Social Maturity: An animal behaving within accepted social norms of an adult of that species when interacting with others of his or her species.

I have observed over the years that once dogs reach adulthood, some social behavior changes take place. These are important to consider as you raise and train your own service dog.

Socialization Period


As a young pup with the litter and after they go to their new homes, pups are open to everything. He starts to learn basic dog language, and how to inhibit his bite so his playmates will keep playing with him. This early 'window of socialization' of 5 to 12 weeks is what anyone training service dogs takes advantage of.  Everything (people, other dogs, other animals, things, locations, events, surfaces, machines, sounds, smells etc) that the dog has a positive exposure to in this period becomes familiar and this stays with the pup to support him through the various fear periods. If the positive exposure is continued periodically until social maturity, the dog will be comfortable with the things he has been exposed to.

Anything that is not experienced positively in that socialization period, becomes something to be suspicious of and without support from the handler may become a source of lifelong fear. Most dogs can be worked through them of course (depending on the genetics, temperament and health of the individual dog), but that puts an extra barrier in the way of success as a service dog.

Adolescence

As the dog pass through adolescence, he learns how to inhibit his bite further in play so he doesn't hurt other dogs or people. He learns what is polite behavior, which dogs would like to play with him and what behavior gets him a correction from another dog. He learns to read the subtle and quick communication of his species. He learns how to respond to the communication to diffuse potential confrontations. And he learns to make choices not to engage at all. 

An Example of Changes in Social Maturity

The off leash dog park is a great place to observe this change of social behavior in dogs. (If you are going to use dog parks, I recommend the type without fences and that have trails so that dogs can walk with the handlers and beside other dogs. Face to face contact is minimized as they pass other groups of dogs moving in the opposite direction. High volumes of dogs in small fenced areas with non-attentive humans is a recipe for disaster in my experience.)

Young adolescent dogs go to the dog park and make a variety of dog friends. Typically, dogs chose dogs that have a similar style of play that they do. They run side by side as the group moves along the paths, distracted by things to sniff and look at. As they move through adolescence (whether intact or not), they continue learning how to interact with other dog breeds, ages and energy levels and which ones they like and others they do not like. In this walk structure, things usually don't escalate too much, unless the handlers stop to talk.

Not all interactions are totally positive and some dogs (breeds as a whole and individuals) are more resilient to this than others. The closer they get to social maturity, the less open they are to prolonged interactions with unknown dogs whether the breeds are strange or the individuals are unknown to them, or the dogs are rude or snarky.

After a few unwanted altercations between dogs, the humans will typically decrease how often they allow their dog to stop and greet, how often they go to the dog park or they stop going to the park altogether. So in most dog parks, you typically see dogs that are 3 years old and under. This is especially pronounced in fenced dog parks where the dogs are left to entertain themselves.


When Does Social Maturity Occur?

Typically, by the age of 2-3 years, most dogs have their set of friends they are comfortable with and have most of the communication skills and self control they need to live a generally peaceful life with most other dogs. If they meet adolescent dogs, they are less likely to want to play, decrease the duration of play and are less tolerant of rough play from the adolescents (although "puppy license" is still given to pups under 5 months or so).  

The exact age social maturity occurs varies. Some breeds as a whole take longer to reach social maturity (golden retrievers, labrador retrievers, standard poodles), while others are more open lifelong in general (scent hounds as a group tend toward being dog social lifelong as a function of how they were bred to work in groups for humans). In general, I find the smaller dogs are socially mature earlier at 18 months or so and become less tolerant of rude greetings and rough play especially from larger unknown dogs.

What's the Biggest Change Observed?


Once each individual reaches social maturity, they are very happy to see old friends but are less interested in meeting new dogs. Most well-socialized dogs can, however, make new friends, but the process takes longer and multiple meetings are typically needed before the are fully comfortable with other dogs. Then they are included in a circle of friends.

You'll see this with leashed group walks. At first the dog are uneasy when the group first meets. 
Who are these new dogs? What interactions are expected of them? Once the walking starts, they have a task to do.

