A More Mindful K-9 Socialization Strategy for Rescue/Transport Dogs

I believe we desperately need a more mindful socialization strategy for rescue/transport dogs. Over the decades, I’ve learned a lot about canine behavior and the human-canine bond from my clients. This includes what works as well as what doesn’t. Sometimes people get into trouble because they try too hard to do the right thing. They read so many problem-oriented dog-training books or articles online or watch so many  problem-oriented videos when they get their new rescue puppies or dogs that they can’t remember them all. But sometimes in their desire to do the right thing from Day One, these people unwittingly sabotage their own and their new dog’s success.

The name of one “right thing” that can go so wrong is a familiar one in the training community: socialization. The standard socialization protocol always has created problems for some puppies. However, rescue/transport puppies and dogs (for whom it’s often recommended) seem particularly susceptible to breakdowns in this kind of human-canine communication.

Let’s begin with a brief overview of the original canine studies conducted by John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine in the 1940s and 50s. As the name of the facility suggests, all of the dogs used during these studies were laboratory born and bred. Approximately 300 dogs belonging to 5 breeds—beagles, Shetland sheepdogs, wire-haired terriers, cocker spaniels, and basenjis—were used in a variety of experiments during that period. The one most often alluded to when promoting a vigorous rescue/transport puppy or dog socialization schedule involved puppies born and raised in a stimulus-deprived environment. Not surprisingly, these puppies had a rough time when  taken away from their mothers and tested in a stimulus-filled laboratory setting.

Like the results of the laboratory studies conducted by B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists/comparative psychologists, the public perception of the laboratory results’ implications for their own dogs was based on a false assumption. A fundamental of science involves recognizing the difference between 2 quite different study protocols.  In vivo (literally “in the living”) research studies something or someone in their natural environment or in one that mimics that natural environment as closely as possible.  Compare this to in vitro (i.e. “in glass” or “in a test tube”) studies in which experiments occur in artificial, controlled conditions to limit the number of variables. To use the Jackson Lab findings involving a small population of  5, all medium-sized purebred laboratory-bred and raised dogs as the foundation of a socialization policy for companion dogs was at best bad science.

If I compare the experiences of the Jackson Lab puppies to that of the rescue/transport puppies and dogs I see with over-stimulation stress-related behaviors, the two groups could not be farther apart. These differences include:


One: Unlike the lab-bred pups who were born into and lived in the same stimulus-deprived environment throughout the study, some transport pups have been immersed in stimulus chaos from birth or shortly thereafter. Some puppies and their moms may be captured together and transported to some sort of holding facility. Other pups are born in rescue or shelter facilities to moms surrounded by alien stimuli. This, in turn, will influence how those moms interact with their puppies. And that will determine what  puppy genes are expressed or suppressed.

Two: The rescue/transport animals I see all come from incredibly stimulus-rich environments all over the country and the world. It’s not uncommon to meet dogs who have traveled hundreds and even thousands of miles from their birthplaces. Many of these dogs also have been transported in multiple kinds of vehicles (cars, vans, trucks, and planes) and made stops in multiple different environments along the way. With each stop, the animals become exposed to yet another barrage of alien-stimuli.

Three: Because the laboratory dogs were born into and remained in a controlled environment for the duration of the study, they had reliable reference points, human or otherwise. Although we may not consider those reference points quality ones, they were reliable. The dogs could trust that they would be there. Meanwhile as many rescue/transport puppies and dogs make their way through the stimulus-filled system, no such reliable human or other reference points may exist.

Do these look like animals who need as much novel stimulation as possible as soon as possible?

These differences in the rescue/transport population led me to conclude that, in my practice involving animals with behavioral problems at least, the stimulus-deprived rescue puppy or dog is the exception rather than the rule. Also, these animals’ stimulus thresholds had decreased instead of increased as their stimulus loads continued to rise in their new homes. They may look hyper-vigilant, but they were actually overwhelmed And when this canine mental and emotional state exists, trips to the mall or even just walks around the block may do more harm than good.

Some of these animals do OK and even very well in early training classes. This isn’t surprising because most of them are tough little survivors as well as intelligent. For those who are stressed or come from food-deprived backgrounds, obeying commands for treats is an energy-efficient way to get food. However, when they reached those critical life stages during which self- or other-protective behaviors kick in, they begin obeying commands only when it suits their purposes. This occurs because, lacking reliable behavioral indicators from their people that relieve them of that responsibility, these dogs continue to play by dog rules. And when they do, they use or adapt the rules that served them well prior to their adoption. More often than not, these are rules we can only surmise as best we can  because these animals often arrive with little or no reliable history.

Key points to consider when creating a socialization strategy for a rescue/transport puppy or dog

One. Use common sense. It’s not about exposing a new puppy or dog to as much stimulation as fast as possible. It’s about establishing a quality bond with the dog in which the person serves as a reliable trustworthy reference point.  The more chaotic or unknown the animal’s background, the more time this may take. It’s not something we can buy with treats or cool toys. We need to earn it. And that demands a consistent, committed human response that can be damn hard work. All the love in the world won’t get us through this if those other qualities aren’t present.

Two: Never forget that what we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel around us and what our dogs perceive in the same environment is never the same. Much of what they perceive dwells in our realm of the paranormal; we don’t even recognize that it exists. Because we don’t, the only thing we can do is serve as a good role model, a reliable reference point. Just like a more fit dog would. And that means remaining low-keyed, calm and confident.

Three:  Think small.  It’s far better to do less and succeed than to try to do too much too fast and destroy the dog’s trust. If you think it’s hard to re-teach a new behavior that you botched because you  weren’t consistent long enough, that’s nothing compared to rebuilding trust in a dog whose trust we betrayed when we exposed the animal to a physically and behaviorally painful stimulus orgy. Over-socialization is like throwing a little kid into the deep end of the pool. They may learn to swim. But it will be a long time until they’ll trust the person who did it.

Rarely do one-size-fits-all socialization approaches work because every human-animal pair is different. Rescue/transport puppies and dogs experience all kinds of different kinds of stimulus loads prior to their arrival in our homes. Recognizing this and formulating strategies that make it less stressful for them to learn to trust and take their cues from us is both a reasonable and caring way to help them make a smoother transition. I may not be not as much fun as taking our new pets to the mall or downtown for the street fair, but it will help them succeed a lot more in the long run.


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