Why we prefer neutrality, not positivity, towards environmental stimuli in our puppies and dogs, and why you should, too.
The prevailing dogma of puppy ownership is that owners should socialize their puppies and acclimate them to the world such that they see the world as a positive place. In theory, this assuages fears and prevents anxieties. This makes sense, and, in theory, should work.
Unfortunately, we find that:
Not all dogs have the same tolerances for environmental stimuli and may genetically never feel comfortable in all circumstances, regardless of early socialization and...
Learned emotional responses on the far positive side of the emotional spectrum may do more harm than good in some cases.
- Genetic behavior and reactivity thresholds are present in all dogs. Purposeful breeding of dogs aims to change the levels of different behaviors (aggression vs. tolerance, high reactivity vs complete neutrality to stimuli, etc.). It's the reason not every breed can be utilized as police or service dogs, and why not every individual of that breed can be. There are certain individuals, even in the breeds best suited and best bred for certain work, that simply cannot handle all or some form of the work - genetic fearfulness of certain stimuli, too high strung, not active enough, too independent, not independent enough, unable to withstand pressure or control, etc. Because of the variances in genetic predisposition to environmental stimuli, attempting to provide wholly positive experiences during early socialization can sometimes increase fears or anxieties.
- Some breeds, and certain individuals, can be what is called "overly social". These are the dogs that love everyone and everything. The problem? If you have created an environment during early socialization that promotes playing and attending to other people and dogs at your puppy's every whim, because "it's good that he wants to say hi", you create a pattern of behavior from the dog that turns every other person and dog into a major competing motivator.
When we raise puppies to view the world as neither positive nor negative, we raise dogs that have high thresholds for environmental stimuli.
The foundations of all of your behaviors rely on your puppy understanding boundaries, trust, and obedience of permission.
Boundaries in young puppies will not, against many people's beliefs, destroy drive or ruin your performance dog.
What boundaries mean to us:
- The puppy is set up for success- it wears a harness and long-line when in an unenclosed environment or environment with a lot of stimuli. The puppy should be engaged in an activity with its handler (does not need to be strict, just play/engagement activities). The puppy should be learning to be attentive, regardless of where it is. The line prevents the puppy from performing self-enriching activities or inappropriate behaviors, and keeps it safe, since no puppy has a perfect recall.
- Puppies are socialized with other puppies and tolerant, but non-permissive, older dogs. This helps the puppy learn dog body language, bite inhibition, appropriate play instigation, and how to control itself when faced with adversity from another dog. As owners, we don't allow the puppy to pester other puppies or dogs; we remove the puppy from the situation to prevent habituation of inappropriate play style or responses.
- The puppy is not allowed free reign of the house- it is acclimated to a crate, kennel, and x-pen, especially a crate for future veterinary or travel needs. This prevents inappropriate behaviors and teaches the puppy that just because it is confined does not mean the world is going to end. Pacifying enrichment toys should be provided for the puppy during confinement to attempt to prevent barking, chewing, or otherwise self-pacifying inappropriate behaviors.
- Pre-determined one-on-one training, engagement, and play sessions, rather than allowing the puppy to determine when and how it wants to engage, teaches the puppy that the game is with you, and engagement and enrichment come from the handler.
Of course, allowing the puppy its own time to digest the world in its own way is required. Constant engagement and requirements of attention are not possible and not necessary.
Explorations should be supervised to assure the puppy is not performing inappropriate behaviors (doing things they'll have to unlearn later) and being there to support them if they have difficulty with a certain activity or stimulus.
That brings us to...
Any time your puppy is faced with a challenge, obstacle, or fearful situation that is aided, conquered, or mitigated by your presence, you are building your puppy's trust. This trust is a major building block of a solid partnership between you and your dog- later in life, you will trust the dog to be obedient and perform behaviors when prompted and the dog will trust that what you say is in its best interest.
Trust of behavior criteria and reinforcement/punishment markers:
- Dogs understand desirable and undesirable behaviors based on a number of factors, all of which boil down to consistency on the part of the handler and immediate environment.
- If the dog is always allowed to do something, and then is corrected for that behavior, the dog will begin losing trust in the handler- what was at once permissible is now, without warning or understanding, impermissible. The aforementioned boundaries prevent the puppy from learning undesirable behaviors that will require unlearning later and, thus, keep that factor of your trust intact.
