The Importance of Socializing Puppies

By Barbara Denzer, Vice President, Cardinal Laboratories

One of the toughest challenges you and your clients can face is training a dog who is afraid of people. If a dog is terrified and cowering around humans, you obviously won’t be able to coax her to pay attention, listen to commands or do any of the other things that learning requires. So before we can begin the training process with a people-phobic dog, we have to rid her of this anxiety.

One of the reasons why a dog might be afraid of people is his not being exposed to many humans when he was a puppy—he never went through the all-important socialization process. A dog’s first 12 weeks of life are the most crucial for socializing, since this is when the pup most readily adapts to new people, animals and stimuli without any trepidation, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB),. After that, most puppies enter a fear-prone period in their development, when they tend to shy away from unfamiliar experiences. 

Noted veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar recommends that puppies meet at least 100 different people by the time they are 12 weeks old—including exposure to a variety of ages, genders, races, sizes, dress styles etc.— so that they learn to accept humans of all types.

Puppies might actually benefit from starting their socialization at an even earlier age—at birth. In an experiment conducted at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, half of a litter of newborn puppies were exposed to a high level of human scent for 30 seconds, while the other half had no exposure to humans. The entire litter was then kept in isolation from all human contact for several weeks. When reintroduced to humans, the puppies who had been exposed to the researcher’s scent immediately following birth exhibited a distinct preference for investigating people as opposed to investigating other environmental stimuli, whereas the other group of puppies showed no preference. 

Studies like this indicate that it’s never too early to begin socialization and why dogs who don’t get sufficient human contact as puppies tend to be the most difficult to break of their fear of people later in life.

 A second reason why a dog might fear humans could simply be his genetic makeup. Just like people, dogs have different personalities, with some being naturally bold and friendly, and others shy and timid. However, recent research suggests that an animal’s DNA code may not be written in stone, but that the environmental conditioning of its parents to become fearful of certain stimuli can actually be “inherited” by subsequent generations.

 A study conducted by Brian G. Dias and Kerry J. Ressler, published in Nature Neuroscience, examined the offspring of mice that had been conditioned to fear a certain odor. The researchers found that the offspring also exhibited a fear response to the conditioned odor, but not to other scents. Further investigation showed that the younger mice’s brains had structural changes in the areas used to detect smell—the surprising conclusion being that a parent’s learned fear can produce biological modifications for this predisposition in its offspring. 

Aside from helping us understand why a dog might be scared around certain types of people for “no apparent reason,” these scientific findings underscore the importance of breaking the inherited phobic cycle through behavioral reconditioning so that the canine doesn’t pass its fear of humans onto future generations.

There’s a third reason why a dog might be afraid of people—he may have experienced a traumatic incident in the past involving a human, such as being hit or harshly scolded. In this case, the animal’s fear might be limited only to people who in some way resemble the individual associated with the unpleasant experience, such as men with beards, young children, people wearing hats, etc. Canines who fear only people with a specific appearance or traits generally are the easiest to break of this anxiety.

Regardless of the reason, behaviorists agree that a dog’s people-phobia isn’t likely to go away on its own. Without help from you and your client, the problem will probably only grow worse over time.

When used properly, reinforcement can be a powerful tool in desensitizing dogs of their fear of people and counter-conditioning them to embrace contact with humans. The most effective reinforcement tools to use in this process are food rewards that the dog finds so irresistible; his desire for the treat outweighs his terror. The ultimate goal is to get the dog so close to a human she fears, that the person himself is able to start giving her treats. 

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