The Making of Dog-dogs and People-Dogs

By Ed. Bailey
Permission to reprint
First published Gundog Magazine 1989

We have all seen dogs slink away, try to hide behind or under anything available, or sometimes bite, or wildly snap at air, teeth popping yet simultaneously cower if no escape route is open. Once, when using commercially reared dogs in a research project, we had them try to crawl down a three-inch floor drain located in the farthest corner. These were border collies, not normally thought of as shy dogs. But some dogs we used were obtained from the local pound and these came a bouncing, tongue slurping everyone in reach. We say the former dogs are kennel shy or have kennelosis (a pseudoscientific term for the same think), the latter dogs trying to lick both your ears at the same time, we say are properly socialized. But what socialized means and what is proper has been thought of as magical and mystical.

Socialization is a learning process which occurs only during a relatively brief period early in the animal’s life and during which time the individual acquires in a juvenile way the means and neural mechanisms for recognizing and interacting socially with other member of the correct species – its own – in the correct way.

In most wild canid species, wolves for example, socialization in the form of both parental and sibling interaction has special functions because they generally remain together as adults. The affiliative interactions in wolves, including play, cooperative hunting and alliance formation must be interwoven with dominance relationships as well because young animals will become part of an already existing adult pack. This situation might be similar to our pack hounds but quite different from pointers, retrievers, versatile breeds and of course house pets.

Much of the socialization process in dogs takes the form of latent learning. During a development period the pup living with its siblings and mom dog processes information obtained through smell, taste, hearing and sight and to a degree touch. These modalities of olfaction, audition, vision and tactile senses pick up signals from mom and from the other kids who hang around in the whelping box, signals which are processed, associated with other signals and stored. There need be no apparent, immediate reinforcement, either positive or negative at the moment of the signal perception. Later in the dog’s life the same signal, now appearing in the adult form, is perceived and processed. Because the associations were already made at the puppy stage, the now older dog reacts appropriately, almost reflexively. An example might be one pup sees another approach with head erect, ears cocked back, twelve o’clock tail wagging slowly side to side, eyes squinted – all these visual cues are fixed action patterns on the approaching pup’s part; they are innately programmed signals which are not immediately understood by the first pup though all perfectly perceived. A play fight follows when the approaching pup pounces. The first pup now associates the visual signals as intention to do battle. The visual cues and their subtle changes are then forever part of the pups perceptual and communication processes. Later the fight threat is real, not play, but the visual cues telling intention remain the same and the challenged dog responds with postural patterns to escalate or de-escalate fighting.

Deprived of experience with litter mates and mom, pups grow up physically normal but not able to comprehend correctly the messages sent by another dog. And, though it sends messages itself, all perfectly coordinated, they are often inappropriate for the situation. Having passed some critical maximum time, the pup cannot learn these social amenities of fight, sex, play soliciting and all the other forms of communication as it could earlier. The brain is no longer able to assimilate social learning. So the socialization process has a specific end time which is gradually approached and reached by about three months. The beginning time starts shortly after birth for olfactory signals, at about two weeks for visual, auditory and tactile signals and movement patterns from three weeks onward when ambulation begins.

But this socialization is the pup learning he’s a dog, learning the dog social signals and how to respond to them. Dogs must also live in our people world. The dog perfectly socialized with dogs but never exposed to people during its first twelve weeks is the fearful wall climber, like any wild animal brought into captivity. So how does a dog-dog become a people-dog?

During the same time when socialization on dogs is going on, puppies go through a second type of learning which has been termed socialization on people. This is not socialization, at least not in the same sense defined for socialization on dogs. The learning going on with puppies and people is also associative learning but not social communication, not the formation of social relationships. However, because the dog socialization and people association learning are parallel and because people have created the “man’s best friend” and “dogs affinity to man” picture, we have generalized to saying the dogs socializes on people and interacts socially with people. However, by definition, what dogs do with people is not socialization in the true sense.