Walking in the same direction as other dogs gives them time to assess the other dogs in a non-confrontational way so when they do meet face to face at a later time, they already have some history with the other dog to draw from. They can smell the other dog's scent in the air, they can watch his body language and see how he responds to subtle communication from himself and other dogs.

This structure mimics a more socially acceptable way for dogs to meet. They approach on an arc at a distance, then circle nose to bum. Joining in on a big circle walk is actually the best way to join a group. Or if the dogs are all sitting, have them face the same way in the large circle (clockwise or counter clockwise). Once the dogs understand the safe social structure of the walks and that the other dog to dog interactions are minimal, everyone settles in to the job they need to do. 

(By the way, face to face meetings are considered rude in a dog's world but since most people insist that's how their dogs meet, especially on leash, we do have to teach service dogs to be able to politely do that. At the very least, we can ask them turn and face us so they are not facing the unknown dog or rude dog.)

The decreased interest in other unknown dogs at social maturity is also what makes it easier for them to learn to ignore other dogs when they are working. They may still get excited when meeting their friends, but show less interest for stranger dogs and eventually learn to keep working despite the proximity of other dogs. 

What Can Your Do with This Knowledge?

First, observe your dog and other dog's responses. When you first meet a strange dog, does your dog politely turn his head to the side to avoid confrontational direct contact or does he rush right in?  If you don't know how to read dog language, join my Facebook Group Observation Skills for Training Dogs. It's a public group for anyone interested in learning dog language. People post photos and videos and you get practice listing the behaviors you observe. You can't interpret what you can't see! 

Find people with dog social dogs to walk with on a semi-regular basis (once or twice a week), on leash or off. This will keep your service dog's social skills polished and decrease his interest in other dogs. It is also great situation to practice and generalize his service skills. Use the environment to practice specific public access skills. Plan places to stop at benches to practice tasks. Find stairs to practice walking down on a loose leash. Ask the other handlers to help train greetings. Practice the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test items. Be creative!

Try joining a dog club, ask some neighbors to join you or create FB group to advertise your walks. Explain the basic structure of the walks at the beginning for new members so everyone is clear on the expectations. It's also a great social outing for you! One of my group rules is that they must use positive only equipment and interactions with their dogs.

This is the last of the series of 3 article on Adolescence. 
Click here for Part 2.

  1. Brain Challenges Tire Dogs Out Fast

    The fastest way to tire out a puppy or dog is to teach him to use his brain to solve puzzles. 10 minutes of brainwork is more tiring than 30 minutes of straight physical exercise (even in adult dogs).


    Use clicker training and do shaping sessions for teaching future tasks.

    Spread some kibble all over the yard and let him use his nose to find it. Purchase several food puzzle toys and let him go at it. No, don't worry that he may start sniffing at everything, or searching for food later. Giving him an outlet for it at home means he won't have to do it as much when away from home. It also allows you to give the behaviors a cue so you have control over it and can later use it to reinforce other behaviors you have taught him.

    Don't forget that you can combine physical exercise with the mental exercise with many of the foundations skills such as teaching distance. Teach him to run to a mat from a distance, or paw target an object or run around a piece of furniture. If you really want to tire him out, practice impulse control behaviors like "leave it".
  1. Teach and Consistently Practice Impulse Control
    If you start teaching this early on, your dog will have a solid foundation to draw from. Go back to the basics if he forgets during adolescence.
    Here's a video showing how to Teach "Zen" or "Leave it" and ideas how to extend it's application for life.  Make it a game and practice it often.
    Here's Zen for Doorways.

  2. Fear Periods
    Unfortunately, during adolescence many dog experience at least one, sometimes two fear periods. They may last 2 to 6 weeks or longer. (Happily, some never do.) You can help your dog through this period by decreasing the amount of training you do in higher distraction locations where he is showing fear.

