First Impressions Count

Socialization is the key to creating a confident dog. Here’s how to do it right.

You’ve probably witnessed the dog on walks that lunges or barks ferociously at every dog he or she sees. Or maybe you own that dog. That poor dog is stressed and fearful. One of the causes of this kind of reactivity is lack of early socialization.

Dogs see the world as safe, good, dangerous, bad, or neutral. You want your puppy to see the world as safe and good. The time in your puppies life when he is most open to novel experiences is before 18 weeks of age. This is the time to get him out there, so go! But do it right.

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Puppies, like children, need to be taught appropriate play skills. This is from our Ideal Puppy class.

Here are 3 great tips.

Tip 1: Use Great Rewards

Pair new experiences with something your puppy loves like food or play. Figure out what his favorite treats are and reserve them for creating strong positive associations.

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Puppy Bryn is having fun at the hardware store.

Tip 2: Ace The First Encounter

First impressions count. If your puppy’s first encounter with something new doesn’t go well, it takes a lot of work to change his mind. Always try to make first experiences particularly rewarding. If your puppy is not enjoying the experience, he will show it by turning away or trying to leave, tucking his tail, cowering,  pulling his ears back against his head, and/or averting his gaze. If this happens help him by giving him more distance or leaving the situation.

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This is Bryn’s first experience with goats!

Tip 3: Timing Is Everything

You should reward your puppy as soon as something new happens, but it’s important that the new thing happens first. For example:

  1. You’re out with your puppy and pass your neighbor’s house.
  2. You see your neighbor about to press the garage door opener.
  3. You wait for her to press the button.
  4. As the sound begins and your puppy’s ears perk up, you treat him with yummy food bites and use a happy, cheerful voice.

The association we want your puppy to make: Garage door noise = Good things happen.

Applying The 3 Rules

New place. Give your puppy plenty of time to explore and get comfortable. Try to get him to play with a toy, chase you, or toss some yummy treats on the floor for him to find.

New person. Ask all kinds of strangers and children to give your puppy a treat before petting him. If your puppy is shy or unsure of himself, have people toss a few treats on the ground or have them stand at a distance while you calmly feed your puppy. You can also teach your puppy to sit (or any cute trick) so you can have people ask your puppy to do something. That stops them from immediately trying to pet your puppy, which can be overwhelming for him. Once your puppy is comfortable, go ahead and let him interact with the new person at his own pace.

New dog. Not every new dog is guaranteed to play with your puppy, thereby giving your puppy a good experience. That means the reinforcement for meeting a new dog needs to come from you and the best time is directly after your puppy sees the new dog. Get in the habit of rewarding your puppy for simply looking in the direction of another dog. Not only will you create a positive association, but you will help prevent all-too-common behavior problems in adult dogs like barking at other dogs while on leash, barking at dogs (or people) when behind a fence, etc.

For how long? This is not just for baby puppies. Continue to build your dog’s confidence through social maturity, which in most cases is 2 to 3 years of age. Is your dog not a young puppy? It’s not too late to get started building more confidence.

Your puppy should be exposed, in a positive and safe way, to as many experiences as possible. Here is a scavenger hunt you can play with your dog. Please share your experiences with us.

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(Thanks, Robin Bennett!)

 

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

A powerful tool to change your dog’s behavior.

This morning, after a ferocious clap of thunder, I was reminded of the power of classical conditioning.  Most of us know the story of how Ivan Pavlov in 1902 showed how classical conditioning can be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell. Every time a bell was rung the dogs in his lab got food. After a number of repetitions of this procedure, the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate even before the food was presented. The dogs had learned to associate the bell with the food. This response was learned, or conditioned, so it is called a conditioned response.

Pavlov also discovered that for the association to be made, the two stimuli had to be paired together closely in time. For all of you science wonks out there, this is how it works.

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Every time your dog runs into the kitchen at the sound of his bowl because he knows it’s dinner, gets excited when you pick up the leash because he associates it with a walk, gets anxious when you pick up your car keys and purse because he know you’re about to leave, gets happy when you pick up the clicker because he knows a training session is about to begin, or growls and barks at another dog because one time he was attacked, are all examples of classical conditioning.

So what does all of this have to do with thunder? In some dogs the sound of thunder may send them cowering under the coffee table. Early life experiences can contribute to sound sensitivity.  Very young puppies have little or no fear of novel sounds and experiences. From 3 weeks to about 8 weeks of age is an ideal time to introduce puppies to all kinds of sounds. Sounds they hear at this age, especially paired with something positive, will most likely not be scary later. As they get older, fear can increase. Puppies that are given early and positive experiences of novel sights and sounds are less likely to develop problems down the road.

Desensitization, gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus while keeping the dog below the fear threshold, is often paired with classical counter conditioning (changing the association of the sound or event from a negative to a positive). Together they can help restore a sound sensitive dog’s confidence. This entails exposing the dog to the upsetting noise in gradually increasing increments while providing him with positive reinforcement such as high-value food.

Here is an illuminating video on counter conditioning, or changing an association from a negative to a positive experience.

So what did my 7 year old border collie Decker do when that loud clap of thunder reverberated through the house this morning? He got excited and began to search for a toy. Odd behavior, right? Nope. From the earliest moment that I brought Decker home, every time it thundered, which is often in south Florida during the summer, I would become very excited and animated, quickly grab a toy and engage him in a short game of tug, one of his highest valued activities. Over a short period of time, he associated the peal of thunder with something fun, and actively searched out a toy to play with me. Preventing a problem, not waiting to treat one, is classical conditioning at its best. Thanks, Pavlov!

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Decker waiting for a toy.

If your dog is suffering from a behavior problem, consult a behaviorist or a trainer who is familiar with working with phobias and fears.