perhaps confrontations in the stages that led up to full maturity. If you have allowed a dog to reach a “high rank” during the first stage of classification (twelve to sixteen weeks), then you now face the ultimate test: any challenge between you and the dog over who will ultimately have “alpha status” can become aggressive.
The alpha figure in a wolf pack disciplines all lower-ranking individuals who try to take benefits they did not earn. If your dog acts aggressively when you challenge him and you have had him since puppyhood, his personality is a result of how you allowed him to mature. Whether or not there are confrontations between you and the dog at this juncture depends entirely on the type of dog you are dealing with and how you have responded in the past to his demands. If your dog’s instinct is to be passively defensive, then when you confront him he will display total submission — or he may display silly puppy behavior.
If you have a dog who, when challenged, responds with aggression, don’t think of him as being a “bad” or “difficult” dog — he is a high-ranking dog behaving in an aggressive style, protecting his turf. But if he respects you as the pack alpha figure, then you’re home free.
Socialization Issues in Puppy Development
There are distinct “socialization periods” in a puppy’s development that have been studied and agreed upon by most dog behaviorists and trainers. It makes your interaction with the dog so much easier if you know when these stages occur — and what takes place when they do.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY ACTIVITY
Pups that are denied play activity until they are twelve weeks old can develop strange behaviors such as self-mutilation (licking until there is a sore, etc.) to relieve their tension. The further price these puppies have to pay (besides missing out on playing!) is that they learn less well, are more insecure and antisocial, are often afraid of people, noises and other animals and are reluctant to explore.
Play activity during the socialization period teaches a pup to have a soft mouth (the “inhibited bite” learned from his littermates’ squeals when he bites too hard) and how to greet an unknown dog. If puppies don’t play with other pups at this stage, they may become too attached to people and be fearful of other dogs.
ISOLATION CAUSES PERMANENT HARM
A puppy that is isolated at any point during the socialization period will have an impaired learning response: his ability to learn is damaged for the rest of his life. Studies have shown actual changes in the growing brain of a puppy that is cut off from his littermates and people for even one week. Puppies should not be left alone for long periods. They should not be shut away in isolation as a form of punishment when they are developing, because it will stunt their emotional growth.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Part 4: Raising a Great Puppy: The Value of Meeting Strangers
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Copyright © Tracie Hotchner – Originally appeared in The Dog Bible: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know by Tracie Hotchner