As anyone who’s ever had a fearful adult dog can attest, eliminating an established fear is tricky, whether it’s a common one like thunderstorm phobia or something more unusual, like a friend of a friend’s dog who’s afraid of pineapples. It takes patient, persistent desensitization to eliminate fear, and even when everything’s been done correctly, one startling experience can turn the “cured” dog back into a quivering mess. So, it’s clear that preventing fears from developing in the first place is the preferable option. But how does one do that?
Socialization Scavenger Hunt
I touched on the idea of a socialization scavenger hunt here, but it’s worth repeating: Turning socialization into a game reminds you to keep everything fun and light-hearted with your puppy, while encouraging you to seek out the variety of experiences every pup needs in order to grow up to be a brave adult.
Of course, consult your veterinarian before taking any dog that is too young for vaccinations out in public. Sometimes a doggie stroller or purse-type carrier will allow you to socialize pups before they’ve had their shots. but as a rule of thumb, wait until the vet declares your dog safe at least from parvo and distemper before walking him or her in public where bodily fluids of other dogs may be present. That said, here’s a list of things to find on your socialization scavenger hunt:
- Startle a bird
- See a squirrel
- A parked car
- A moving car
- The garbage truck
- Trash cans at the curb
- Meet a person of a different race than the owner’s (you’d be surprised at the number of dogs who become ‘racist’ because this part of socialization was ignored!)
- Meet a person who uses a wheelchair
- Meet a person who uses a walker
- Meet a person who walks with a cane
- Cross the street on the crosswalk
- Splash in a puddle
- See a statue (Life-size wood carvings scare my Corgi mix, Gus!)
- Walk through automatic doors at a dog-friendly store
- Meet someone pushing a stroller
- Meet a toddler, an elementary-aged child, and an infant-in-arms
- Sniff a garden gnome
- Meet someone wearing a hat
- Meet someone with a thick beard
- Listen to a busker playing a musical instrument
- Walk through a crowd
- Walk on at least three totally different surfaces, like grass, asphalt, and playground sand
- Cross running water
- Hear sirens
- See a horse
- See a cat
- Hear heavy traffic
- See a balloon
As you can see, the possibilities are limitless! Adjust the scavenger hunt list to include common scary things and distractions in your geographical area– like walking on the beach, or in snow. If you’re waiting to socialize outdoors until shots are completed, you can even go out to a toy store and find scary things like a statue, a beach ball, an umbrella, and a hula hoop to fear-proof your dog with indoors until scavenger hunt time.
Proof Against Auditory Fears
Many dog owners have used tapes of thunderstorm noises and videos of fireworks displays with success in treating an established fear. Why not learn from their success and proof your dog against these common fears from puppyhood? Buy a CD of storm sounds and a DVD showing a fireworks show, and get to work ensuring that during storms and the Fourth of July, you’ll have the most relaxed dog on the block.
Start by sitting with your dog on a special rug, with a special toy, and playing the CD or DVD very quietly. Stroke your puppy and encourage her to lie quietly and chew her toy. Do this once a day, for no more than five minutes, and turn the volume up a very small amount each day. You can even add a strobe light once she’s completely fearless with the sounds at full volume! Then, when your pup experiences her first real-life house-rattling thunderstorm, get out your special rug and toy, and she’ll go right to work quietly chewing as the storm rages outside.
The same goes for the fireworks DVD. Start on low volume, turn it up gradually each day. When the pup is not reacting to noises as loud as real fireworks, keep practicing about once a month, and you’ll be well-prepared for holidays. Of course, don’t let this be a substitute for good ownership skills: You still need to keep your dog inside when fireworks displays are happening.
Take “Baby Lessons”
Even if you don’t have or plan to have children, a visit from your nieces and nephews or the neighborhood kids could leave an ill-prepared dog traumatized. From a dog’s perspective, the first child it sees isn’t a young human– it’s a noisy, small primate that makes erratic movements and loud noises, and sometimes pulls dogs’ tails. What an upsetting thing to suddenly find on one’s home turf– and worse yet, your owner is telling you that you mustn’t bite, chase, or urinate on this interloper? From the dog’s point of view, visiting kids are a nightmare.
That’s why a new puppy should become friendly with as many children of as many different ages as possible. Puppies, unlike adult dogs never exposed to children, have an easy time associating children with adult humans. A young dog, like a young human, makes more generalizations than an adult. As soon as your pup has had all his vaccinations, convince a friend with children to bring them to visit.
Your pup should know how to “sit” and “stay” by 16 weeks, so place her in a sit-stay when visitors come to the door. Ask children to stand still, and hand each of them a treat that is easy to hold and to let go of when the puppy takes it. Release your puppy from her stay, and as she greets the kids one-by-one, have them kneel down (if they’re much taller than the pup to begin with), ask her to sit, and give her the treat they are holding.
After a few brief visits from mannerly kids, you can volunteer to babysit, if that’s a possibility for you. Encountering a crying baby, a whiny toddler, or a rambunctious elementary-aged kid is important for your dog’s socialization. If you can’t babysit in your home, wrangle an invitation to a playgroup or to accompany a family with children on an outing to the park.
Don’t forget to praise your dog for calm, peaceful interactions with children, and to remind the kids to end any play session if the dog mouths or nips. Explain that instead of yelling or otherwise reacting, if the dog’s teeth touch anyone’s hands, everyone should stop and ignore the dog completely until told otherwise. Even young children can understand, “If you feel Doggy’s teeth, stand still and be quiet until Mommy tells you to move.”
If socializing with children is done properly during puppyhood, you’ll never have to worry about having a dog who growls at the neighbor’s visiting children or who howls when your brand new niece screams!