Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

We have met the enemy, and He is Us

The young dog was gaunt, but I knew he’d been fed on a regular basis. Now, in our care, he ate warily but readily, as long as the food was left for him and no one was looking. His eyes darted back and forth, watching everything. He shrank back in his kennel and occasionally we would hear a low growl emanating from him when we came too close. Crouching down and looking over his head was better, but he still wouldn’t readily approach. At one point, I went and sat in the 8X10 run at the far corner, a handful of chicken pieces in my bait bag and a book in the other hand. I would sit and read out loud, and toss chicken in his direction. For the first 15 minutes he ignored it. Growling came and went. I never looked directly at him.

He eventually stuck his slender neck out and snatched some of the pieces hurriedly, fearfully. After a few agonizing minutes he finished the rest, never taking his eyes off me. When I finished the chapter, I stood up very slowly and exited, not looking back. He watched me carefully, but didn’t move a muscle, as I walked away.

After 3 days of this there hadn’t been much change. I was able to loop a leash over his head, and he would walk with me, but it was not a normal walk. He alternated hanging back and forging ahead in an attempt to free himself from the leash. When the door to the outside opened, he bolted through it and stood, shaking, on the other side. I had him out for about 20 minutes, and he never eliminated. I was able to stroke his fur on his side (he started when I touched him, but didn’t move away, so I left my hand there), but I did not try to touch his head. I spoke calmly to him, and watched as he scanned the area hawkishly, his bushy tail tucked between his trembling rear legs. A loud truck went over a bump in the road, and the dog nearly leapt out of his skin.

He looked wolfish, but it was likely German shepherd and some other lanky breeds. Had he been at his correct weight, where ribs could be felt but not seen, he’d have been beautiful. He had what we like to call “human eyes”: dark brown with rimmed irises. His coat was in decent shape, he was neutered, and I knew he’d finished his last round of vaccinations about 6 months ago.

No, Shiloh wasn't some stray we'd picked up on the side of the road.

He was adopted from the shelter as an 8-week-old pup, by a happy couple who had owned dogs before. They were middle class, no kids (yet), and far from ignorant or unprepared--at least as far as shelter personnel knew. There was no reason to believe that this puppy would live anything but a pampered life with them.

But here he was, returned 8 months later, a victim of abuse. Oh, they never laid a hand on him except to pet him (and I know this because they were horrified the shelter staff might assume they had). He was housebroken, but he didn't have much else in the way of "formal training." You might think that's why I considered him abused--refusing to train a social species that hungers for information about how to fit into our world is, well, at the very least disrespectful to dogs--but that really wasn't even on my mind as I sat with him and remembered the wife crying in the Intake waiting room.

"I'm due in 3 months. And I love him--he's very loyal and attached to me--but he is so scared and spooky, and I just can't take any chances with the baby."

Pregnant couples giving up on perfectly good dogs is nothing new in sheltering. It happens a lot, and one can blame them up one side and down the other (I mean, you've known for a while you were gonna have a kid, right?), or even have some compassion towards their predicament, lame as it sometimes sounds, but at that point, it is moot. Cultural traditions, myths, advice from well-meaning people and the glut of information online, coupled with the emotions surrounding the fact that your lives are about to change forever, put seeds of doubt into would-be parents' minds, and often there is no going back.

I didn't fault this woman for the choice she had made. Pregnant couples giving up on perfectly good dogs may not be new, but Shiloh was far from "perfectly good." He was spooky, flighty, and on edge. I couldn't imagine him around a newborn, not to mention all the preparations, and the arrival home from the hospital, and change in schedule, and family in and out after the blessed event. He barely had enough confidence to eat enough to keep his ribs from showing when it was calm and quiet at their home with no visitors or stressful events. A baby in the home would be an accident waiting to happen. I'm childfree by choice, but I know enough to know that nervous, frightened dogs don't mix well with kids, and parents don't usually have a lot of confidence in them--which perpetuates the cycle.

So if they never laid a hand on him or made him go without, how dare I claim "abuse"?

I'll tell you why: he was scared of everything, and not just at first. Shiloh was distrustful even after a period of time had passed with nothing bad happening to him. He couldn't "bounce back" from his fears easily. And while fear has an evolutionary advantage in mammals, an overabundance of fear is not better. It's far worse.

But how is his fear their fault?