    Make a list of each fear. Address each fear individually, using systematic desensitization, counter conditioning and operant conditioning. This changes how he feels about the trigger (object, environment, sound, animal or person).
    The Look at That Game is helpful to start the process at a distance.
    Here's a video that shows how to overcome fear of a shovel.

    Next gradually integrate the trigger back into general training in more distracting environments as long as your dog is okay with it.

There are 11 things to help your dog thrive during adolescence! Use this time for training and it will help you have a great service dog on the other side! If you are having extra challenges because of your disabilities, don't forget you can get help from an in person or online dog training professional for short periods to get you over the "hump"!

This is the second of the series of 3 article on Adolescence
Click here for Part 1

  1. Use Management for Unwanted Behaviors Combined with Teaching What you Would Rather See

    One of the biggest mistakes people make it to give their pup too much freedom too soon. Use baby gates and Xpens to confine your dog when you cannot watch or interact with him. Avoid using them as a time out or he will see being separated from you as punishment. 

    Think of ways that you can prevent your dog from practicing the unwanted behaviors. The more practice he gets, the better he becomes at them.

    Identify specific behaviors you don't like and figure out what behavior you would rather have him do instaad? Do a search on Youtube for positive ways to teach him what you would rather he do. 

    Some common examples:

    A. If your dog has started jumping on people when they arrive, put a gate up between the your living area and the entrance so your dog cannot reach visitors as they come in. Have them come in and wait until your dog has calmed down to let the visitors interact with him. Ideally they avoid eye contact and just calmly talk with you.
    Until he is ready for access,  teach him how to ignore visitors by going to his mat or greeting them with a shoulder or hip target instead of his paws on them. 

    B. If he has started mouthing you or visitors when they play with him, recognize the signs of lower arousal, and stop him before he gets there. You can give him a toy to carry during greeting. That  keeps his mouth busy so he can't grab at them.

    In the meantime, teach him an on/off switch game so he learns to calm himself down in exciting situations. Once he can do it away from the situation, gradually introduce it and apply the game when they arrive but start at a distance from them. 


    C. Is he getting too rambunctious with a housemate? Teach him the Enough cue.


  2. Calm the Environment Down
    If your life is chaotic, maybe it's time to calm it down, for the dog's sake. You will benefit in the long run. Your dog picks up on the stress and activity level of your home and adapts to it. If you are active and irritable all the time, your dog will be too.


    Identify what needs changing and change it step by step. Don't try big changes all at once. Instead, shape yourself in small steps like you shape your dog. That will help you succeed.

    Having a routine can help most dogs. The dog will help you to maintain that routine once he gets accustomed to it. In the beginning, use quiet phone or computer timers to remind you of your schedule. Start with feeding times, exercise periods, play periods and training periods. Add in outings so they aren't too often or too long. Look at how often you are doing rousing activities. Do you need to decrease how often from 5 times a week to 2 or 3?
  1. Capture the Calm
    Focus on the times during the day when your dog is being calm and quiet.
    When you come home, wait until your dog is calm before interacting. 
    Try "Drive By rewards." This is a simple way to capture calm. When your dog is laying on his bed, awake or asleep but is calm, walk by and drop a treat beside his mouth. You could also bend over and give him a slow brief neck massage or long stroke pet. This reinforces him for being calm. So you will get more calm. Yes, this even works with dogs that get excited about food.
    Here's a video that shows these and other examples too.


    Part 3 continues here.

Question: My dog has just turned 8 months and life is a Gong show. He's forgotten all his manners and jumps on me and everyone else. He is chewing things, stealing things and runs away. I got him from a breeder who has specialized in therapy and service dogs for many years. With my disabilities, I am having problems managing this behavior.  What can I do?

Answer: First of all, this is a great question! And a common one. I love that you recognize it is the behavior, not the dog that you are having trouble with! Behavior can be changed!

Unfortunately, even the calmest puppies specifically bred for service dog work go through adolescence. It is a period of fast growth, lack of impulse control and venturing confidence. Hormones are usually the driving factor behind it. In some situations you might also see fear appear. This is normal.

