November 22, 2008

Dear Mr. President-Elect

You have a month and a half.

That's it: maybe six weeks. They'll go by like lightning. Use them wisely, and we'll rejoice. Not so wisely, and you'll fail to provide the optimal foundation for your new puppy's life. Even worse, you'll have a dog's lifetime to regret your failings.

Cabinet appointments? Forget 'em. [ For a minute, anyway.] I'm talking about socializing your puppy. Nothing, but nothing is more important.

"Oh, that!" you say. "Of course we'll socialize our dog."

Forgive me, Mr. President-Elect, but I said socializing your puppy.

Beyond 12 weeks, it's rehab, it's a wild goose chase, it's closing the barn door after the horse has not merely escaped but has disappeared for good. After 12 weeks you can call it whatever you like, but it isn't socialization.

I can't begin to tell you how important this is. You have until the puppy is 12 weeks old, maybe 14 weeks if you're lucky, to help him become the most happy, friendly, confident, and above all safe dog to be around, for the rest of his life and a good deal of yours.

And that's what every president needs, right? The last thing you want is a dog that will bite well-meaning reporters, or cower when foreign delegations arrive in unfamiliar outfits, or bolt in panic at the sight of an umbrella, or, God forbid, growl and snap at the poster child in a wheelchair or the elderly dignitary leaning on a cane.

So here's the drill, and it's a simple one: your pup must meet one hundred [very different] people by the time he's 12 weeks old. Friendly people, it goes without saying.

People of every size, shape, color and language group.
Men with beards.
Women with funny hats.
People in wheelchairs.
People on crutches.
People on bikes, skateboards, rollerblades.
People carrying ladders, tennis rackets, grocery bags, sporks, incense burners, surfboards, umbrellas, babies.
Sleeping babies.
Small, squirming, squealing babies.
Old people.

As Jean Donaldson says in her classic book Culture Clash [in Chapter 3 -- Socialization, Fear and Aggression -- a chapter that should be required reading for every person who ever plans to have anything to do with dogs], you don't want a dog that merely tolerates all these folks. Why would you settle for that, when you can have a relaxed, confident dog that enjoys them? Why would you want a dog that hides from your daughters' friends, or snaps at them, when you can have a dog that loves people and is reliably, happily, famously friendly and comfortable around them?

Don't worry that your puppy will catch horrible illnesses from spending so much time schmoozing, either. For one thing, if you keep the pup in your arms and -- this is important -- off lawns other dogs might have visited, he should be fine. For another thing:
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has written [...] that inadequate socialization leads to behavioral problems, including fear, avoidance and aggression. And behavioral problems are not just the primary reason dogs are dumped at shelters -- they also are the No. 1 cause of death for dogs younger than 3 years old.

"While puppies' immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem."
Huge thanks to Ian Dunbar for the "100 people by three months of age" mantra, and here's an example of how well it works:

A dear friend of mine got a border collie pup just over a year ago. Without socialization, border collies can be shy, suspicious, fearful, dangerously reactive and much worse -- trust me on this. So my friend, treats in hand [and pocket], set out to introduce her pup to 100 people by the time the pup reached three months of age. She did it, too. And on Halloween my friend dressed up her border collie and joined some neighborhood families, all in costume, as they walked their children from house to house. [Every Halloween our town blocks off a few streets for trick-or-treaters. No traffic -- just lots and lots of people.] The streets were filled with ninjas, pirates, princesses, dragons, robots and God knows what else. I personally know a few dogs that would still be running in wild-eyed terror if they'd come within a block of that celebration. My friend's border collie? He had a wonderful, confident, tail-wagging good time, and was greeted and petted by one and all. I'm sure he thought the whole thing was arranged just for him.

100 people by three months of age, Mr. President-Elect. Your dog and your family will thank you. So will everyone else. [Mention "100 people by 3 months" on your weekly radio address, sir, and I will personally come to your home and house-train the new pup for you. Hope to see you soon!]

The wonderful image above is from TiggerLarue's Pound Puppy Rescue set on Flickr: click here to see the original.


BorderWars said...

Let's just hope he doesn't get a Border Collie. I don't think he's qualified to run the country, but I know he isn't qualified to own a Border Collie and there's about 0% chance he can learn on the job.

Anonymous said...

We find vets who *still* tell their clients to wait until AFTER the puppy is 6 months old to get it out for puppy class and socialization. This letter, written by a professor of veterinary medicine at the UofMN has been a big help in convincing them to change their minds.

Luisa said...

Janeen, thanks!! Excellent link.