Well, the genetics part isn't, at all--they didn't breed him. And though they never laid a mean hand on Shiloh, never yelled or screamed at him, never left him in the cold without food or shelter, never ignored him when they were home with him, and never neglected his veterinary care, they abused him, passively, just the same.

Because Shiloh was never socialized. By their own admission, they kept him inside with them all the time, and during the crucial socialization period that all puppies go through between 3 weeks and 16 weeks of age, when they should be learning positive things about the world, Shiloh was kept from life. They were worried he might catch a disease, so they avoided exposing him to the world. Unknowingly, they took away his ability to develop the capacity to deal with the world outside. Shiloh never went for walks, or on short trips to safe places that wouldn't overwhelm him. He hid in the bedroom when guests came, and he had never seen a child up close. He didn't get to play with other dogs; he didn't attend training classes; he didn't really get to be a dog.

Socialization is inoculation against later fearfulness, and his owners, while meaning well, denied him this vaccination.

And in doing so, they made sure Shiloh would never be normal. Some of his fear was likely hereditary, given his potential breed mix. It was a double whammy, nature and nurture in a negative capacity, and he never saw it coming.

Dogs are social creatures who develop bonds early in life to their own kind and, thanks to years of selective breeding, to humans. It's part of their genetic code to seek a social group, and to seek a place within the hierarchy of that group.

Deny a human child the company of other humans during our formative years (namely, birth to puberty), and the Critical Period Hypothesis says you will get a child that will have lasting damage, including an inability to master language--a result that is not fatal to the child, but certainly increases stress and makes life way more difficult. Puppies go through critical periods of development as well. John Fuller and John Paul Scott, in their landmark study chronicled in Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (1965), said,

Every highly social species of animal which has been studied so far has a short period early in life when primary social relationships are formed…in the case of the puppy, it looks as if a small amount of contact shortly after 3 weeks of age will produce a strong social relationship which can be duplicated only by hours or weeks of patient effort at later periods in life—if, indeed, it can be duplicated at all.

While Fuller and Scott’s study doesn’t say when the “socialization window” closes, other experts agree that it appears to be around 16 weeks of age. Again, it’s a window, so it never completely shuts. But we do know that if puppies are not handled at all by humans before 16 weeks, they will always live in a feral or semi-feral state.

Most puppies get at least some handling between birth and 16 weeks, whether it be purposeful or not. Shiloh certainly had some. But it appears that he—and many others like him, sadly—didn’t get enough. And that’s something puppy breeders, buyers and adopters can change.

Granted, when we compare the undersocialization of human children to the undersocialization of dogs, the latter seems pretty trite. But dogs are everywhere in our society, by our choice, so undersocialization cannot be brushed aside as inconsequential, since it definitely impairs their ability to adapt to our confusing, loud, emotionally-affecting world. And fearful dogs may not want to bite as their first defense, but when cornered, many will.

Refusing to train a dog to understand the rules of our world is refusing to acknowledge the dog's real needs, does nothing to help dogs, and often harms them. It's especially heartbreaking when you know training isn't difficult, time-consuming, or expensive, it need not be harsh at all (it's actually a lot of fun if done correctly).

But forget obedience training for the moment. Not exposing a puppy to what life will hold for him later, even just the basics of people with different skin tones, outfits and different voice tones; loud noises; cars; children; bicycles; and various and sundry things we take for granted every day is abuse. It's setting up for failure a creature that craves anything but social isolation. It seems inocuous, but it isn't. It seems better for the pup to isolate him from possible disease, but it isn't.

The problem with neglecting to socialize a puppy that is hard-wired for it is that once the crucial window closes, experts agree that it is partly closed for good. Yes, it is more than possible to socialize dogs past 16 weeks (it's a window, not a steel door); people do it all the time. But you can't get back all of what you lost. You can help the dog, but something will always be missing: an important piece of the puzzle that is best acquired while the dog's brain is still forming.

My friend Sarah Wilson is an author, teacher, damn good trainer, student of the human-animal bond, and a wise woman. She does her best work with what she calls "deficit dogs": dogs with decent genetics who had a bad start in life, but with the proper training and an owner who looks to the future instead of dwelling on the past, will make progress. Most make incredible progress under her tutelage, and so do the bipeds holding their leashes. (An article from Sarah with ways to help deficit dogs.)

