Reactive Adult Dogs can still Learn
Luna’s life with Hope and Brian began with great promise. This busy couple wasn’t ready to start a human family but they loved pets. Apartment living made a small dog a good choice. They’re socially conscious people who wanted to make a difference so off they went to the local shelter in search of a pint-sized canine companion. That’s where a 6 month old Papillion-looking waif stole their hearts.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Well, relationships can be challenging, even with man’s and woman’s best friend. It wasn’t long before Luna’s freak-out moments began to consume her people’s lives. Interactions with visitors triggered her to jump back and retreat. When well-meaning dog lovers approached or reached for her she trembled, growled, and dribbled urine.
Hope and Brian believed that exposure to more people would help bring out the best in their new dog so they took her everywhere and invited folks of all descriptions to introduce themselves to Luna. Her reactive aggression worsened. Even people she’d already met several times couldn’t walk past her without her running at them, snarling with bared teeth. At home one evening she took a swing at Hope, who had lovingly leaned over her dog for affection. They felt like they were living with a teacup tyrant. Clearly, they needed help.
A “boot camp” for dogs that advertised their skills at taming aggression seemed like a straight-forward fix but after Luna’s return from two weeks of, well Hope and Brian were never told what, their little girl’s aggression had advanced even further. Only by avoiding Luna could they maintain the peace in their home. By the time this threesome arrived in my consulting office they were a pretty sad little family.
Do you know anybody with a social phobia? Apprehensive when meeting new people? Petrified of public gatherings? Hereditary influences on behavior are a current hot bed of research but so are environmental factors. These include the events that shape the brain, most importantly, through early development. The brain is a “plastic” organ, meaning that its microscopic anatomy and its genetic programing can change in response to life events.
Just think about the human brain. Had our confidence been bolstered as youngsters, had more of us been gently exposed to new friends of all shapes, sizes, and colors at the appropriate stages of our development – would we have struggled less in our adult lives? Leading-edge research indicates that the answer is yes. Appropriate early childhood development can make a huge difference for humans. Proper socialization of puppies results in better behaved adult dogs too. There is robust science behind all of this.
Before moving on to how Luna’s life ultimately improved I’ll share some facts on puppy socialization, an opportunity that was likely missed during this wigged-out dog’s earlier months, specifically her first 3. This is when puppies’ brains are primed and ready to learn that the great majority of people and other dogs are actually safe. This is the ideal time to expose them to as many kind and gentle people of different ages, sizes, and races as possible. Canine toddlers also have a better shot at becoming well-adjusted adults if they interact with other dogs of varying ages, not to mention other species they may encounter later. Casual feline acquaintances are healthy for puppies. Cats who regard dogs with bemused facial expressions are best because they don’t run away and trigger chasing behavior.
This can be a tall order for busy puppy parents. Thankfully, there are socialization classes available that should be started when a canine kid is as young as 7-8 weeks. Leave the nest, get the first puppy vaccination, and start school – certainly before 12 weeks age. There are actually two “sensitive” periods for canine social development. The first is from 3-12 weeks; the second from 16-20.
Research has broken these time frames down even further. Between 3-8 weeks puppies learn best how to socialize with other puppies. Most of them stay with mom and siblings during this time but orphaned, hand-raised puppies have important requirements for – if I may appropriate a human term – a good pre-K education.
There is some overlap. From ages 5-12 weeks puppies are receptive to learning to interact with a variety of members of our species. And from 10-12 weeks and again from 16-20 weeks, they are ready to explore new environments. Puppy class can be just the ticket for shaping a well-adjusted lifetime companion.
But aren’t these youngsters vulnerable to infectious diseases like distemper and parvo? Well, yes they are, but that’s why we have vaccines. A recent study conducted by Dr. Meredith Stepita and colleagues surveyed 21 veterinary clinics that provided socialization classes for a total of 279 puppies. Each “student” was required to stay current on vaccinations. Nobody got sick.
Vaccines aren’t perfect; there can still be a risk but it’s mighty small. The flip side for puppies, loved by overly cautious pet parents who don’t take them to class, is the potential for a lifetime of reactive fear because they missed their socialization window. Children who attend school are also exposed to infection but we get them vaccinated for similar reasons. Life is full of gambles so we pick the safer course.
There is a strong scientific support for puppy socialization. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), “Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”
Socializing your puppy would do more than just improve its wellbeing; it may save its life. By contrast, puppies who spend their sensitive periods in pet stores or stuck in kennels miss out on the social experiences that would facilitate a healthy transition to a lifetime home. Warehousing puppies is a very big mistake.
Little Luna’s history of fear-driven reactions provided solid evidence that her first family relinquished her because she had a hard time getting along well with others. It certainly wasn’t because she was physically sick; she came up clean on my physical exam. Her second chance, with Bryan and Hope, would be her shot at getting it right.
When they enrolled Luna in boot camp training Hope and Brian expected a quick fix for what turned out to be a complex behavior disorder. Punishment simply cannot bring out the best in a dog like this, with fear-driven defensive aggression. What this confused and easily panicked puppy really needed, besides love, was science-based behavior modification. I explained that it would take time, patience, and repetition to help Luna get better. We got right to work.
Beyond the spikes of panic that ignited her potentially dangerous behavior it was clear that Luna was a sweet dog who actually liked people. She desperately wanted to be free of feeling trapped, giving her good reason to repeat her reactive lunging and snapping. These aggressive displays had chased off so many “scary monsters” in her short life that they became her default reaction. It was a self-rewarding behavior because it had always worked; scary people reliably moved farther away. Only then could she feel safe.
