Puppies should be socialised. They should be socialised well, early, often, and as much as their growing little brains and bodies and spirits can tolerate. Some trainers and vets say that you should wait until the initial series of vaccinations is complete, but I disagree. I’m not saying take your vulnerable pup to the local dog park where she can roll in the poo of ill or unvaccinated dogs. But I believe that with a bit of thought, you can come up with reasonably safe ways to get your puppy started quite early with socialisation experiences.
With this in mind, when the Fluffy Dog was just a wee pup, his papa and I took him to a puppy socialisation class. It was a series of four sessions for pups under five or six months of age who had already had their first two sets of vaccinations. Mr. Fluff wasn’t that fluffy back then. He was a wee little round-headed fuzzy pup who showed no signs yet of the long-haired, long-legged, loudmouthed beast he’d eventually grow into. I already loved him with all my heart.
The puppy group started out as a lot of fun. We introduced the pups to various toys, and to each other. But I felt like the people running it were maybe new to this, since they put an awful lot of emphasis on self-control and calmness for such young pups (not really developmentally possible for the really young ones), and then they had us play a dangerous game.
The “underlying lesson” of the game was that our puppies had to get used to being handled by different people, to get them ready for future vet visits and strangers on the street. This premise made sense to me, but I was uncomfortable with the assumptions that 1) any handling is good handling and 2) we could trust the others in this brand new group to interact with our pup appropriately.
I was even more uncomfortable when the game was explained. We owners all sat in a circle on the floor with someone else’s puppy. The staff put a box of little baby clothes and dog clothes in the centre of the circle. The idea was to run to the box, grab an item of clothing, and be the first person to dress a puppy. I was horrified as the game began and most people snapped into competition mode, tucking puppies under their arms while they scrabbled through the clothing box. I sat there frozen in place with someone else’s puppy on my lap, trying to watch the tiny Fluffy Dog across the circle to make sure he was okay. My partner went to the bin and got some baby clothes, then came back and took the puppy from me, gently babytalking her and carefully dressing her (I had my reasons for getting divorced, but my ex was always always always an excellent puppy-papa), but other people were screeching and laughing and scrambling to jam little legs into sleeves, and shove little puppy heads through neck-holes, trying to be the first, to win, to be Number One.
I was horrified. I wanted to go grab my puppy but since everyone else seemed to think it was good fun, I felt like maybe I was overreacting. But then a puppy yelped: a high-pitched, surprised pain-yelp. It came from across the circle, and I didn’t know if it was my puppy or not. But I was up off the floor before my mind could catch up, and I went across the circle and took my puppy back. And I wouldn’t let him go for any of the following trade-the-puppy exercises.
Yes, the other owners and the staff were annoyed and defensive and tried to make me feel like I was a bad owner for not letting others handle my dog. But I was furious. Not at them, but at myself. Because I knew the game was no good. I knew I shouldn’t have let my puppy participate. I saw that things were getting too rough. But I denied my instinct. I did not rescue my puppy early enough. The “good animal voice” told me what to do and I shoved it down.
The Fluffy Dog was fine. And as far as I know, so were all the other pups. Mr. Fluff has grown into a dog who adores being handled, scritched, hugged, wrestled, petted, and cuddled. No harm done.
But it was my job to keep him out of danger in the first place.
It was a reminder to trust myself. To listen to my instinct. To care less about being a spoilsport and more about doing the right thing.
To always stand up for my dogs, no matter what others think.