Many dog owners who live in the country or suburban areas may have dogs suffering from what dog trainer Jean Donaldson calls "suburban dog syndrome."
Many dog owners may assume that the dog is just acting territorial or protective or that the behavior stems from a genetic propensity in certain breeds with a tendency to "guard."
However, in many cases, the behavior is simply the result of the environment in which the dog is raised. Learning more about suburban dog syndrome can help dog owners, and perspective owners of puppies being raised in the suburbs or rural settings.
The Importance of Socialization
Puppy socialization plays a vital role in paving the path to a well-adjusted dog who has the potential to become a balanced member of society.
The most crucial time for this socialization to take place is during the puppy's first three months of life.
Puppies at this stage of life are literally like sponges, absorbing all the facets of life that is presented to them.
During this time, you want to help your puppy form healthy neural connections.
As we have seen in a previous article on the effect of stress when puppies are still in the womb, the environment in which the puppy is raised plays a fundamental role in the onset of skittish behaviors, even before the puppy is born!
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has issued a position statement on the importance of puppy socialization.
Puppies during their first 3 months of life need to be safely exposed in a controlled setting (think puppy classes) to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments.
During this window of opportunity, a puppy's sociability tends to outweigh fear. However, care should be taken in ensuring pups are not exposed to overwhelming situations that overstimulate them (no crazy costume parties!). Watch for signs of stress or the onset of avoidance behaviors.
Incomplete or improper socialization during this time may lead to the onset of skittish behaviors and future behavior problems.
In puppies raised in the country or surburban areas, the risks for this happening are real, although not all dogs necessarily develop such issues.
Socializing Dogs in Urban Settings
Dogs who live in urban areas are accustomed to being exposed to continuous daily exposure to people and other dogs.
Every time they are taken out, even for just a short walk to go potty, it's inevitable for them to be exposed to a constant flow of stimuli like new people and different sights, smells and sounds.
These dogs get to meet dogs and people of different looks and sizes, not to mention, people on bikes, people on wheel chairs, kids on skate boards, people wearing uniforms, people walking with a cane. Not to mention trucks, sirens, strollers, shopping carts, buses, stairs and all the alike.
Just a short outing to go potty grants these city dogs exposure to lots of stimuli, so imagine how much these dogs get when their owners actually take them on a thirty-minute walk!
Many urban dogs end up therefore adjusting to such exposure and turn out being quite similar to those tall police horses you see occasionally patrolling New York City's streets. These horses are so much different than the average horse who would end up balking at the minimum sound!
Socializing Dogs in Suburban Settings
In a rural or suburban setting, things are quite different. Many dogs are not even walked because dog owners believe that just romping in the yard or around acreage is good enough.
Things get pretty static. And when these dogs see humans under the form of delivery people or when they are walked and encounter a person or other dog in the distance, all alarm bells are set off, as these stimuli turn out being perceived as "superstimuli."
In other words, they are very salient presences that urban dogs encounter on a daily basis and could care less about.
Some suburban dogs may bark and lunge aggressively in an attempt to increase distance, some others may get very aroused and bark and pull enthusiastically because they wish to decrease distance.
In some cases, the dog may feel confused, both drawn to the person or dog, but at the same time nervous, leading to ambivalent behaviors (approach avoidance).
All these behaviors may be triggered by the fact that on these outings dogs are exposed to stimuli that are uncommon and therefore particularly frightening or extremely appealing.
Now, in some dogs whose genetic potential for being sociable supersedes the static environment in which they are raised in, you might not incur into any major problems, but the sum of a dog genetically prone to spooking, plus a static environment, can mean problems along the road.
As the saying goes "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Puppies living in rural or suburban areas do best if exposed to lots of people, other animals, noises and situations, during their window of socialization (always in a controlled, positive and not overwhelming manner). Maintenance outings with exposure to novelty should be maintained into adulthood.
Following are some tips to prevent Suburban Dog Syndrome in puppies and some remedial tips for adult dogs.
"A puppy with good genetics will often end up shy under suburban or rural day-to-day conditions, unless some effort is put in to get him around a good volume and variety of people on a regular basis." ~Jean Donaldson, Dogs are From Neptune.
Preventing and Treating Suburban Dog Syndrome
Suburban dog syndrome can be prevented from developing by taking the puppy on frequent trips where there are a lot of stimuli.
If you have lost the socialization train and you have an adult dog with this syndrome, not all is lost. You can do some remedial work, but it may take some time to see some changes.
While with puppies you can engage more in passive socialization (just mere exposure) and your puppy habituates, with adult dogs you may have to take a more active role to create positive associations with certain stimuli and situations that your dog is not used to.
- Let your puppy accompany you on as many car trips to town as possible.
- Take your puppy to puppy classes. Well-run puppy classes will require all puppies to be healthy, up-to-date on vaccinations and free of parasites. Surfaces where puppies congregate should be clean, sanitized and easy to disinfect.
- Until your puppy has completed his series of vaccination boosters, avoid dog parks, pet stores or other areas where dogs of unknown vaccination status congregate.
- Continue socializing your puppy into adulthood, and possibly maintain it throughout life by visiting places with stimuli when possible.
- Take your adult dog on many car trips with you to different places.
- Take advantage of dog friendly facilities when you travel rather than boarding your dog in a kennel.
- Take your adult dog to obedience classes or enroll him in a fun doggy sport.
- Take your dog on frequent trips to the city and let him just see the world pass by. Feed tasty treats when you encounter certain stimuli that you think your dog feels nervous about and perceives as threatening.
- For particularly nervous dogs, enlist the help of a positive reinforcement trainer. A trainer using corrections is the last thing you want. If every time your dog sees a trigger and barks, and he's corrected for barking, he'll be on edge more because on top of fearing the trigger, the dog fears the correction that happens when he sees the trigger.
- Learn the engage-disengage game and other ways you can teach your dog to associate what he fears with things he loves. Once he's more comfortable, train a replacement behavior to perform in lieu of the barking/lunging. Have your trainer help you.
- Work at levels your dog is comfortable with. If your dog has a hard time staying calm, he's likely not ready for such a level of intensity. Work at your dog's pace.
- American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, Position Statement On Puppy Socialization
- Dogs Are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson, Dogwise Publishing, 2009
- Serpell J, Jagoe JA. Early experience and the development of behaviour. In Serpell J (ed). The Domestic Dog, p.82-102, Cambridge University Press 1995
- Freedman DG, King JA, Elliot O. 1961. Critical periods in the social development of the dog. Science, 133, 1016-1017s