Sextiped Valley column: You’ve adopted a dog — now what?
Summertime is the ideal adopt a pet time — and no wonder. It’s so much easier to housetrain a puppy when you don’t have to gear up for an arctic expedition for every two-hour potty break — especially the ones in the small hours. The yard, the sidewalks, the parks are all so much more accessible for play and manners training; socialization is a breeze when the whole world is astir with the elements you need to introduce him to: people, dogs, cats, squirrels, bikes, skateboards, bodies of water, and even wild critters. The neighborhood is a visual, auditory and olfactory feast for a puppy just getting his bearings in the world. Your job is to teach him what it means to be a well-behaved and confident dog in all the places he’ll go in his life to come, while making sure he is safe and doesn’t get overwhelmed by it all. This is what socialization is all about.
Little puppies have a head start while still with their mom and littermates, if they were born into a caring home. People should mean good things. Being picked up, played with, examined and groomed should be positive experiences. But not all puppies get the best start in life. When bad things happen to good dogs, sometimes the lessons learned make it hard to trust again. It can take a dozen or more gentle touches and loving voices to undo the effect of a single painful smack or scary instance of being yelled at. The key, with a puppy or dog whose origins you don’t know, is patience and repeated exposure to things that scare him, but in very small and diluted doses, taking great pains to ensure that each experience is positive for him.
But what if you’ve done that, and it doesn’t seem to be working? Your new, formerly abused dog still shrinks from approach — or worse, is now snapping when someone reaches for him. Your puppy who was scared of men now cowers from all strangers, or even family members.
The trend toward adoption, as opposed to purchasing from breeders, is a wonderful one. It is never an animal’s fault that she is without a home, and adoption is a wonderful way to compensate for some of our own species’ shortcomings. I can’t think of any experience more rewarding than to see a fearful animal open up to your love with trust. But when your best doesn’t seem to get results, or you see other people making judgments about you when your dog cringes or cowers, it’s hard to avoid a self-defeating withdrawal from socialization efforts. You need to remind yourself of an important factor beyond your control: intrinsic personality.
When you buy a puppy or older dog from an experienced breeder, chances are you’ll get to meet her among her mom and siblings or the group she has lived with. Your own observations and the breeder’s insights can tell you a lot about your puppy’s basic personality, and how it is likely to mesh with your family. The reserved one, the shy one, the exuberant and irrepressible one, have had the same start, yet even by 8 weeks of age are clearly responding differently to their world.
Any parent, any animal breeder, any farmer can tell you, entirely apart from the nature/nurture question, every single newborn is unique, distinguishable from the moment of emergence. Individual personality is just beginning to get the attention from serious scientists that it deserves. The evolutionary role of personality variation is finally being studied. If you want to explore this topic in a very enjoyable book, get wildlife biologist John Shivik’s terrific “Mousy Cats and Sheepish Coyotes.” But if you are struggling with a newly adopted pet who doesn’t seem to be responding as you hoped to your loving care, you may be facing unknown handicaps in the form of personality traits that were unrecognized and never taken into account by those who shaped his earliest days — important knowledge lost to you.
If you are enjoying the summer’s bounty of bonding opportunities with your new pet, let the good times roll. But if you are struggling with frustrating feelings of inadequacy, don’t despair, don’t give up, and don’t blame yourself. Talk to someone long on both compassion and experience. There are solutions, and good times ahead for you, too, once you understand how to apply socialization methods to your pet’s individual personality and adjust your own expectations.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.