When it's done right, it can be remarkable. The dog may make infintesimal strides forward for so long you think nothing is happening, and then, Bingo! You see a huge success. If you don't push it, more success will follow.

But it's not an easy, or quick road. Socializing and training deficit dogs is a slow process that happens in small fits and starts, and one setback (e.g. thinking the dog is ready for The Big Leagues before he has even started batting practice) like thrusting him into an unwinnable situation, can reverse all the good progress already made. It's maddening for owners and trainers, and sad for the dogs.

Many of these dogs reach a plateau after a while. They hit the ceiling of As Good As It Gets, and they may never get past it. Owners of these dogs must be prepared for that, and all along they've had to be realistic about Fluffy, realizing she'll never be the outgoing Life of the Party they wanted. But that doesn't mean the dogs don't deserve someone who will try. And many people do--because you don't train the dog you wanted to have, you train the dog that you actually have, the one sitting right in front of you, for better or worse.

Shiloh is not a true deficit dog, by my estimation (though time will tell), because he likely has hereditary fear, and no amount of training will overcome genetics. He'll probably always be a bit flighty and nervous, and never really comfortable around men or small children.

When people see his behavior, most immediately assume the abuse he suffered came in the form of a child teasing him, or a man beating him. But in truth, it's because he was never exposed to children, and the only man he knew was the husband, who is short and very soft-spoken. Though there is no way to know, my experience is that what the public wants to see as conditions arising from physical abuse (cringing, submissive urination or defecation, ducking when an arm or object is raised, avoiding eye contact, bolting for safety, or even snapping when cornered) are more often symptoms of a lack of socialization. If your dog hits the dirt every time you pick up a broom, your first instinct is to assume that someone hit him with a broom. While that is certainly possible in dog you have not lived with his whole life, what is more likely is that a broom fell when he ran into it while exploring during his "fear period,"(maybe more than once), or an adult picked up a broom and gently shooed him with it while yelling, and now he thinks brooms are agents of Lucifer. Things learned during the fear periods have lasting consequences, and even if they are not harsh, they can be perceived or "remembered" by the dog that way.

NOTE: I'm not saying that the "guilt" behaviors mentioned above never have roots in actual abuse. It's positively horrific what humans are capable of doing to animals, and shelters in more rural or depressed urban areas see the effects of abuse far too often. But we do know that a lack of socialization also causes timidity to people and objects, and when we know this, we are less likely to spout The Abuse Excuse. When we let that go, we can move forward with the dog.

So what is good socialization? Experts don't always agree on how much puppies need, but most of us agree that many puppies don't get enough. Good breeders (you know, the ones who do health checks and genetic testing to weed out congenital defects, screen buyers carefully, breed for temperament, work with rescues to take dogs back, breed 1 or maybe 2 litters a year, specialize in one or maybe 2 breeds, don't disappear after the sale, don't try to pawn off multiple pups on unsuspecting buyers, and understand genetics and their breed thoroughly) raise pups in the home and generally follow the Rule of Sevens. (Some say that's a good guideline, but may not be enough.) They don't allow pups to leave the litter before 7 weeks at the earliest, and if they keep the pups longer (some up to 12 weeks) they start crate training, housebreaking, and do even more socialization. Good breeders also encourage the new owners to continue the socialization from the day after purchase through 16 weeks and beyond, with suggestions like well-run puppy training classes, and lots of safe visiting in the community.

Dogs born in puppymills generally have little or no socialization because those producers have no interest in the final product, only the money they receive from the transaction. In spite of that, to dogs' credit, some puppymill dogs manage to turn out OK, though that in no way implies that I support anyone going that route for a pup. But if you adopt a purebred or a designer mutt from a shelter, you may be getting a puppymill dog that an unsuspecting pet store shopper could not handle--so be prepared.

It has long been common knowledge to trainers that a lack of early socialization causes problems down the road. A lack of training will cause problems, too, but the "training window" never truly closes, as dogs (like people) are always learning. Many people have adopted adolescent and adult untrained dogs from shelters and turned them into fantastically-trained, outgoing, happy dogs. It takes longer than with a new puppy, but it's more than possible.

Trying to make up for a lack of early socialization, however, is like trying to push string. It takes a lot of patience and time just to get the dog to a place where obedience training can begin. Unfortunately, this is more of a project than the "average adopter" signs up for, and though deficit dogs tend to be very attached to their owners, excessive neediness is not healthy for man or beast.