What you don't want to do is have your dog spayed or neutered without due consideration of the risks. Those hormones are important to regulate growth. If removed too early, negative health effects may occur (cancers, CCL rupture etc) and shorten your dog's working life.

Here is an article summarizing a study done by AKC on early Spay and Neuter. 

University of Davis, in California did a long term study on Golden Retrievers found that spaying and neutering affected the health in a negative way. 

Here is one vet's opinion on early spay and neuter for sports dogs. While service dogs aren't sport dogs, many of the same stressors apply.

Goldens, Labs and German Shepherds, according to the research, seem to have a high risk for health complications of spay and neuter.

Here are 11 things you CAN do to help your big-bodied but still puppy-brained adolescent develop into that ideal service dog you hoped for. Tthey are divided in 3 parts)

  1. Recognize Signs of Stress and Arousal
    Learning to read your dog's stress level in different situations and arousal level is important. Stress can be both distress (bad stress) and eustress (good stress). Both trigger the hormones that are detrimental to the dog if they occur at high levels over the long-term.
    Join my Facebook Observation Skills group https://www.facebook.com/groups/observationskillsdogs/ to learn to see the behaviors that indicate stress. The Dog Decoder http://www.dogdecoder.com is also a great App to start learning dog behavior.

  2. Quality Food
    Since food is a building block of all life, ensure that your dog is eating the best you can afford. Choose ones with no additives (coloring, taste), no salt, medium levels of protein (20-26% in kibble) and fat (no higher than 10-15%) for normal growth. Consider grain free, home-cooked or a raw diet as options if you can't find what you are looking for.

    Here's a link that describes not only what is in dog food, but also how each is made an other important information.
    http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=2+1659&aid=2661

  3. Enough Sleep
    Since your pup is growing so quickly, getting plenty of quiet uninterrupted sleep is important at this stage. Think of how much teenage kids sleep. Dogs are no different. They need about 18-20 hours sleep per day. They are up for a n hour or two a day, but nap for long periods each day. As an adult, he will spend most of his time resting, waiting for you. You might as well get him accustomed to that habit now. Often an over-tired puppy is a wound up pup. Place him in a quiet room if you have a noisy house or confine him in an Xpen (Exercise pen) or cosy crate and give him time to calm. Turn on the radio to classical music or play a Through a Dog's Ear CD or sound recording of a E-book.
    Dog beds invite a nap. Have several around the room.
    Place doorless crates in several key locations if that is what you or he prefers.
    A neck or chest massage can help him start relaxing if he is over-tired.
    Once he has learned to be quiet, phase out the music and massage and add distractions back in stages.

  4. Outlet for Chewing
    As puppies jaws develop, they need to chew. Long after their adult teeth are in at 6 months, they still chew. Puppies also chew to relieve stress. Make sure he has plenty of different size, shapes, textures and materials to choose from. You may need to encourage him to chew his toys. Nylabone and Kong products, homemade braided toys and natural chews like chicken backs, and mammal ribs are great edible chew items. A whole carrot may be a nice treat as well. Avoid processed leather skins and chew toys (especially anything from China), cooked bones and weight-bearing bones. Pick the toys up and play with them with your dog to get him started, then let him continue on. Keep your retrieve training objects up out of reach and only bring them out for training.

  5. Appropriate Exercise
    Puppies that are over-exercised can contribute to out of control behavior. All exercise should be voluntary until his bone plates have closed at 18 months. This means avoiding repeated walking or running on hard surfaces, jumping under elbow height. It is important to let the dog determine how far and fast he will walk, assuming it's slower, not faster than you. Forced marches beside a wheel chair for long periods are not suitable. The type of exercise is also important. Throwing a ball repeatedly many times a week creates a dog that is adrenaline charged (and risks cruciate ligament tears). Long line walks on the beach or in a field are better. Hikes with frequent sniff and rest stops are great too. Swimming is great for a muscle and cardio workout.

    As a general rule: walking builds muscle, running builds cardiovascular stamina.

