Frolic gets sick or hurt and goes to the vet. The visit to the vet is painful or scary. The next time Frolic goes to the vet, Frolic is her normal, happy self. Fido gets sick or hurt and goes to the vet. The visit to the vet is painful or scary. The next time Fido goes to the vet Fido is aggressive. What is the difference between these two dogs? There are genetic differences, of course, but once you have your dog, you cannot change his genes. Is there a difference you can influence? Yes!
The difference is padding. No, no, not like padding for football or soccer — behavioral padding. Behavioral padding is defined as “a wealth of positive experiences”. Let’s say your dog has not met many strangers. Someone, known to you but unknown to your dog, visits your home. For any number of reasons – tall, male, beard, glasses, or walking cane, your dog finds the person frightening. Your dog has limited padding. In other words, your dog has limited positive experiences with strangers, and is more likely to be aggressive or fearful to all strangers.
Contrast the above hypothetical Fido to a hypothetical well-padded Frolic. Frolic has had lots of positive, friendly experiences with strangers in her home. Frolic is less likely to conclude that one scary stranger means all strangers are scary.
The difference between Frolic’s experience and Fido’s experience can be tricky. You might think that Fido has had many positive experiences. Unfortunately your opinion does not count. Only if Fido thinks his experience is positive does the experience count as a positive one.
Observe your dog’s body language when his is socializing. Is his tail up, down, or tucked between his legs? Does he approach without aggression? Does he lick his lips often? Lip licking, or sticking the tongue out, is a sign of anxiety. Does your dog move as he normally does, or does he move very slowly? All of these behaviors are signs that your dog is not enjoying himself. Perhaps you need to be farther away from the action. Perhaps you have chosen a place with too much activity. Perhaps you need to contact a professional to assist you with your dog’s socialization.
Treats can be used to improve your dog’s opinion of new experiences. For example, while at the vet, you can offer small pieces of chicken for the vet and the technicians to give to the dog. A few pieces of real meat or cheese from the receptionist, again from the technician, several from the vet, and your puppy will love going to the vet, despite the occasional injection.
Does your dog eagerly approach strange people and dogs? That is, does he approach with his tail up, no lip licking, no aggression? Does he walk along at a normal speed, without stiff, slow movements? If a stranger stops petting your dog, does the dog immediately move away, or does your dog ask for more petting?
Ask yourself if your Fido has enough behavioral padding. Can your dog have a bad experience and still be friendly and happy? Or do you need to add some padding to your dog’s experiences?
Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed