The socialization of sensitive breeds

Publicado el 19 de marzo de 2015

Keeping with problems common to sensitive working breeds (typically border collies, Shetland sheepdogs, Belgian and Australian shepherds), there is a theme that began to intrigue me several years ago, there were many dogs of this nature in the hands of competitors or professionals who showed fears and insecurities, which were always blamed on poor socialization.

When the owner claimed to have properly socialized the dog and it continued with these «ghosts», it was put down to:

  1. The owner lying and having not taken it out to as many places as they say.
  2. The owner being a rough guy and having broken the character of those dogs.
  3. With these dogs you know, one always comes out with ghosts no matter how well you do it.

These three arguments are real, and in many cases the dog’s final bad character is due to at least one of these problems.

But at one point, when I got involved more seriously with Belgian Shepherds, I decided to look deeper.

The truth is that there were many people who were working according to what we understand as a socialization model: since the puppy came home at the right age and was raised by a responsible breeder and lover of the breed, they started to take it to thousands of sites and new situations. Afternoons were reserved for going to the airport, neighborhood parties, the mall …

Every day we work to keep our puppy from becoming one of the specimens that are overly affected, and in many cases these concerned owners were professionals or competitors in training, with an above average level of knowledge, experience and involvement.

By making a small census (without rigor of study) between acquaintances I came across a troubling finding: the percentage of dogs with fears was equal among those whose socialization was a model and among those who were at the mercy of God, growing up in kennels or other types of isolation. Always remember that I am referring to individuals of the above mentioned breeds.

This could lead us to think that this problem was entirely innate and what we did made no difference during the dreaded critical period.

But there were two details that told us that this was not so:

  1. The first, more general, were studies in a wider range of breeds showing that isolated individuals had more problems than what we understand as well socialized individuals.
  2. The other was more specific, if we took a third group of individuals of these breeds, which had grown up with an intermediate level of socialization, we found that these were the ones which showed substantially fewer problems.

This group is for individuals who took the dog for walks to the same sites over and over and for less enthusiastic professionals who when they could took the dog somewhere new, but without making it a daily obligation. These were the ones with higher quality of character in their dogs.

Obviously it follows that there is an optimum range of outings to new places, but I was more interested in finding out why, rather than finding what the range is through statistical analysis.

I found the solution in stress studies, stress generates additional activation of the organism. Although this stress is overcome and managed properly, it will require a minimum time for the dog to recover and to get rid of residual stress, this also happens with processes of stress (positive stress, like the type we have fifteen before a date).

By making many trips to new environments, more sensitive dogs undergo continuous activation of stress and when they get to go on the next trip they had still not been able to recover, until it reaches a point where the accumulation of residual stress has the same harmful effect as lack of socialization, and whoever thinks that we do not need to recover from positive stress after a challenging active holiday should remember how they usually need a couple of days of recovery before returning to work.

Therefore we must take special care to let the puppy successfully recover and rid itself of residual stress: playing with dogs or acquaintances in a safe environment, remember that regular (and safe!) people and places act as inducers of calm in social mammals. Furthermore, in the Socialization, continued interaction with known individuals (social group members) is more important than introduction to new environments, and we work as if the main socializing element is to learn new things. Error.

Rest time is also important. Massages help if the dog accepts them (in Denmark and Norway home dog masseurs are becoming common and dog agility competitors are some of their main customers).

With respect to optimal frequency, although the data was collected haphazardly and must not be taken otherwise, we found that two, maximum three weekly trips to new settings is enough and with more trips than that there is risk of excess.

But to play with friends, the only limit is the fatigue limit! So: More park and fewer neighborhood parties (even if there are no churros).

The timing and distribution of activities of those trips is also very important, but I’ll develop that idea in another article so as to not burden you with a huge block of text.


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