To know and understand what really goes on we must consider closely the post-natal development in dogs. During the first two weeks eyes are closed, vision is non-functional, audition and tactile senses are not developed. The pup does not even feel pain during the first week. Temperature regulation and shiver response only begin after one week. However, olfaction is well developed and being used to read the environment. Myelin coverings of nerves has not been laid down yet so conduction is poor and complex learning cannot take place during this period. But simple associations are formed, mostly smelling mom and siblings, mom’s milk machine and very importantly the hand smell and other body smells of people. All these smells are associated with comfort and well being.

From fourteen to twenty-five days is the transition period. Other sensory modalities join olfaction in telling the pup things about the outside world. Vision starts about fourteen days, hearing is developed by twenty-four and ambulation starts about the same time. Nerve myelinization is taking place and from four weeks onward the more complex forms of learning go on to lay the basis upon which the dog’s future behaviour patterns depend. Beginning at six to seven weeks, fear gradually develops to become the full blown emotion by 10 to 12 weeks. For the development of the dog-people relationship the onset of fear is most important.

Because fear has not yet developed during the early part of the critical period which actually begins the day the pup is born and ends at about twelve weeks, most experiences the pup has are associated with low anxiety. During the first two weeks the smell of people handling the pups is a pleasant association because it is associated with low anxiety, lack of fear. After vision and audition come into play new primary associations are formed – the sight of the person and the sound of the voice (who doesn’t coo to a puppy?) become associated with low anxiety. Secondary associations are also formed between visual and auditory signals and the smell of the person which already means everything’s OK. By mistreating with strong negative reinforcement, say, as an example, spray the four-week-old pups a few times with a hard blast of cold water just after saying “hello puppies,” we can just as easily have negative associations formed to the sound of a voice. But if all things during puppy period proceed in a relatively normal atmosphere, the associations formed are of the pleasant, low anxiety type
and these associations are very stable and persist throughout the dog’s life.

So, by the time fear has developed to an influencial level the pup will have a whole list of acquired associations all relating people to low anxiety. Later, when faced with an anxiety inducing situation, the pup responds by coming to a person because he has previously found low anxiety associations with people, associations formed during his first two months. A pup deprived of human contact during the critical low fear period does not associate people with anxiety because the opportunity never existed. Having passed the low fear period, a person is forever a large menacing object, fearfully impressive. The people-deprived pup cannot recoup; he will always associate strange people with fear and will be kennel shy.

With great effort, a dog deprived of pleasant people contact during the no- and low-fear period can be habituated to human presence by repeated exposure to people with nothing unpleasant ever happening – no negative reinforcement – but such a dog will always appear to be a bit short of a full deck because ability to learn is overridden by fear of humans.

The dog properly exposed to people during the formative first three months of its life can learn a phenomenal amount of people body language and the secondary associations of verbal signals coupled with body language. However, the pup also needs the dog socialization with mom and the other pups to aid in understanding people. Much dog to dog communication is dependant on correctly reading expressions, posture or some visual aspect of another dog’s bearing. The pup having learned the dog body language so well during its socialization period on dogs can generalize to some extent on human postures, gestures, intention movements and moods. However, comprehending people postures is learned and this learning can go on throughout life, but only if both proper dog socialization and people associative learning went on during the puppy period.

So, the socialization process which goes on in pups just applies to future social interactions with dogs. The early association learning which temporarily parallels the dog socialization applies to interactions the pup will have later in life with people. This latter has too frequently been called socialization on people. But, it is not socialization in the true sense, rather it should be called associative learning which can only go on early in a dog’s life because fear does not override that capability to form associations between people and lack of fear. What this early learning does for the dog-people relationship is it allows the dog to make secondary associations related back to the pleasant early associations formed in puppy hood. Social relationships by definition are limited to one’s own species. We cannot make a dog into people or vice versa, though we can learn to read the dog’s non-verbal expressions, and most important, the dog can learn to read ours.

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Updated 2nd Januray 2005