It is far preferable to set the puppy up for success, so no matter what obstacles he meets later in life, from the stresses of a new baby at home to having to be rehomed, he can acclimate to them. Well-socialized dogs are easier to train and live with, and live less stressful lives.

Shiloh was adopted eventually, by a young man who'd owned GSD before. He and I talked for a long time about the road ahead, and I really think he understood (though it is likely to be longer than he thought). We discussed how to make up for lost time, and how to go slowly, and we discussed the plans he had to make Shiloh's new life better through training and socialization. I told him that Shiloh didn't need his pity--he needed the young man's strength. I told him that his own confidence, plus guidance and structure (i.e., training), would give Shiloh confidence. I told him not to expect miracles, but to shoot for small successes every day. I told him that he couldn't change the past, but he could affect the future--and for Shiloh, a world with less stress and more chances to "be a dog" would be heaven.

Every dog deserves that.


  1. Thanks for sharing this dog's story as well as your thoughts. As the owner and breeder of a fearful dog (though not very similar to Shiloh), I can honestly say that I did the proper socialization and training at the critical period - at least IMO. I don't know if I didn't do a good enough job or if genetics overwhelmed the situation or hell, maybe he'd be even worse if I hadn't done that initial training and socialization.

    At any rate, over time, I have to admit to becoming demotivated and rather resigned to the sitch. It's hard to want to take the dog out somewhere when you don't know what you'll be dealing with and of course when I think "What's the worst that could happen?" - we stay home. Maybe that's irresponsible of me. I hope not. And I most certainly hope no one would consider me abusive or say that I have no one to blame but myself because I bred and raised the dog. I never in a million years would have bred the litter had I had an inkling that one of the pups would turn out like this. Of the 11 littermates, he is apparently the only one with this fear.

    I just think it is what it is. We can't control everything in life and sometimes, despite all our best planning and efforts, things don't work out like we hoped.

    He makes our home life extremely challenging at times - like daily. But we do our best to give him the best quality of life we know how and to make sure he knows he is loved.

  2. Your words - "It was a double whammy, nature and nurture in a negative capacity" define my Lily too.

    It is great to see an article that shows the reality of our world. Lily suffered no direct abuse, she was a backyard puppy locked away from the world, until she was lucky enough to end up at a shelter... then in our home. We were stubborn enough to tackle the tough job of getting her closer to normal.

    Knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I'd want to have a shy/undersocialized dog again. I've learned a lot about shy dogs, training and patience - thanks Lil. I'll still happily adopt from a shelter, but I'll watch for signs of a more socialized dog.


  3. And I most certainly hope no one would consider me abusive or say that I have no one to blame but myself because I bred and raised the dog.

    Unfortunately, some would, but not me. Genetics are way more complicated than most people know. And I have owned dogs that acted fearful and I KNOW they were never abused. I have trained dogs that cowered if you raised your voice 1/2 an octave. It happens.

    with and of course when I think "What's the worst that could happen?" - we stay home. Maybe that's irresponsible of me. I hope not.

    It's not irresponsible; it's setting him up for success. You know his limits, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. When you are working with this kind of dog, setbacks suck.

    And Heather, your comment about doing your best to choose a different type of dog next time is one of the reasons I wrote this article. It's hard to deal with dogs like this for 10, 15, 20 years. It's one of the reasons some people avoid "damaged goods." Once you've dealt with it--especially if you are not a dog trainer--it is not something most people seek out again.

    And for the most part, thankfully, it's avoidable.

  4. Soooo weird - I saw your profile pic and thought you were my friend. She has a tattoo of the Edward Gorey character you have here. Check out her blog:

  5. Thanks! It would make a great tat. My canvas is full, or I'd have already gotten it.

    I only have 5 tats, but all the locations I like are taken. I won't ink myself where I cannot see it, so that limits me a bit.

    I do love Mr. Gorey's macabre sense of humor.

  6. Boy, do I relate to this. My boy Cupid is a shy dog I got (at my local humane society) when he was two. I don't know his history, but his lack of socialization is clear. And to their credit, the humane society did state that he needed more socialization.

    I wouldn't say he's as bad as Shiloh was, but there have been some challenges. And he is my first dog.

    I wouldn't give Cupid up for the world, but I would think long and hard before getting another shy dog in future.


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