Setting Luna up for success would be the most important priority for the rest of her life. This meant identifying and avoiding her fear triggers. Abandoning these situations would be essential because every time Luna’s arousal ramped-up the neural circuits in her brain, that were responsible for her defensive behavior, became stronger and more thickly networked. With more repetition she would react even faster and inch closer to her threshold for loss of impulse control. That could mean human injuries.
Hope and Brian needed specific instructions. We never wanted Luna to perceive a threat. I told her people that no one should ever be allowed to approach, reach for, lean over, or stare at her. Rather than going to Luna, even her trusted leaders were to invite her to come to them for all interactions.
These committed pet parents could still have fun with their dog but they had to remember that size matters. By getting “small” they could avoid triggering an involuntary stab of panic that would cause a rehearsal of Luna’s explosive reactions. If they sat or squatted on the floor this loving little dog would be more likely to approach. When she chose to come to them they would know that she was not afraid. The unhealthy neural pathways in her brain that had carried her defensive responses could be abandoned.
On the other hand, events that could cause Luna to repeat inappropriate behavioral sequences would result in her becoming even more skilled at them. With more practice she would react faster and with greater force. But with disuse these unwanted nerve networks could shrink in size, making it easier for Luna to learn what to do instead of freaking-out. I shared the veterinary behavioral adage, “If it can be predicted it should be prevented because practice makes perfect.”
I passed on a few other dos and don’ts. If guests wanted to interact with Luna they were to sit on the floor, speak quietly, and use a tasty treat to lure her to them. It would be important for them to refrain from sudden movements that could trigger fear. And like any of us, Luna should be allowed to abandon an interaction whenever she wanted.
There was a lot more. I had Hope and Brian leave a 6 foot leash attached to Luna’s collar when she was inside so they could step on it, pick it up, and lead her away from a tenuous situation. Ignoring any hint of tension would be necessary to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the wrong behavior. And, of course, a calm emotional state should be quietly reinforced – at every opportunity.
Luna’s people did a great job of enabling her improvement. As she gradually learned to relax I explained how to teach her to divert her attention from a fear trigger. When they gave the “target” command Luna would touch her nose to a target stick. Her obedience was immediately reinforced with a click from a handy all-in-one tool called a Clik Stik ®, followed by a tasty tid bit. Before long Luna had learned to look to one of her reliable leaders whenever she started to feel nervous. Always equipped and ready to lead their Nervous Nelly through their well-practiced ritual they were reaching nirvana: enjoying life with a more predictable, although still flawed dog.
Luna ended up doing OK but, boy, was it a lot of work. My training in veterinary medicine is all about making an accurate diagnosis and prescribing the most effective treatment. But, gee, we’d much rather prevent the preventable. In my specialty of behavior medicine we’re committed to preventing misery.
There were gifts in this come-from-behind story. Hope and Brian grew closer with their shared mission of investing themselves in the wellbeing of another creature. They knew that they were Luna’s last chance. By making a difference for their dog their own wellbeing was lifted, inspiring empathy in those around them. When they’re ready to raise a small human or two they will know the value of patience. Luna’s challenges will have mattered.
Proper socialization at the appropriate developmental stages really counts but there is more to it than exposure to the right creatures at the correct times. The AVSAB position statement is clear. “Puppies should also be encouraged to explore, investigate, and manipulate their environments. Interactive toys and games, a variety of surfaces, tunnels, steps, chutes, and other stimuli can enrich the puppy’s environment. Puppies should accompany their breeders/owners on as many car trips as possible. These exposures should continue into adulthood to maintain an outgoing and sociable dog.” This builds confidence.
“Classes and at-home training should be based on positive reinforcement with frequent rewards praise, petting, play and/or treats. Positive and consistent training is associated with fewer behavioral problems and greater obedience than methods that involve punishment and/or encourage human dominance. ” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
A final word (OK, a bunch of words) on social exposures for puppies: Remember that just like us, dogs need choices. Carrying or leading a puppy to a person or any creature with a pulse can scare a vulnerable kid who can’t get loose if he’s afraid. Approaches from excited people or rambunctious dogs can also be off-putting or panic-provoking. Let the puppy choose to interact when she is ready. The people your new puppy meets should squat at a distance, with their side turned to the youngster, looking at her with their peripheral vision (no direct staring). The offer of a tasty food lure rewards courage. Gentle praise and petting are high value reinforcers too. And be sure to provide an easy escape and a ready hideout just in case the puppy needs a break to chillax.
Finally, (I know – more words) the calming pheromone in an Adaptil® collar can help reduce the heebie jeebies on the first day of school, throughout the class, or anytime your new baby might get a bit wiggy.
And last, (I can’t help myself) NO DOMINANCE moves. Alpha rolls, pinning, shouting, and physical punishment have no research supporting their effectiveness. In fact, we have ample evidence of the harm these methods cause, especially to a youngster who is trying desperately to comprehend the rules of human engagement. Only good things should ever be associated with human hands, voices, and facial expressions.
I hope you’ve found this this information helpful. You’re welcome to share this blog with any of your dog-loving friends. Each week I share a short video, a podcast, or a blog to help bring out the best in pets and their people. You can sign up at no charge on my website www.drjeffnichol.com. And when you do, I’ll send you my free at-home pet first aid and CPR guide. I’m Dr. Jeff Nichol.