It is widely believed that any given breed of dog is born with a strong genetic predisposition to behaviorisms characteristic of that breed. Thus it should follow that the livestock herding and guarding dog breeds, of which the various sheepdogs and shepherds are good examples, must be born with an inherent tendency to guard or herd livestock. Also in the same vein it should also follow that gundogs must have a natural propensity to tolerate loud noises such as gun shots or rifle reports. However, as so often happens, things are not quite so simple!
The Critical Period
The critical period of socialization is that time when a certain set or patterns of genetically oriented behavior must be performed or presented to a developing animal (in this case a puppy) in order for such behavior to manifest in the animal when it is older. The inability to initiate such genetically programmed behavior during the critical period can result in the complete corruption of hereditary behavior characteristic to that particular species of animal. The critical period in dogs varies for the different dog breeds, but as a species in general, the critical period of socialization in dogs extends from 2 weeks to 16 weeks. After sixteen weeks if a puppy has not been properly socialized in the desired manner, that dog will not exhibit appropriate behavior in the future!
For example, in certain species of birds, unless the parents sing the specific birdsong for attracting a mate to the growing chicks within the critical period, those birds will never be able to attract a mate when older for the simple fact that they are unable to reproduce the necessary mating call (birdsong).
One of the more significant factors of the critical period of socialization is that known as imprinting. Imprinting is the process whereby a young animal gets to self-identify as a species; in other words imprinting is the process during the socialization period when the young animal gets to align itself with a particular species. Normally in most cases the species with which a young animal identifies usually happens to be the species to which the animal actually belongs. However rarely in the wild, cases do occur where an animal imprints on an entirely different species altogether and ultimately identifies with that species as being its own.
Cases of artificial or manipulated imprinting abound in domesticated animals, and one of the most celebrated cases of imprinting manipulation was that conducted by Austrian ethologist Konrad Zacharias Lorenz who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Using graylag geese Konrad Lorenz definitively illustrated the significance of the primary period of socialization by getting graylag goslings to imprint on him as opposed to their mother. The result was that the goslings identified with Lorenz and not with geese which resulted in the rather novel situation whereby Lorenz was trailed by his flock of young goslings wherever he went.
Okay, you may be thinking what has some dude with a bunch of geese following him have to do with you and your pet dog? If you’re thinking along such lines those are valid thoughts indeed, so let me illustrate some of the practical applications of imprinting manipulation conducted in dogs.
Imprinting Manipulation In Dogs
Over the span of many generations, shepherds have routinely manipulated the process of imprinting in their livestock guarding dogs. The shepherd introduces the future livestock guardian dog as a puppy to the appropriate target animal which for simplicity reasons in this case will be the sheep. At its most extreme, this imprinting manipulation may be stimulated by getting the puppies to suckle from a pregnant ewe. More routinely though, the dogs are removed as young puppies and reared with the sheep but not necessarily suckled by sheep.
Contact and socialization with people is kept to a minimum as is that with other dogs excepting those littermates that are destined for the same vocation. The dogs are fed in the presence of sheep, sleep with the sheep, socialize and communicate with the sheep and age permitting allowed to follow the sheep about during their grazing. By the time sixteen weeks are up that dog(s) will now identify with sheep as its primary social companions; not dogs…not people! In essence that dog will take appropriate protective measures to ensure that no harm befalls the sheep, even against human beings.
Have you ever encountered a dog that just doesn’t get on with other dogs, strangers or with any animal for that matter? Such a dog is that way because it was never properly socialized within the timeframe of the critical period of socialization. Before I continue along this thread however there’s a point I wish to stress here. Because of years of selective breeding, certain dog breeds are naturally predisposed to exhibiting specific behavior and mannerisms that are hereditary in nature. Thus for example, the retriever breed of dogs will have a natural and inherent tendency to retrieve whether or not such behavior is encouraged during the critical period of socialization.
Certain breeds of dog are natural water lovers for the mere fact that over the years of selective breeding such a trait has been greatly magnified. Such dogs will, in appropriate circumstances, exhibit those inherited traits whether or not they were performed when the dog was still a puppy.
When I was a kid we had a Labrador mix dog that once trailed us to the campus swimming pool. One moment my siblings and I were happily splashing about in the pool with the other kids, next thing…we heard shouting and yelling and a right ole ruckus. We soon knew why. Our Labrador mix, named Nip, had followed us to the swimming pool and saw absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t join us (his primary social companions) in the pool for a dip. Nip was about 7 months at the time and other than his bath times (which he detested) he had never been introduced to water nor had he ever shown any particular affiliation for it. Yet on that day, there he was doggy paddling towards us in the pool like a pro, as if for all the world that was what he had been destined to do!
The point I’m making here is that certain traits in certain breeds of dog cannot be totally switched off for the fact they have been exaggerated through selective breeding over the span of multiple generations and in appropriate conditions those traits will manifest!
Take the case of the so-called dangerous dog breeds, of which perhaps the Pitbull and the Rottweiler spring foremost to mind. There is an element of truth warranting the dangerous-dog moniker for these dogs for the simple reason that some unethical dog breeders have selectively bred their dogs for the aggressive trait. Why? So their dogs may be more vicious and efficient fighters in the dog pit! Like the case of my dog Nip, in certain circumstances those inherited aggressive traits may one day manifest seemingly out of nowhere.
Why You Should Socialize Your Dog Early On
Whether or not your dog is going to be an apartment dweller or an animal living on a farm, it is important to socialize your dog within the critical period. This is especially true for apartment dwelling dogs that live in the city because they are routinely going to rub shoulders with other dogs, other animals as well as people. Obviously if you wish to avoid having to pay out hefty fees and penalties (and perhaps seeing your dog be put down) because your anti-social pet keeps attacking other pets and people, then it is of vital importance to take the appropriate measures to see that your dog is properly and timely socialized.
If your dog is to co-exist with other animals in the household such as a cat, then for purposes of a harmonious coexistence, that dog as a puppy, should be introduced early on to the other animal whereby it will regard that animal as a social companion and not as prey or foe. Early socialization of one’s dog has both subtle and in-your-face manifestations. The subtle manifestations could be the difference between a confident and outward-going dog to one that is shy and unusually submissive. I’ve already discussed some of the overt (in-your-face) manifestations of socialization which include identification of social companions and getting along with others.
Many dog breeders have also noticed that early handling and petting of very young puppies appears to boost the confidence and friendliness level of the animal when it matures into an adult dog.