While each owner may come to a training class with a specific goal, the majority simply want to teach their puppies basic commands and good manners and see it as an opportunity to expose them to other dogs in a controlled environment.
They should leave a class at its conclusion not only with a better trained dog, but with the tools and knowledge needed to help them mold their puppy into a relaxed and confident adult who is comfortable in the presence of strange people, other dogs and distractions. In other words, a well-socialized dog.
But for some owners, socializing a puppy has an entirely different meaning. Taking the word literally, they attend a class hoping to have their puppy meet and greet others in some doggy equivalent of how they themselves might socialize with friends at a casual get-together. At the completion of the class they take their puppy home, thinking they have fulfilled its socialization needs.
Here's an excerpt of a letter from a very frustrated owner: "We had our dog in a puppy class when he was 3 1/2 mos. old. He was a little shy at first, but after awhile relaxed and played fine with the other dogs. He's now 13 mos. old, sits for treats and shakes hands, loves everyone in the family and is good with our other dog, but has recently started growling at people he doesn't know and acting aggressively to strange dogs. We thought we did everything right, what went wrong?"
Although I teach classes and work with puppies on a daily basis, I'm not a fan of the current trend of holding group classes for puppies under 4 months of age (before the puppy series of vaccinations is finished), and I'm even less enthused by the scare tactics often used to get people to enroll in them.
Telling an owner that behavioral experts have found that the risk of raising a fearful or aggressive dog is greater than that of exposing it to a communicable disease in a group puppy class without expanding on that statement implies that socializing a puppy under 4 months in a class is the only way to socialize it. Not true, and easy to say if it's not your puppy's health being put at risk!
That aside, what is bothersome to me is what the owner believed that a class like this would accomplish. Sure, teaching basic obedience commands is not rocket science and can be done within the time constraints of most basic obedience classes, but socializing a dog is different. If the owner was under the impression that a class for young puppies in a restricted location was anything more than a stepping stone in the socialization process, and that a few weeks of play with a "small circle of friends" would sufficiently socialize her dog to everything in this great big world, she was either very confused or misled.
Socialization in the broader sense must be seen as an ongoing process in which a puppy will be continually exposed to anything and everything it will encounter as an adult dog. That means not just dogs, but people; male and female, short and tall and of all colors. Dogs need to feel comfortable around people wearing hats, children screaming, crying, riding skateboards or bikes, and exposed to all kinds of noises in as many different environments as possible.
Although socialization during the seventh through sixteenth week of a puppy's life is crucial to its development, to be done properly it must be continued into adulthood.
I remain overwhelmed by the response to the column about Frank. In writing it, my intention was to offer an educational piece outlining the progressive steps I took in finding a prognosis for my sick dog. But obviously, it had a very different impact on you regular readers. To everyone who took the time to call or write, you have my sincerest appreciation for keeping Frank in your thoughts and hearts.
There will be a Therapy Dogs International Certification Test at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 26 at Greenacres Recreation Center. Call Barbara at 661-679-6438 for details and to register.
Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at email@example.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.