My wife and I happened to fall in love with a breed of dog that falls outside the mainstream. The Belgian Shepherd (in the United States – Belgian Sheepdog, Belgian Tervuren and Belgian Malinois) is a herding/guarding breed developed in Europe to move flocks of sheep out to pastures and then spend the day guarding the perimeter of the pasture from predators that would come for the sheep.
They were bred to run all day long, to make intelligent choices, and protect their charges while ignoring unimportant distractions. They are an interesting breed to be sure. They closely resemble wolves and are frequently used in movies and television special effects scenes to stand in for wolves.
These dogs are an interesting combination of beauty and brains, creativity and discrimination. They have a reputation for what many in the dog world call “skittishness”, the peculiar quality of being standoffish and wary around strangers and strange situations. That wariness can quickly turn into fear and aggression if it is not addressed early and carefully in the dog’s upbringing.
Nature and Nurture
The nature versus nurture debate has raged across all kinds of species from humans to marine mammals and even down to dogs. How much of a dog’s personality is permanently embedded in its genetics and how much of it remains open to shaping through experience and training?
It may surprise you to know that the effects of experience and training have a much greater impact on animals than once thought. A 1991 study of racing horses cited by Dr. Carmen Battaglia in his article “Developing High Achievers” showed that only 35% of the variation of performance in racing horses could be attributed to genetics alone. That means that at least 65% of performance was influenced by environment, training, and other factors!
Creating Happy, Confident Dogs
One important element of a dog’s development is “socialization”, the process of exposing the dog to the myriad of things in their environment so they become accustomed to the variety of sights, sounds, scents, and experiences in their world. In light of scientific data, this process may be much more important than we previously thought in creating happy, confident dogs that adapt and function well in our human society.
With our own dogs, we went to extraordinary lengths to provide socialization opportunities. Our involvement in dog agility offered us great opportunities to take our dogs to new places and show them new things. We carefully introduced our young dogs to new people in low stress, gentle interactions that were full of food rewards from both ourselves and the new people they met.
If our dogs looked uncomfortable or wanted to move away, we let them. It was important for them to feel like they had control in the situations to leave if they wanted to. This gave our dogs plenty of positive experiences and they came to understand that strangers most often meant good things for them; they looked forward to newcomers.
We went through a similar process in introducing our dogs to other dogs. While most dogs do learn a number of canine social skills early in life with their litter mates, most pups are removed from their litters between 8 and 16 weeks of age. There’s still a lot to learn about social interactions like greeting, soliciting play and managing the dynamics of play.
We were careful to work with dogs we knew and avoided “dog parks” where we couldn’t manage these early interactions. And, in the same way we introduced our dogs to humans, we gradually brought them into more and more unmanaged, unstructured situations as their experience and skills allowed them cope appropriately and remain happy and calm.
But it wasn’t just people and other animals to whom we needed to acclimate our dogs. We wanted to make them flexible and able to cope confidently in a variety of situations. What if dinner was at 10pm instead of the usual 6pm? What if dinner was outside or in the back of a truck? Could they cope with the sounds of traffic nearby if we had to walk along a busy street? What if we should run into a horse and rider while out walking one day? All of these situations had to be trained as well.
Teaching Your Dog to Be Comfortable
How do you teach a dog to be comfortable in a world full of sights, sounds and experiences? You use the world to your advantage. Instead of throwing our dogs out there and hoping they would figure it out, we decided to use every new experience or situation as a training opportunity. We came prepared.
We used a combination of operant conditioning through clicker training and the principles of classical conditioning to teach our dogs how we wanted them to respond in various situations. In the case of new people, we used classical conditioning. Early in their lives, our dogs got a lot of experience with new people greeting and feeding them. There’s nothing to be afraid of, people give you treats! We used a similar method with other dogs. We were careful to introduce our dogs first to non-aggressive, very social dogs who enjoy play. So their experience of dogs is to be open and accepting and play will usually follow.
That’s what classical conditioning gets for us. It is an association that our dogs make between people, things, or situations and whether those things are good or bad for them. It’s not a decision we can make for our dogs. But we can strongly influence their opinions by setting them up for good things to happen. Why leave it up to chance when a little thought and planning can give a dog a head start on making the positive associations we would prefer?
In those cases where we wanted our dogs to respond in a specific way, like sitting to greet a stranger, we would use clicker training and operant conditioning to reward them when they behaved correctly. It was the same in playing with other dogs. We would not throw the ball for them until we got the calm behaviour we wanted. Only then did we release them to chase the ball and play.
We carried treats with us where ever we went. Any new and potentially frightening situation could be rewarded and turned into a positive experience. But the key was always keeping the stress levels and emotional levels low enough for the dog to still focus on us. Once overwhelmed, it’s difficult to get through even with treats or praise. Another important element of this process is knowing your dog.
It’s important to recognize the signs of stress in dogs. Each dog is different but they do share many common stress responses. The tucked tail, the furtive glances, and stiffened body posture are recognizable to most dog owners. But there are also other less well known responses like panting, a lowered head, or a tight mouth with lips drawn forward. Once these warning signs begin to show themselves, it’s important to move the dog away from the stress. We always need to have an escape plan to relieve the pressure.
In spite of being a “skittish” breed, our Belgians are pretty gregarious. Our older boy Vince is everyone’s favorite and little Tiramisu has her charms as well. Neither is fearful about approaching most people. Regardless of where we travel or what our schedule is, our dogs are comfortable in cars, hotels, parks, or crates. They have been fed at all hours of the day and night and never stress about feeding times.
Socialization and Success
The time we spent socializing our dogs and acclimating them in positive ways to a great variety of things in our world has paid off in so many ways. In some ways, I think that process even taught them to be interested and engaged in new situations, looking forward to seeing and doing new things. It’s not hard to see what the world can mean to our dogs. It’s good to know that we have some control over whether they see the world as something to be feared or, as our dogs do, something to which they can look forward.
The extra time and thought we put into making our dogs’ first experiences positive has paid big dividends. Our dogs are much easier to manage than our previous dog who was not as well socialized. Carrying treats and thinking about managing situations wasn’t really all that much more work. Thanks to modern training techniques like de-sensitization and counter-conditioning, we’ve been able to get our dogs comfortable with even scary things like vacuum cleaners. And clicker training and operant conditioning have given us the tools to teach our dogs useful responses to stressful situations.
Socialization means the world to our dogs, literally. It’s well worth the effort.
To read more about dog training by Eric Brad, please visit his author page for a list of articles.