    The Puppy Culture Exercise Chart is a useful guide for different ages and gives ideas on different type of exercise for each stage of life.

    Here is an article that explains what can happen if the dog gets too much exercise of the wrong kind and duration.

    Click here for Part 2 soon!

 

Hip Dysplasia (HD) is the worry of every service dog handler. New research and some anecdotal information has recently come to light to help prevent it. Puppies are not born with it but most dogs start showing signs of HD by 18 months if they are going to develop it.

Genetics

Until recently, the biggest cause thought to predict HD in dogs was genetics. It is important to see the hip scores of both parents as that is proof that the breeder has tested the adult dogs for it. Without testing the adults (2 years old and up), there is no way to know their hip scores and what genes they will pass on to their pups. Scores are fair, good and excellent for healthy hips. Affected hips are rated as mild, moderate or severe.

Orthopedic Foundation for Animals

Breeders and researchers are now discovering that the environment in different life stages plays a much bigger role than once throught. This is a good thing since it gives handlers the choice to create environments that will minimize the possibility of HD in their SD candidates as well as help them choose adult dogs with miminal risk of HD.

Shape and Surface of Litter Box

Anedotal evidence suggests that HD can start developing when the pup is still with the litter.
Norwich Terrier breeder Magda Chiarella has suggested that the shape and surface of whelping box may be important. She observed that HD is non-existent in wild canids. She postulates that is due to the bowl shape of the den they grow up in that keeps the pups in a smaller space as well as the ground surface that gives the pups traction. She even did some experiments on a few litters to see how providing traction in the form of rubberbacked rugs on the floor of the litter box could help the pups start to use ther toes from the first few days to nurse, rather than put weight on their knees on slick surfaces that many breeders provide in the litter box.
Click here for the link

Exercising on Varied Natural Surfaces for the first 3 mos

Randi Krontveit's research suggests that fast growth of large breeds during puppy stage may actually not contribute to HD in adult dogs as previously thought. He also found that " that daily exercise outdoors in gently undulating terrain up until the age of three months is very helpful in preventing hip dysplasia in the large breeds he studied." Comparatively, he also found that pups who did steps or stairs on a daily basis had an increased risk of HD. So, pups who played and exercised in natural outdoor environments on varied terrains had overall a lower chance of HD than pups who used man-made environments. After three months of age, there were no benefits to natural surfaces. He recommends "that genetically prone pups should be exercised regularly to strengthen musculature, but extensive jumping/stair use, etcetera should be avoided until growth is completed (at approximately 12 months)."

Click here for the link

Here's another version of his study with contact info

Maintain a Good Weight

Keeping a dog overweight has long been known to contribute to general health issues including HD. Keeping a dog slim (so you can just feel a thick layer of fat on his ribs with a single finger tip) reduces the workload on joints, heart etc. 

Avoid Repetitive Jumping or Running

until the bone plates have closed. For small breeds this is about a year. For medium dogs it is about 18 months and larger breeds may be as long as 30 months. Jumping (agility, frisbee, skipping) and running (using a treadmill, jogging with the dog, or dog running beside a bicycle) puts an unnatural strain on the joints and increases the chances of injury. Especially avoid hard surfaces for exercise. Long flights of stairs should be avoided for games like retrieving as well. More repetitive motion that can be very hard on the joints.

Neutering a Dog Before Physical Maturity

also appears to increase the incidence of HD as well as has many other health risks. 

Click here for the study

Testing Your Dog 

Have your service dog's hips tested at 2 years of age to make sure s/he does not have this debilitating disease. If s/he does, speak with a qualified orthopedic veterinarian to decide if it will play a role in retiring your dog. Purebred and mixed breed dogs can be tested and scored.

OFA Orthopedic Foundation for Animals 

I
f your dog has mild dysplasia, all is not lost. Many dogs go undetected as long as they get regular moderate and varied exercise that builds and maintains the muscle needed to support the hip (and other) joints. Some supplements may help. Talk to your orthopedic vet.