Bernese Mountain Dogs - Breed Information & Education for Puppy Buyers, Owners and Breeders

Molding Mutts: The Socialization Scene

This article appeared in the BMDCA's Newsletter, 'The Alpenhorn', in December 1989, authored by Ruth Reynolds.

Proper socialization of puppies is, perhaps, the most significant contribution breeders can make to a successful life for each pup they produce. Without it, odds are that a pup will have more difficulty in dealing with change and new obstacles throughout life. With it, the chances are greater that the transfer of a pup to a new home and the development of subsequent relationships will be successful and less stressful for the pup.

Socialization includes everything from introducing pups to myriad sights and sounds to teaching them acceptable behaviors in meeting strangers-human, canine, and other species. Likely the best place to accomplish a great deal of socialization is in a puppy or kindergarten people and puppy training (KPPT) class. Here, the pups are stimulated, not only by one another but also usually by an unfamiliar environment, strangers, and new obstacles, both mentaland physical, that the instructor introduces each week.

Though these classes are invaluable to pup owners interested in developing well-rounded adult dogs, they are not readily available in some areas of the country. The following ideas are shared from personal experience in teaching KPPT classes and rearing puppies, and many are gleaned from others' shared experiences. They are not intended to serve as a substitute for puppy socialization classes but, rather, should serve to enhance other experiences.

Because dogs don't possess the ability to engage in verbal communication, their puppyhood involves the development of other communication skills. As the "superior" species, it is our responsibility to learn "their" language. An example is the particular posture and actions a pup develops and engages in as he prepares to deposit a pile for us to clean up. The pup usually begins to diligently look with his nose for a place to go, often circling a selected area for just the right spot. Often, initially, we do not trust what we know the pup is going to do. We wait for a clearer message - for the pup to begin - and then rush in to remove him to the area where we want him to go.

What we should do is immediately trust our interpretation of the pup's body language (instinct, it is sometimes called) and remove him to an appropriate place when he initiates the looking for the right place behavior. Timing is critical. A pup scolded for making a pile thinks, "I must be secretive and not be found out when I do this because my owner doesn't like me to make a pile." A pup removed from one area and placed in another before he begins to deposit learns to look for the appropriate area sooner if not always interrupted midstream. Showing the pup the desired behavior before he engages in the inappropriate behavior hastens all training.

Associate a word or short phrase with activities to which a pup is introduced. "Go potty," when the pup is placed in the appropriate area, followed by praise, "Good go potty," soon means something to young puppies. The first obedience exercise that our dogs learn is "Go tink," and they learn it well by the time they are 6 weeks old. Teaching puppies to respond to such a command hastens housetraining when the pup enters a new home, and pup buyers appreciate it.

Uneven, variously textured surfaces are valuable socialization tools for puppies. Clamoring through a pile of sticks, across boards, an exercise pen laid flat on the ground, and a piece of slippery plastic, and, of course, through puddles are all experiences that help pups grow into well-rounded adults. A dislike of unsure footing almost ruined the show career of a dog with whom we once worked. This dog hated mats! Use of the puppy obstacle course training with this adult reoriented her way of thinking about approaching unsure footing.

When introducing pups to new inanimate objects, be assertive in your approach to the object. A handler who physically holds back, waiting for the pup's reaction, sends a clear message of apprehension to the pup. Because they rapidly master body language, pups require that humans think about the messages our movements send to them.

A washing machine (or other large) box, ends removed and placed on its side, can easily accommodate a puppy handler. The box is not nearly so scary with a familiar person sitting in it. If, when introducing the pup to the box, one waits to see the pup's reaction, puppy will already have reacted (perhaps unfavorably) and formed an initial impression of the object. Should the pup have a fearful nature, it is much easier to solicit an appropriate response when the pup sees the handler accept (sit in) the box, rather than hang back in what appears to the pup to be apprehension. "If my handler is afraid to approach with confidence," thinks the pup, "something must be amiss." Often, at a later time in other circumstances, perhaps after a nap or meal, the pup will more readily accept the box.

Crate training should begin with the breeder. No pup's first time in a crate should be the trip to the new home. The novice's approach to placing a new pup in a crate usually is one of, "Oh, poor baby! I hate to do this to you." Again, approaching the pup's confinement with apprehension makes the crate less acceptable to the pup. Just imagine that same novice opening the crate door and having the pup walk right in, perhaps looking for the food bowl! A very simple part of socialization before the pup goes to a new home, early introduction to the crate may make the difference between a successful and easy placement and one that is filled with trauma.

Over the years, I have observed Bernese who appear to be hypersensitive to loud sounds. Stimulating a pup's sense of hearing with a variety of sounds from the first day is important. Pups are born with an undeveloped sense of hearing, but what they can feel in the way of vibration from nearby sounds is unknown. Tiptoeing around the puppy area to avoid waking the pups deprives those pups of many sound experiences that may affect them all of their lives. When the pups are 3 weeks old, clanging pot lids and plastic glasses serve as valuable socialization tools. Later, empty milk jugs (tops removed!) and 2-liter soda bottles containing a few stones for special sound effects are useful for this purpose.

When a noisy new object startles a pup, it is important to determine whether it is the object itself or the sound it makes that is frightening. An aversion to sound usually elicits a tilting of the head back and forth a few times, a flattening of the ears against the head as though attempting to shut out the sound, and retreat. A radio station that provides music and voices helps in this problem. However, a sensitive sense of hearing likely cannot be changed. The pup must learn on its own, with subtle stimulation from a concerned breeder and owner, how to cope with a world perceived through ears that are different.

Breeder responsibility for pup rearing does not end with the sale. Most novices need help in developing their training and socialization skills. Breeders who choose to become informed and remain available can be valuable sources of information for these purposes.

The only limit in socializing puppies is the imagination. Every successful experience the pups have enhances and builds the self confidence they will need to loyal companions. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all Bemese could benefit from the socialization techniques of Berner breeders and owners? If you would like to share your techniques and/or read more about socialization in this publication, please send me your ideas and comments so that others may benefit from them.