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Puppy Critical Socialization, Fearful Puppy and Reputable Breeders

Why Are Some Puppies Fearful?

I have a fearful puppy (four-month-old) cane Corso who I got from a very reputable breeder in New York. I have bonded very well with him and he’s fabulous with me he is also very good with my husband and four kids. The issue that I’m having with him is he is very scared and timid around other people. He does not let them pet him and just runs away. I think it is definitely fear. He tucks his tail when he runs away. If our other dog (8 year old rottie) barks and growls at something (not him, he’s great with him) sometimes he runs and sits in my lap. When people are around, sometimes he will go hide in his crate until I get home.

I have been keeping him on a leash and have been giving them treats to give him to try to warm him up to other people. I feel like we’re making steps forward and then we make 10 steps back. He growls and nips at people once in a while. I want my currently fearful puppy to be a well-rounded dog and a social dog because we are very social people and I don’t want this to turn into a problem where he has fear-based aggression. If you could give me some advice on this it would be wonderful.

You wrote me back to ask how old he was when they sold him to us and what they had done to contribute to his critical socialization period and what they advised us as far as continuing the process. He was 10 weeks when I got him. They have told me to do as much socialization with our fearful puppy as possible. Have him on a leash when people come in the house and have them come down to his level and give him treats. They sent me a video about establishing pack structure. Now they said to go back to social isolation with his crate for a few days to reinforce pack structure and gain confidence in me. With confidence in me he will not worry about as much because with me as the alpha he will trust that I will take care of it. As far as I know he was in the house with them with kids and socialized?

Barbara – USA

Hi Barbara,

I confess a wry smile does cross my face whenever someone lauds the breeder that they get their pup from, as after decades in the business of working with dogs with behaviour problems I have learned that when it comes right down to it most breeders really don’t know all that much more then the difference between a male and a female dog. I say with out intending hyperbole that most are nothing more then puppy mills with better living conditions. That is not to say that many aren’t very nice people that truly love dogs, and the breed they have chose to blindly propagate, they just really don’t know what they’re doing and shouldn’t be doing it. Others are simply marketing an annual income stream. These I refer to as “greeders.” That doesn’t mean of all of the above, they don’t pop out decent dogs here and there, but when they do so, it’s not a result of careful breeding, but instead, blind luck. When good breeders produce bad dogs, and they do, it’s bad luck in spite of every attempt to dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

Very little in the dog behaviour world has been studied so thoroughly as to be conclusive. Socialization is one exception. Extensive research was done in Bar Harbor, Maine in the 1950’s – yes – over 60 years ago, and in my opinion anyone wishing to breed or train dogs should be intimately familiar with this work in order to avoid situations such as you find yourself in. I have a book on the topic, that I wrote as a guide for breeders and prospective puppy buyers (Socialize Your Puppy for Everything) that many prospective puppy purchasers and breeders use as their guide. It won’t do you much good at this point, other then to understand where your breeder may have gone wrong and to understand your puppy’s perspective.

A dog’s temperament is a product of both “Nature vs Nurture, aka, ‘genetics’ vs primarily but not exclusively – ‘critical socialization period’ (3 – 12 weeks of age). There may be a genetic component behind why your pup is “very scared and timid around other people”, however in my experience this is more the exception then the rule as far as primary cause. I personally feel that if the dog has a genetic predisposition, it is what happens and/or doesn’t happen during the critical socialization period that triggers extraordinary levels, whereas, if the critical socialization period is handled correctly you won’t see the behaviour ramifications you are now struggling with. If I were doing an actual assessment, in order to investigate whether there was a genetic component, I would wish to personally interview the owners of any dogs that were part of your litter and any prior litter of the pair used to produced your puppy. I’m not necessarily looking for just fear issues at this point, but any sort of exaggerated behaviour not in keeping with what I would expect in a Cane Corso.

What you are describing is not an uncommon way for dogs to turn out when they leave the breeder as late as yours did, if the breeder has a poor understanding as to what socialization is. You’d be amazed to learn how many “reputable” breeders, dog trainers, veterinarians etc. think they know what socialization is and advise clients accordingly only to really cause some problems due to their lack of understanding. (Puppy socialization classes are a prime example.) I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I estimate over 90%. I don’t know enough about your breeder to say definitively, but based on what you’ve written so far, and what I’ve seen on their website, I’d give them full marks for their marketing skills, but a full fail on actually understanding what puppy socialization is.

