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.


  1. This is very timely for me to read. My dog, rescued from the streets of Thailand is bright and loving. He had never before been exposed to cats, but with mine, he does well.

    He is now 1 year and 10 months old (assuming the rescue records are correct.) He was rescued in Thailand by the Soi Foundation. I was very favorably impressed by his medical records and his physical/emotional condition on arrival. He also seemed to have been well socialized with other dogs. Soi identified him as “collie-shepard”. He does have strong herding instinct, so at least one of those is probably in his mix, but he looks like a long legged fox or Sheba Inu, but with with a coat that has the sort of teflon-like texture of a golden retriever. Also, on the web, among the many varied photos of dingos, I found one that looked very similar to him.

    In the beginning of our relationship, 4 months ago, when I picked him up from the airport, he attached well and was very cooperative. He still is for the most part. But there are exceptions and your explanation: “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.” helps me understand, I think. The difference is that his undesirable behavior is not protective of himself or anybody. He is almost perfect at home. He obeys all commands and comes when I call. But at the dog park, he ignores commands except when he is on leash. On leash, most of the time he is very obedient. (Unless approached by a dog that wants to play; then he jerks and pulls.)

    Originally, when I took him to the dog park, he played rough with other rough playing dogs, no matter their size, and was gentler than now with more timid dogs, both large and small. But now, he will leave a dog who can give and take rough play to run down a more timid dog. As you say, this knowing who will be more timid is at the “paranormal” level. Yesterday, he left what, otherwise, would have been satisfying rough-and tumble to make a hundred-yard-dash (distance probably close to literal) to a more timid dog. He then proceeded to run him down, barking and play growling (mouth open, lips not peeled back as in threatening growl). He would have continued had I not arrived to step on the long line I am now keeping attached for that purpose when he is at the park. “Leave it” and “No” seem not to be heard or simply ignored. Once a dog is down, he circles, barking and play growling, and won’t let him up. Once when a dog was especially submissive, probably in shock, before I got to him, I saw him gently mouth its thigh. No harm was done as I let him know he was on leash and pulled him away.

    Once I have him under control, I tell him “NO!”. (the same “NO” he has been ignoring until he felt the leash.” Then, I walk him away and put him through commands on leash so there is something to praise. I also have simply walked him straight out of the park to the car, cutting short the park stay while disallowing any loving greetings by other dogs’ owners with whom he is especially popular. However, so far my interventions have not impressed him sufficiently to dissuade the behavior.

    For a week, maybe, it seemed to work to keep him leashed until a dog with whom he was well matched was available for play, but that may only have worked because there were no timid dogs available to harass.

    This behavior seems to be escalating. I surmise it is an instinct. Do you think he can be trained not to do this behavior, or will I simply have to keep him leashed in environments where this can occur? Any suggestions will be GREATLY appreciated.

  2. I think at least improvement is always possible. However, it will take a lot of time and consistent effort on your part. There’s an old saying, “You can’t change genetics and environment.” But we now know it is possible to change genes–or at least their expression. And environments can be changed even more easily. The challenge with rescues is the often appalling lack of reliable history that includes not only that which occurred before the dog entered the rescued system but also during it. For example, if your dog came from semi-solitary scavenger roots, then tolerance for other dogs as sources of protection from large predators (i.e., human) and warmth in cold weather would be the limit. If his mom was living under street or other stressful conditions, at best any maternal care would have primed him to survey in that environment. He may never have learned to play properly with other dogs and consequently may not give the normal play cues. Dogs who can’t figure out what he wants and avoid him then become his targets. This assumes he really does want to play rather than force more timid dogs to submit. One big problem with dog parks is that there’s often a changing population of dogs. As a result, there’s no stability. In situations where a dog may not fit in by virtue of past history or experience, this can be more stressful than relaxing. As the dog becomes more stressed and his stimulus threshold lowers, the probability of something negative occurring increases proportionately.

    Also re: your dog obeying very well at home or most of the time. You just described many dogs from all sources. The reality is that there’s no reason for a dog *not* to obey when obeying doesn’t really matter. Not only do many dogs enjoy using their minds, if there’s a treat involved most dogs consider that an added plus. However, it’s not a good indicator of what the dog will do outside of that environment. Hence the difference between a well-trained and a well-behaved dog. A well-trained dog will obey 90-95% (and sometimes more) of the time. But in the small percentage of the time when it really matters–such as when the dog sees a dog or other animal or person and wants to go after them–these dogs ignore the owner. Compare this to a well-behaved dog whose response to commands under more relaxed circumstances made me more relaxed too, who instantly acknowledges a serious command from the owner and stops and obeys immediately.

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