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Romping dogs can be trained
Dear Dr. Spiegel: I volunteer quite a bit of time each month at a local Wilmington animal shelter and an interesting question regarding animal behavior has arisen. A group of volunteers routinely holds an "Animal Socialization" hour three days each week. Each dog is given an hour to run within the large fenced perimeter. Dogs that have been successfully mixed with certain other dogs are given the opportunity to run within a group of two to four dogs and are closely monitored for any signs of negative behavior. If negative signs do occur, the dog is removed from the group and allowed to run without other dogs in another fence. This program has been in existence for the last four years and seemed to give a great deal of exercise to dogs that spend 95% of their time in a 4' by 10' cage. Recently, another group of volunteers has taken small groups of these dogs to formal dog training classes and achieved considerable success. These volunteers have invested a good deal of their time in the training, and now question whether the "Animal Socialization" hour undermines the dogs' training. The concern is that the socialization actually feeds the pack instinct in dogs, and that this instinct is undesirable in domesticated animals that must be adopted. My question is this: If all volunteers use the same commands to control the dogs, does allowing social dogs the opportunity to exercise in groups of two to four animals affect the training they have received? Please give me your thoughts on this issue. The socialization program has been temporarily suspended while information is gathered, and I feel extremely bad that the dogs are not getting the same exercise that they are accustomed to. Thank you so much for your time and support! Best regards, TN, Bear
Dear TN, In and of itself, the exercise you describe should have no harmful effects on the training that they are receiving. I can understand why there might be concern. Some things may be happening which might lead one to believe that it undermines training. These dogs are out running and they're probably charging at each other, and occasionally biting at each other's neck and feet. When you try to use your commands on them at these times they don't listen, and they're not quite the same dog that they are when you have them in a quiet room or outside by themselves. Suddenly this dog that you were working with and are proud of its accomplishments has turned into a wild, running, biting uncontrollable animal. So how can that be a good thing? They are getting their energy out and exercising and having a great time. Is this "Animal Socialization?" No, not really. Socialization to other animals, to people and to environments is primarily achieved in the first few months of life. Older dogs can sometimes benefit by repeated exposures to other dogs if introduced properly. But it seems that the ones that have problems with other dogs, as you've explained, are separated and not allowed to join in any reindeer games. As such, it's the dogs who are already well-socialized to other dogs that are allowed to participate in the "socialization program." So a socialization program it's really not. An exercise/play period with other dogs it is. Now, what about this "pack instinct?" The social system that dogs evolved with resembles activities and behaviors related to life within a wolf pack. As such, this includes far more than just aggression (from which the apparent negative views of this term are undoubtedly derived). Pack life involves greeting and affection, caring for one another and play, among other social behaviors. This "pack instinct" is one of the main reasons that dogs make such good pets. Dogs do hunt as packs, and when dogs are loose and running as a pack, the excitement of one fuels the excitement of the others, and so they get each other all excited. In this state, a show of aggression by one can invoke such a reaction in the others, and hence, a group or pack mentality. Part of the concern may lie in the fact that when they are out running, some of the dogs will bite at the necks and feet of some of the other dogs. These are perfectly normal and acceptable behaviors typically displayed by subordinate dogs towards more dominant dogs. However, if the dog being bitten stops or cowers, rolls over, or growls and snaps, then you may have a different interaction occurring. In that case, one dog may be actively asserting its dominance. The receiving dog may submit fully, counter the assertion with aggression in response, or you may see anything in between. Such situations need to be carefully evaluated to decide on whether or not to intervene. Another thing that can be misconstrued as interfering with or countering training is that during these exercise periods the dogs become unresponsive to commands. When training animals, it is important to do training at times when there are few distractions and the animal is calm. It takes time to gradually and systematically build up the level of excitement and distractions that you bring to the training sessions. If you give the animal a command when it's too distracted by other things, like getting out to run free with other dogs, then the dog will probably not obey, and then you are undermining your own efforts in training the dog. It is important that the dogs get exercise and it is important that the dogs get training. In building a program to make these dogs more highly desirable and adoptable, there is much to be considered. I commend you and the other volunteers in your group for giving your time and energy to help these animals.