I don’t have any problem with a breeder selling a dog as old as 10 weeks, as yours did if they did all the socialization imprinting required up to that point. In fact, there may very well be advantages as mother dogs and litter mates can also teach some valuable life lessons the longer they stay together (up to a point). I won’t get into the considerable details of what proper socialization imprinting entails, but suffice it to say that it is a concentrated, purposeful, neutral, and positive exposure to a cornucopia of life sounds, sights, smells, textures and life complications. For any breeder wishing to improve upon their own skills or someone thinking of getting a puppy, you can get an actual list by sending me an email through this site, to ask for a copy of John Wade’s Puppy Socialization Cheat/Work Sheet” or by buying my book Socialize Your Puppy for Everything.

If the breeder has not taken on the critical socialization period responsibility; to sell a pup at 10 weeks, with only 2 weeks left in their critical socialization period is as unethical as it gets in my books. It dooms so many families to a future with a fearful dog, and all to often a dog that ends up in a shelter or euthanized and not to mention the accompanying heartache that entails for the people that spent their money on the dog. There is no cure. You do not turn a fearful dog into a reliably social dog, if the cause of that fear is poor and/or negative critical socialization experience. You can temper the dog’s reactiveness, relieving some of the symptoms with advanced training, but it’s not easy for most companion dog owners.

Your breeder’s suggestion, that following the “Establishing Pack Structure” advice in the video and resorting to social isolation in a crate “to reinforce pack structure” and “gain confidence in you” simply indicates to me that they really haven’t a clue as to what critical socialization is. They are talking apples, when you are telling them you have an orange problem. I don’t disagree with them that with a Cane Corso having a clear sense of who’s the teacher and who’s the student is very important but I think they’re missing the point. I would almost bet they are about to set you up to shoulder the blame for your dog’s fear, blaming poor leadership, when I’m almost certain it is due to their own negligence resulting from their ignorance.

For what it’s worth, a very good primary (but not conclusive) test for someone to use to determine whether the breeder they are considering getting a puppy from is worth considering is to ask for the names of people who have puppies from the same or similar blood lines where they were behind the breeding. When you call you simply ask, “How many times has the breeder contacted you (not the other way around) since you picked up your puppy? Almost everyone says never. An amazing amount say that even when they contact the breeder post-purchase they are difficult and sometimes impossible to connect with. Those that do hear, don’t typically get grilled with the right sort of questions. It’s more of a social call to ensure they can get recommendations to add to their website or referrals to sell future puppies.

Either way, what you’re looking for is a breeder who makes a practice of contacting their puppy buyers weekly until the puppy has hit 12 weeks of age (the end of the pup’s critical socialization period), monthly for the next year, every half year until the dog is 3, and annually thereafter. Most breeders are aghast that I think this is necessary but then again most breeders shouldn’t be breeding. If a breeder doesn’t do this, how will they learn outside of the fact that they produced a dog, exactly what kind of dog and dogs they are sending out into people’s homes? The questions they ask when they call their puppy owners will tell them where their blood lines stand as far as temperaments over the short and long haul, how the dogs stand up physically with regards to known hereditary and non-hereditary genetic problems in their breed, allowing them to make adjustments. From a behaviour perspective, they can catch problems early and advise their puppy owners. Outside of simply making them better breeders, being contributors to improving the breed, it saves a lot of heart ache for puppy owners and frankly the early intervention saves lives. There is more that you still need to do to make sure you’re on the correct track for getting the best possible breeder but this is the best first step in my opinion although admittedly it is extremely disconcerting for prospective dog owners, even discouraging as they’ll make a lot of calls before they hit on a potential breeder candidate.

I’m truly sorry that I haven’t been very helpful as far as providing a solution to your problem. Especially sorry as fear in any dog can really complicate a dog owner’s life but fear in a guarding breed as large a Cane Corso is never a good thing. I would recommend you find an excellent trainer to – yes – help reinforce your dog’s sense of who’s the teacher and who’s the student as they will ensure the dog takes more cues from you but also to teach some skills that will temper the way your dog reacts when fear strikes.

-John Wade

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