- Your learned behaviors and reinforcement/punishment markers ("yes"/"good"/*click*/"no", etc.) are the building blocks of behavioral trust. Reinforcement markers ALWAYS mean the behavior was desirable; punishment markers ALWAYS mean the behavior was undesirable. If your dog knows "yes" as a conditioned reinforcer and you say "yes" when it performs an undesirable behavior, do not be surprised when the behavior is repeated. Mistakes happen- limiting those mistakes helps solidify your puppy's trust that what you say is what you mean and the consequences of its actions are known and discrete.
Situations that have the potential to lose or destroy trust:
Unsupervised play with other dogs (left alone together in the house/yard):
- The puppy may be put in a situation that makes it feel that it must defend itself, OR, the puppy is overbearing with the other dog and may be harshly corrected for improper play or instigation. Both of these situations can result in learned fearful emotional response to other dogs and/or injury or death to one or both dogs.
General-use dog parks and daycares:
- Most dog parks fall under the general use category- this is not referring to pay-to-use training spaces or areas where the owner and known friends appropriately expose their puppies to other puppies/dogs with proper socialization techniques.
- Dog parks are typically hotbeds of unsupervised or under-supervised play behaviors, unknown behavioral characteristics of the dogs involved, and dogs of different play styles. Because of the volatile nature of dog parks, puppies are very much at risk of learning inappropriate dog behavior (positively learned or fear-based) and aggression from other dogs because of their underdeveloped play styles and behaviors.
- Daycares typically contain the same dangers as dog parks with the usual perk of having less instances of infectious diseases. Daycare personnel should not be considered canine behavior experts and the ratios of dogs-to-personnel is typically inadequate. While adult dogs may fair better in daycares than dog parks, the risks remain the same. Because you are not there to directly supervise, your puppy may have inappropriate or fearful responses to situations and you will not be there to remove them or mitigate the damage.
- There are GREAT trainers out there that thankfully give up their time and home to work out the kinks of your training process, be it for reactivity issues, inability to appropriately socialize in your home environment, or more advanced training for sport. These are not the trainers this section refers to.
- Be extremely cautious when considering sending your puppy to a board-and-train facility. It is recommended that you tour the facility prior to sending your puppy. Have a meeting with the trainer, in person if possible, to discuss your specific goals and expectations, and any problems you are currently facing with your puppy. Assure that the trainer utilizes foundational and behavior modification techniques that you are comfortable with. Never leave your puppy in the hands of someone you are uncomfortable with.
- Ask for references from your trainer and/or note public reviews if the business is open to the public. What a trainer does behind closed doors is privy to no one. The successes, or failures, of their previous clients will give you an idea about what you will get out of this. This is a business transaction, but remember that the sanctity of your future relationship with your dog is in the hands of this person- dogs coming out of the facility less confident, flatter, or with obvious fearful responses are indicative of a trainer you want to stay away from.
- Remember that board-and-train facilities take you completely out of the picture- you should trust that the person you are leaving your puppy with would do BETTER than what you would have done for your puppy. If this is not the case, do not leave your puppy with them. Just because those 7-14 days may make your life slightly easier, they may spell disaster for your future relationship and training goals in the wrong hands.
Situations where the handler is unresponsive to the puppy's needs:
- The aforementioned scenarios indicate the necessity of owner supervision during play and socialization experiences. Even if you avoid those pitfalls, you are still the most important piece of the socialization puzzle.
- When out and about with your puppy, be aware not only of the immediate environment but also your puppy's attitude. Curious puppies should be allowed to explore, test, and observe what they are interested in, within boundary limits. Shy or unsure puppies should NOT be pushed into situations where they are uncomfortable. Keeping the environment safe and letting the puppy learn on its own that what it fears won't harm it leads to a greater degree of self-confidence.
- Do not be dismissive or punishing toward fearful or inappropriate reactions to stimuli- remember that reactions need only be neutral, your puppy does NOT need to love everyone. Pass-the-puppy is a great game for most puppies but not all; fearful or reactive puppies should experience positive stimuli in the face of fearful stimuli. A fearful puppy repeatedly put into fearful situations will not yield a confident puppy.
Every time your puppy encounters stress and is able to get past it with your help, you have put another notch in your "trust belt". Every time your puppy encounters stress and you are not there to help it or you are dismissive of its emotional state, you lose a few notches in your "trust belt".
Trust is much harder to win back than build upfront- do what you can to prevent loss of Trust.
Obedience of Permission
This is a term that we have coined that resonates to the deepest meanings of relationship and understanding between dog and human.
"Obedience of permission" is the dog's understanding of freedom- how to keep freedom and how to lose it. It is the dog equivalent of a curfew- if they're 'home before 9', they keep their freedom, if they 'break curfew', they lose that freedom until they prove they can be trusted again.
