I'm just going to say it. Puppy class isn't for every puppy. Are you shocked that I said that? Well, don't be and here's why. I know that puppies, like humans, are influenced by the environment and their genetics. Everything I presented in last week's blog post was about environmental influences, not giving much consideration to how genetics plays a role in the way puppies learn. Some puppies are born more tentative, timid, and hesitant. While this might be considered a fault, it is nonetheless true. I've met hesitant puppies that came from breeders, and hesitant puppies that came from the shelter or a rescue group. A dog's parents' behavior affects them; fearful moms can produce fearful puppies. While we can certainly look at lineages and the genetics of behavioral traits in purebred dogs from breeders, this becomes much more difficult when puppies and dogs are acquired from shelters and rescues where we don't know the parent dogs, siblings, etc. Where it has been studied, however, we do see direct connections. Litters of puppies born to shy moms are shy as well. There may be one or more siblings who are a bit more "outgoing," but the litter as a whole is often described as "self contained" or "thoughtful." You can use any words you want, but "self contained" and "thoughtful" are often just nice ways of saying shy or timid. And that's okay. Not every human is outgoing and social either! It just means that traditional training methods and big puppy classes may not work for every puppy. Not only may they not work, they may actually be harmful. If your puppy is a social butterfly, then those puppy classes and exercises I presented last week will work great. Even if they don't attend class and aren't meeting new people, they will still be social butterflies when SIP is all over because that's who they were born to be. If your puppy is timid, shy, or fearful, however, they likely won't, regardless of what you do in terms of this type of socialization.
For those of you with puppies who are more tentative and fearful, here's what you need to do. You need to get your puppy focused on you. You are their lifeline, the source of everything good and safe in the world. When they are out in public, don't try to cajole them into seeking attention and validation from other people. They should get their reinforcement from YOU! If you make yourself the most valuable thing in their environment, they won't go looking to others, they will learn to ignore all of the noise and distractions as those things don't bring them comfort and joy. You do. Forcing a shy puppy to be petted, picked up, etc. by strangers can just reinforce their fear and make them trust you less for making them do it. All that stranger handling can result in a puppy who is afraid to be handled by strangers (vets, groomers, etc.) and behaves aggressively to defend themselves. Keep the focus on you. You should be able to handle your dog effectively, and your puppy will learn that routine handling isn't something to be afraid of. And most importantly, play with your puppies! So much learning happens during play. Play games of fetch, games of find, tracking games with a flirt pole, etc.
Those exercises I suggested with different surfaces, noises, etc. can still be done with a timid puppy, but they might be done later in development once they've aged a bit and learned to trust that you will keep them safe. Some puppies might be closer to a year old before they can successfully navigate all of those textures without panicking. Practice confidence building exercises with your puppy that focus on exploring, sniffing, etc. instead. You want learning to be fun for your puppy, timid or not. Don't push them beyond their comfort level and ALWAYS make sure that they can see that you've got their back.
Training is not "one size fits all." If classes or exercises don't feel right for your puppy, don't do them. Humans have learning differences and so do dogs. We are all mammals, after all. You simply must take your puppy's genetics and personality into consideration when you are determining what is best for him. Don't let other dog owners guilt you into doing things you know will scare your puppy and potentially ruin your bond. I've seen enough dogs whose owners socialized them like crazy as puppies turn into aggressive dogs to know that pushing dogs to socialize who really don't want to, doesn't make them better at socializing. It can just make them more unpredictable because they don't trust their owners to keep them safe.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Ozzie was a timid puppy. He trusted us, but he was wary of strangers. While he loved other dogs, their people made him anxious. We never forced him to socialize, but let him figure it out on his own terms. To this day, we allow him to choose whether he wants to socialize with people or not. Not everyone gets to pet the "Lassie dog," but they can pet his companion, Desi, who loves all of that attention. Needless to say, Ozzie is thriving during SIP and Desi is going through socialization withdrawals!