Q: I recently bought a Rottweiler puppy and I’m having some problems. He’s growling at my friends. I want him to be a watchdog as well as a companion to me but how do I teach him when he’s supposed to be friendly and when he’s not?
A: Socialization is the process of teaching a dog how to cope with and behave well in a human world. Socialization is important for any pet but it’s especially critical for large, guardian breeds. They’re natural watchdogs. They’re suspicious of strangers. This a natural, instinctive quality of this breed group. It doesn’t have to be taught. Without socialization, though, they may become so suspicious that they won’t let anyone touch them. They might even become aggressive. Most of the stories you hear about “vicious” dogs were inspired by dogs that weren’t properly socialized.
Socialization should start as soon as the puppy is born. A responsible breeder lays a foundation for good behavior by handling the puppies every day. As they grow, the breeder allows them to go outside, to play and explore this big new world. The pups are introduced to a dog crate, house-breaking and the veterinarian. The breeder provides as many new experiences as possible to prepare them for the transition to their new homes. The breeder has merely started the socialization process. Now it’s up to you to go on from there.
To a puppy, everything in the world is brand new. He’s never seen any of this before! Try to remember his perspective as you teach him what’s expected of him. Dogs learn from positive and negative experiences. They learn fastest from positive experiences. You’ll get best results if you make it easy and rewarding for the puppy to do what you want. It’s important to have patience and a good sense of humor!
Throughout his life, your dog will need grooming and medical exams. The first thing every puppy must learn is to allow himself to be handled and touched all over his body. Several times a day, pick up your puppy and put him on his back in your lap or on the floor. Be gentle but firm. He’ll probably struggle to get away so rub his tummy and talk to him until he relaxes. Run your hands all over him — down his legs, fiddle with his toes, feel his ears, lift his lips to look at his teeth, scratch his back. He might nip your fingers in play and wriggle all around while he’s getting his “massage”. It’s important that you make these sessions enjoyable but don’t let it turn into a wrestling match or a tug o’war game. Have everyone in your household and your friends handle the puppy like this every day. Gradually increase the length of time the puppy must lie quietly until he’ll lie there to be massaged as long as you want.
Introduce a brush and the nail clipper during some of these sessions and make the brushing feel good. As your dog grows up and it’s no longer practical to hold him in your lap, encourage him to lie on his side for his massages. Grooming and nail cutting are much easier on both of you when the dog lies quietly on his side. Your dog will look forward to grooming if you’ve shown him since puppyhood how pleasurable it can be.
The guardian breeds can be reluctant to meet new people and must be taught to tolerate strangers. Many puppies enjoy the people they meet and want attention. Others don’t. Some puppies learn to like it but a few never do. It really doesn’t matter how your puppy feels about it, though. The most important thing is that he learn to tolerate being handled by strangers because you want him to. Without this training, visits to the vet, the groomer or boarding kennel will always be difficult or even impossible.
When a visitor wants to pet your puppy, pick him up and put him in the person’s arms. Shy or frightened puppies often do better when picked up than if approached on the ground. Both of you should talk to him in a happy, cheerful voice. Have your visitor offer him some of his favorite treats. If the pup’s frightened or upset, ignore it. Don’t baby him or use a comforting tone like “There, there, puppy, don’t be scared, everything’s okay” because it backfires! The puppy usually responds by becoming more frightened and acts even worse. Make your puppy feel secure by being confident and enthusiastic. Be gentle but firm.
Many kennel clubs, veterinary clinics and animal shelters offer “puppy kindergarten” classes. Created especially to help with socialization, these inexpensive classes are great opportunities for you and your puppy. They’re fun, too! Your puppy especially needs socialization in the world outside your home. As soon as he can be taught to walk on leash and has had his puppy shots, take him everywhere with you. Let him investigate everything. If he’s afraid or confused, find a spot for the two of you to sit and watch things go by. Bring along some of his favorite treats and toys. Let him check things out at his own pace and encourage him with a happy, confident voice. For some puppies, it might only take a few minutes for them to get comfortable in a new environment. For others, you might need to make several of these “watch and relax” stops throughout the course of a walk.
When you take your dog to the vet, be positive but firm. In order to work efficiently, the vet needs your dog’s cooperation. No vet likes to work on a growling dog that’s not under his owner’s control and some will refuse to serve them altogether. Encourage your puppy to stand quietly on the table. Keep gentle control by holding his head.
When your puppy is old enough, four-to-six months of age, start him in obedience class! Even the most well-behaved puppy needs to learn to obey commands. Classes are inexpensive, fun, excellent opportunities for socialization and available in almost every city. Your veterinarian or the AKC can refer you to local training clubs that offer group classes at convenient times and reasonable rates.
Some of the guardian breeds are not “pack oriented.” Most of them are fairly solitary and don’t enjoy the company of other dogs besides those in their own household. They can still learn to be ladies and gentleman when on lead around other dogs, though, and puppy kindergarten and obedience classes are good socialization and training opportunities.
Some dogs are “born socialized” but most of them require some form of socialization throughout their whole lives. Like obedience training, it’s an ongoing process that’s never quite finished. Once your dog’s grown up, continue taking him with you whenever possible. If left at home too long out of sight of the real world, your dog may quickly forget how he’s supposed to act. Give him plenty of socialization refresher courses. Let him meet new people and make new friends. There’ll be plenty of people wanting to admire your beautiful dog and you’ll make plenty of new friends, too!
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