If Ian Dunbar has a soapbox, it’s socialization. He believes that all behavior and temperament problems in dogs can be prevented if we adequately socialize our puppies. This starts from the day they’re born and continues until the day they die.
The socialization period in dogs is fairly long, starting when the puppy is around four weeks old, and extending roughly through the twelfth week. (Some experts place it further out, closer to 14 to 16 weeks.) During this time, puppies are learning what’s normal and safe in the world. Anything they don’t experience is likely to be classified as dangerous. As a result, we need to expose our puppies to everything we possibly can to ensure that they will grow up to be non-reactive adults.
Ian emphasizes socialization to people- after all, a dog fearful of other dogs can avoid them if necessary, but will be forced to live with people for the rest of his life. To this end, Ian recommends that puppies meet five new people a day during the socialization period. (Of course, he should also meet as many other dogs as possible.) After that, he should meet three new people or dogs a day for the rest of his life in order to remain socialized.
Socialization is not about having lots of experiences, though. It’s about having lots of good experiences. All food should be hand fed so that it can be used to classically condition the puppy to love people and other dogs. While we should phase out treats as rewards for good behavior, we should continue to use food to classically condition our dogs for life.
That said, it is impossible to socialize a dog so that he never has an undesirable response to something. There are an infinite number of variables: different types of people, objects, and situations can come together in unpredictable combinations. We need to socialize our dogs so that they love people, but when we find the socialization opportunity that we missed, it is how our dogs respond that will matter. If (when) he bites, he must not cause harm.
This is accomplished by teaching our dogs good bite inhibition, and Ian’s soapbox about bite inhibition is interwoven with his soapbox on socialization. In fact, he’s created a handy chart to demonstrate this (click to embiggen):
Ian outlined four stages to bite inhibition. He believes each step is necessary, and that you should follow the order closely. You’ll notice that in the early stages, puppy biting is allowed. It’s important to note, however, that this biting should happen on hands only, not on clothing. It is impossible to gauge how hard a puppy is biting when it’s on an inanimate object. Allowing the puppy to nip at your clothes teaches him to bite hard and to bite close to your body, which undermines the entire process.
Stage 1: No pain. The initial step to bite inhibition teaches the dog that his jaws can inflict pain on humans. Worse, he should learn that nothing good happens when he does. Ian recommends marking the behavior by saying “ow!” and then leaving or ending the play.
Stage 2: No pressure. When the puppy is no longer causing you pain, you must teach him that your skin is very delicate. Although teeth may touch your skin, there should be no pressure involved. Again, end the play session if there is.
Stage 3: Stop when I say. During this step, the puppy is still allowed to use his mouth- without pressure- but he must quit when you ask. Ian accomplishes this by teaching “leave it” (he calls it “off”) first. (You can read about how he teaches “off” here.) Once the puppy understands the meaning of “off,” you can start using it while playing with your puppy. If he doesn’t respond, get up and leave the play session.
Stage 4: Start only when I say. Finally, the dog is not allowed to initiate mouthing. Instead, he must wait for you to give him the cue. Ian recommends using something that others are unlikely to say, such as “kill me!” This step should be practiced daily for two to three years to maintain good bite inhibition.
Bite inhibition is also learned by playing with other puppies, which is why Ian believes going to an off-leash puppy class is so important. It is also why you should not get a puppy younger than eight weeks of age- they learn so much from their litter-mates. I was lucky with Maisy- when I met her at 14 weeks old, she still lived with a brother.
I was glad to hear that Ian doesn’t think that poorly socialized dogs like Maisy are automatically dangerous. Indeed, they can be quite safe if they have good bite inhibition. Although I totally believe that Maisy would bite if she felt threatened or overly harassed, I don’t think the resulting damage would be too bad. I don’t know that for sure- she was only pushed too far once. In that instance, she merely snapped at the child that was harassing her, and didn’t even come close to putting teeth on skin. Although one trial is not enough to accurately determine her relative safety, I’m still glad that she appears to have good bite inhibition.
How about your dogs? Maisy’s a yellow-box kind of girl on the chart above, but I bet I have readers with a wide range of dogs… or even dogs they’re unsure about. After all, less than a year ago, I wasn’t sure what Maisy would do if she was provoked into biting. I’m still nervous about it, of course, and you’d better believe that I’m much more cautious with her around children. Still, I’m curious to hear about your experiences.