My Worst Nightmare...

Published: September 05, 2012
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The other day, I was walking down my street to go out for a run when a large, intact male Rottweiler ran out toward me. He didn’t have friendly body posture. I did what I have always taught children to do — stood still like a statue. He muzzle punched me a couple of times and jumped on me. I turned slowly away to protect the front of my body without saying a word or raising my arms. I felt the wetness of his mouth on my neck, but no teeth. The owner appeared and pulled him away, back into his yard.

This dog is familiar to me. He chased my husband down the street when he was riding his bike earlier this year. But my relationship with this dog goes back over a year. I found the following story, which I originally wrote on October 9, 2011, on my computer. The prophecy comes true…

When I first met Jake, my neighbor’s Rottie puppy, he was 2½ months old. His body language was deferential and friendly (ears slightly back, tail at mid height wagging wildly, soft, relaxed, open mouth). He ran up and let me hug and kiss him. I told my neighbor that he had a beautiful temperament and gave him the name of an excellent dog trainer who taught puppy socialization classes nearby.

The next time I saw Jake, he was 5 months old. He was outside by himself in the unfenced front yard. I walked toward him to take him back into the fenced yard. When he saw me, he tucked his tail, put his head down, flattened his ears to his head and walked toward the house away from me.

The next time I saw Jake, he was 10 months old. He ran the length of the property barking as I jogged down the street. Jake was well on his way to being the dog that everyone in the neighborhood was worried about — untrained, unsocialized, intact, and aggressive.

Jake will come into social maturity soon (1-3 years). At this time, he will begin to show his fear as aggression. It will inevitably be reinforced by the environment (he will growl and the stimuli will move away), causing the aggression to be a well-rehearsed, strong behavior. The worst part of this story is that this could have been prevented with early intervention and socialization. The final blow is that this is a breed that I love. Before my current puppy, Maverick, the only dog breed I had ever owned for 25 years was the Rottie. Rotties are already vilified and hated, and now the stereotype has come true yet again. The aggressive Rottweiler who will eventually bite or maul someone lives on my street.

Clients commonly ask me, "Why does my dog bite?"

Often, at least part of the problem is a lack of socialization. If you never took your child out of your house until she was 2 years old, she might be a bit fearful of new things, right? We take our human infants to all kinds of safe places when they are little, showing them all there is to see. If we did that with our dogs during the socialization period, many behavior problems could be avoided.

"What is puppy socialization?"

Socialization is the process by which an animal learns to relate to the stimuli in its environment, including animals, places, and things. The socialization period for dogs is 3-16 weeks. If dogs are not socialized during this period, there is increased risk that they will have behavior problems such as anxiety. Lack of socialization is also a significant cause of fear and aggression.

Not socializing your dog will predispose the puppy to behavioral problems later in life. On the other hand, studies show that puppies who are well socialized are likely to learn more quickly, be able to problem solve more effectively in new situations, and have calmer personalities, when compared to unsocialized puppies of the same age.

"OK, puppy socialization is important. How do I do it?"

In a perfect world, you would bring your puppy to a socialization class and you would also work outside of class on your own. A socialization class is specifically for pups between 8-20 weeks old. The class is focused not so much on obedience, but instead on positive exposure to as many stimuli as possible. You should also be taking your puppy to a new place two times a week in addition to the socialization class.

If your pup is not going to a class, you should visit new places five times a week. But you can’t just take your puppy anywhere. Until she has completed her puppy vaccination series, she should only be going to places where you can verify the vaccination and deworming status of the other dogs that are there (e.g., dog parks).

Socialization doesn’t simply mean exposure to stimuli. The exposure has to result in positive conditioning and should promote confident, calm behavior. With proper socialization, many behavior problems can be prevented or substantially minimized.

Don’t let your dog become the stereotype. No excuses! Get to work with your puppy!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Murkastyle / via Shutterstock