How does this work, since dogs don't speak English and cannot rationalize their behavior? This works by remaining consistent (maintaining clear criteria of behavior) and preventing habituation of inappropriate behaviors.
- Puppies learn that they can access freedom (on a long line) if they remain respondent to the handler. Behaviors such as the recall cannot be ignored (due to the long line) and inappropriate behaviors are mitigated (running off, ignoring commands, etc.). As the puppy grows, it knows a) recall is non-optional and always results in a reward, therefore there is no reason to not come back and b) the game always starts and ends with the handler and with engagement. Inappropriate behaviors are never allowed, meaning there is no need to use harsh corrections with the puppy (keeping things fair, since the behavior is not generalized). Because the recall remains consistent and successful, the handler needs to use much less, if any, pressure to proof the behavior as the dog matures.
- Puppies learn that they can gain access to the house if the rules are followed. They are provided with appropriate chew toys such that they do not need to chew on inappropriate items. They are supervised to redirect inappropriate activity back to appropriate activity. They are tethered or otherwise confined to a given area to maintain supervision, giving them the perception of freedom with easily maintained boundaries. Because inappropriate behaviors are not habituated and desirable behaviors are rewarded (through permission to proceed and inherent reinforcing characteristics of the behavior), the puppy grows into an adult that is permitted to access the house because it has learned the rules.
- Puppies learn that they can access what they want through appropriate behavior. Want to say hello to another person/dog? Wait until permission is granted. This is done through preventing inappropriate greetings and teaching permissive commands ("go say hi"). Inappropriate, self-rewarding behaviors such as jumping up, tackling, or running up to an non-reciprocating human or dog, are blocked and prevented from happening, preventing habituation. The puppy learn that self-control and capping of its immediate behavioral response is rewarded with what it wants (a utilization of the Premack Principle). When we do this with puppies, we create dogs that recognize excitable stimuli and immediately neutralize their behavioral response to it (understanding that they may internally be in a highly excited state).
This system of behavior generation and modification relies entirely on the foundations of boundaries and trust previously mentioned.
Once a dog has gained access to a privilege, it should be continuously monitored for adherence to the rules that surround that access. If rules are broken, the privilege is revoked and remedial training should take place.
Neutral vs Positive
So why do we want a neutral dog, and not a dog that loves everyone and everything?
- Not all dogs are genetically predisposed to wanting to love everyone and everything. Expecting that out of every puppy you raise will only lead to disappointment and unfair expectations of behavior from your dog.
- Positive dogs provoke responses from other dogs. These responses can be on the far positive side of eliciting play or the far negative of eliciting fearful reactions. They do this simply by paying attention to other dogs- staring, barking, movement with energy directed at the other dog, and (most dangerously) running up to the other dog. The attempt to provoke a response from another dog is inappropriate and can be detrimental to both parties.
- Our world of dog ownership is evolving faster than our expectations of our dogs' behaviors. The pet industry is booming, with dogs being one of the most popular of pets. There are dog-friendly restaurants, dog-friendly stores, dogs-only airplanes, dog-friendly beaches and parks and towns and malls and ..... The list goes on. But for every dog-friendly 'something', there are people, cities, and other dogs that are anything but. If we all want to exist in a world where our dogs can go everywhere with us, then we must be responsible for their behavior. Just as we humans are generally neutral to most other people we meet- we don't run up and hug them or punch them in the face- our dogs, that we choose to share all facets of our lives with, must meet the same criteria.
- Right now, our dogs are still living under the "do your best to make friends" doctrine of socialization. To be respectful of their fellow canine citizens, and for us humans who take them everywhere to be respectful of our fellow human citizens, we must change that doctrine to "do your best to be respectful".
This does not mean that our dogs should not have "doggy friends", it does not mean that they are not allowed the freedom to run off leash, it does not mean that they can't greet people, they just need to do so respectfully.
Not only does neutrality create an optimal citizen, it brings along additional benefits for the sporting or working dog. The dog:
- ... is less distracted by external stimuli and is more responsive to its handler in training and in the field.
- ... understands boundaries and trust principles, thereby learning behaviors quickly and efficiently with limited to no conflict.
- ... understands principles of generalization and is more efficiently proofed.
- ... has been introduced to small amounts of stress early on, has learned to overcome it, and therefore is more resilient to stress as an adult.
- ... is a positive representation for the organization it represents.
Questions or comments? Want to register for a class?
(Applicable classes to this post are the AKC S.T.A.R. Puppy and AKC Canine Good Citizen courses.)