There’s a theory that has taken the dog training world by storm over the last ten years or so, and it’s this:
The Theory: your dog should see 100 different people a month (or is it a week? I’ve blocked it from my memory) and some similar number of dogs from 8 weeks old (earlier if the breeder can manage it) to 5 months old. If you do not do this or if you skip a week, your dog will DIE. Or something like that.
First of all, as an introvert the very thought of that many people makes me feel faint. Excuse me, I need to go lie down.
Second off, if The Theory is true, it will show itself in the dogs who have or have not been socialized to that extent. SO! Let’s look at my personal examples.
Lily was a rescue several times over; while she had several families, I know for a fact (because I know those families) that while she saw a decent number of people — kids’ friends who came over to play, the people in puppy class — she definitely didn’t see even 5 new people a week after the first week or so.
Cash I had from puppyhood, so I know exactly who he saw. First, he was with the breeder until he was 14 weeks, so he saw her and her family. (Note he was already almost out of the ‘socialization window.’) Then he was with me. We saw my family, three regular horse training clients, annnnnd… no, I’m pretty sure that’s it. Probably a person or two on walks, if I didn’t do my introvert thing and hide when someone was coming.
Doc was found wandering (several times) in residential areas and picked up by animal control. Between whoever his family was, neighbors who found him wandering, the shelter, and his new families he probably saw the most people of all my dogs. It’s a lot of people. Maybe 100 a week, but that seems excessive.
According to The Theory, all my dogs (except maybe Doc) should be hot messes, and yet they all ADORE strangers, whether those strangers are dogs or people!
The last post I wrote talked about hereditary issues. That’s another factor about whether your dog is friendly or not. Were the parents super friendly? I recently went to someone’s house where they have two dogs, brothers, both of whom are hot messes in different ways. The dogs’ parents weren’t friendly. Neither were the grandparents. I’m going to take a leap and say that probably there’s a hereditary issue there.
Finally, there’s experience. This is what I want to talk about most of all. First, I’m going to posit my working theory. It’s more complex than The Theory, and not as easy to remember. Occam’s razor wouldn’t like it, but I think it’s more accurate.
My theory: genetics and experience combine and each dog must be treated differently. Some dogs will be helped by massive socialization. Others will not, either because it will backfire or because they’re friendly regardless. In any case (and this is the main point of my theory), quality matters over quantity.
Imagine for a moment I have a timid dog or puppy, and I’m out with them. Someone approaches cooing over how cute they are and, let’s face it, I don’t disagree. They’re the cutest. My timid gal drops her tail low and wags. She might approach carefully, or maybe even not approach at all. I encourage her to go forward, knowing she’ll enjoy the pets if she just tries it. She finally does, sniffing the stranger’s feet. The stranger pets her and rubs that special spot behind her ears. She rolls over and we all go, “Awww!” She gets her belly rubbed. When the stranger stops she jumps up, all wiggles, and crawls onto my lap. Yay! Great experience! Right?
Is it? Low tail means they’re nervous and don’t want to engage. A low wag means they have anxiety in this situation — it’s the dog saying, “I’m just a puppy, please don’t hurt me! See? I’m cute!” So my dog was saying they didn’t want to engage (be petted), and were worried, but I ignored it completely and encouraged them forward. Like any small child they don’t want to disappoint, so they got petted. They learned that I’m not listening and they have no choice in the matter. Then they ran back to me for reassurance. Was that really a great experience for my dog? Maybe it ended all right, but overall I don’t think happiness is what they’re going to take away from that experience. And yet, it’s exactly what we all do! I’ve even caught myself doing it, on both ends, and I know better!
Repeat this experience 100 times a month (or was it a week? I can’t remember, I fainted), and classical conditioning takes over. See person, get anxious. Even if it’s ending well, the dog is STILL learning that we aren’t listening and it starts out stressful.
For some dogs, this won’t matter. They’re so friendly and happy-go-lucky that they’re going to find friends everywhere regardless of the situation. (Those dogs are going to like everyone even if they NEVER meet anyone during the “socialization phase.”)
But what if I have a dog who is really excitable? He knows that when he goes out HE MEETS PEOPLE! He tries to jump on every person he meets (I don’t let him), and he’s SO EXCITED he does nothing but wiggle like crazy when he sees new friends! Maybe this will work out brilliantly. Or maybe I’m over stimulating an already excited dog. Now they walk out the door and the brain turns off — THEY’RE GOING TO SEE NEW FRIENDS OMG CAN’T THINK!!1!1!!
Maybe I have a super friendly dog, but in my efforts to meet 100 people day — hang on, I’m hyperventilating — I let him say hi to the elderly gent down the street. Turns out that guy was attacked by a chihuahua when he was a toddler, and when my dog approaches (because, as previously mentioned, my puppy is the cutest puppy ever) he starts screaming and flinching backward. Now my friendly puppy thinks some people might be unpredictable and frightening, and my would-have-been-friendly puppy has trauma. Meeting people just backfired.
But what about those 100 dogs I was supposed to meet every month? In the wild, a puppy would NEVER meet that many dogs. Possibly not even in his lifetime. But hey, we’re following The Theory (and we’re apparently not worried about disease), so we do it. Some of those dogs are over-friendly and try to play, bouncing on my puppy and scaring him on accident. Others don’t want to deal with a puppy and are stiff or even snap to make him back off. (“That’s okay,” the other owner says. “They’re just working it out!” Uh, I wouldn’t let a stranger yell at one of my step kids for mistaking social cues that are above their age level. Why is it okay when dogs do it?) BUT, not all dogs snap, and some puppies play nicely. Then there’s the leash aggressive dog we don’t even get near, who is essentially screaming threats at my puppy from across the street, which is rather frightening. What’s my puppy learning? Maybe that dogs are unpredictable, and even the friendly ones might be too rough.
I’ve over-stated my point, haven’t I? But now you get the picture.
None of my dogs saw tons of people or dogs. Lily and Doc both had issues when I got them; Lily barked fearfully at men, and Doc was leash aggressive toward dogs. Lily had had a pool guy come into the yard and frighten her; I have no idea what experiences Doc had. They both saw more dogs and people than Cash did.
Cash’s experiences with dogs and people were limited to those I knew well, and knew he’d have a good experience with.
I don’t have a big enough sample here to base real comparisons on, but I can tell you this: of all the dogs I’ve trained, whether they were friendly (to dogs or people) had no obvious correlation with how many people/dogs they’d seen as puppies. Whether or not they were unfriendly to people or dogs had a direct correlation to whether or not they’d had a frightening experience as puppies.
Quality over quantity: it doesn’t matter if they’ve seen 100 people or dogs, if some of those experiences were traumatic. If they only see a few people or dogs and the experiences are all great, that’s pretty confidence building!
So kick back. Invite some friends over. Take your puppy out occasionally. Think quality, so that they have a good confidence base to work from. If you want to meet 100 people a month because you have that many friends and you can know that the experiences will be good — and your puppy is down with that idea — go for it! But if you, like me, shudder at the very thought, don’t stress yourself out.
Now, excuse me. After thinking about so many people I need to go relax on my fainting couch.