The word socialize, as it applies to humans, may conjure a picture in your mind of people gathered at a party or picnic, eating, drinking or catching up on the latest family news.
That's right on target since Webster's dictionary characterizes someone who is sociable as "friendly and gregarious," or "one who takes part in informal conversation and companionship with other people."
But should we take Webster's definition literally when it applies to socializing our dogs? Does allowing your dog to play and interact with others of its kind provide it with adequate socialization?
Recently I was speaking with a student who was lamenting her dog's explosive bursts of aggression toward certain people. When I explained that the dog hadn't been socialized properly as a puppy, she expressed indignation, saying, "That's not true. My breeder told me how important it was to socialize this breed with other dogs, and I've taken him to the dog park every week since I got him at 7 months."
Well, this dog does get along well with other dogs. In fact, he prefers them to humans. But his social skills end there. And because the woman is single and lives alone with few visitors, the dog has grown up unsocialized to men, children or anyone who doesn't resemble his owner. And now with maturity, he has become aggressive and territorial.
Back in 1965 when "Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog" by John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller was published, it was hailed as the classic study for establishing critical periods for socialization in puppies, with breeders using the author's findings as a template to chart developmental plateaus in their litters as well as to outline transitional behavioral periods to their puppy buyers.
But somehow over the years Scott and Fuller's research has been watered down in translation until the concept of puppy socialization has come to mean nothing more to many people than participation in interactive group puppy classes or play dates.
It has also incorrectly led many people to believe that if they follow their veterinarian's recommendations, to refrain from dog-on-dog interaction during the vaccination period (which falls smack in the middle of the socialization period), that they will have a dog that grows up to be aggressive with others.
According to Scott and Fuller, "The period of socialization is critical, since it determines what species and individuals will become the chief adult relatives of the puppy. A puppy taken from its litter early in development and raised by hand will form its paramount relationships with people, becoming an 'almost human' dog and paying little attention to its own kind.
"Removed a little later in the period, it forms strong relationships with both dogs and human beings. Still later it has already formed strong relationships with dogs and its ties with human beings tend to be relatively week."
In addition to defining the socialization period, Scott and Fuller's 20 years of research detailed the other factors that profoundly influence the development of a well-adjusted puppy, such as the role heredity plays on the development of behavior, the importance of sibling interaction and the psychological damage that can be inflicted by taking a puppy from its litter too early.
According to Scott and Fuller, "Emotional sensitivity is apparently a necessary part of the socialization process and this automatically makes the animal susceptible to psychological damage as well."
Webster's definition notwithstanding, Scott and Fuller's research results made it clear that proper socialization consists of more than just a walk in the (dog) park.
Therapy Dogs International will hold a certification test from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 27 at Greenacres Recreation Center. Entries are limited; pre-registration is required.
Call Barbara Lee at 588-0263.
-- Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at csi4k9s @yahoo.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.