The Little Rascal Files 3: Children

I noticed that Hadley seems a little wary of kids. I think he has been well socialized to dogs and people at his breeder’s place, but probably hasn’t come across many (if any) children. It’s important to me that he get along well with children, since I know how hard it can be to live with a dog who used to be reactive to them. I constantly have to read Phoebe’s body language when we’re around kids in order to either reinforce calm behavior, play LAT or curve around them. I thought it would be nice to start Hadley out on a path to a friendly relationship with tiny humans.


My motto for a potentially hyper-vigilant and easily over-stimulated breed like a Border Collie is: quality before quantity. I want him to have several distinctively positive experiences with kids rather than lots of neutral ones.


So when I took him out the other day, I looked around and saw three kids playing with a kite in the fields. Hah! I carried the little rascal over there, put him down at a distance of about 60 meters, let him look, and counterconditioned with liver pâté. Alican, the youngest boy, turned out to be a big dog fan. He came over and asked if he could meet my puppy, and I instructed him on how to greet Hadley in a safe way. Soon, he could feed Hadley treats, and Hadley would climb on his lap, wag his tail for Alican and lick his face. Alican’s brother also came over to meet Hadley and got to feed him treats as well. After a few minutes, we left and I took Hadley back into his crate, where he slept the well-deserved sleep of adventurous puppies.

Photo 07-09-15 1 58 01 pm

The next time I took Hadley out to potty, Alican was hanging out in our street – he had been waiting all afternoon for Hadley to come back. Hadley was also happy to see him and let his young friend give him belly rubs. Hadley was a little tired at that point, and Alican gave him a gentle puppy massage – belly, side, ears, legs, paws. Hadley was completely relaxed. I’m very proud of this puppy, who learned to to trust and relax around his first young friend in only a few minutes of socialization time!

There are two things that worry me a bit though. Hadley, at 10 weeks old, tends to growl at strange dogs and hide behind his humans when we encounter them on the street – Tom told me about several encounters he had with strange dogs. Tom and Hadley also encountered kids playing land hockey, and Hadley was run-away-level scared. I haven’t had this particular problem, because I never leave the house without treats, and usually retreat in time and stuff him with treats when I see his body get stiff because of something he sees – countercondition, countercondition, countercondition!

Phoebe was similar when she was little. I did lots of desensitizing, counterconditioning, and played training games like LAT, but it either wasn’t enough, or her genetic predisposition to nervousness was too strong – she’s still a wary adult dog.

The sensitive period for puppy socialization is between 3 weeks and about 3 months of age. (1) The people, animals, things, sounds and surfaces puppies have a sufficient number of positive experiences with in that time will be considered safe by the puppy once it grows up. Neutral experiences are not enough, and negative ones (and fear response is a negative response!) are detrimental. For example, if a puppy does not learn how to appropriately behave around adult dogs, they might have poor social skills for the rest of their lives – or need a lot of training time later in life. If they don’t get to have positive interactions with children, men with hoodies, or skateboarders, they might develop aggression towards them later on. A puppy who is scared of a particular kind of person, animal or situation at this age is likely to become more scared as his senses get sharper and his fear response grows further – unless he gets to make positive experiences with these particular people, things, sounds or situations that outnumber the scary ones.


Knowing that puppies generally don’t “just outgrow” their wariness, I’m going to tackle this problem systematically before the molehill grows into a mountain:


It’s time to get a hockey sticks and a pucks, so I can countercondition and desensitize Hadley to that particular stimulus. I’ll also get the skateboard out (maybe teach Hadley to ride it himself?) and enlist Alican’s help with the scooter. And as far as leash encounters with strange dogs are concerned, my dog friends will have to step in to practice safe and happy encounters!

When I took Hadley out at noon today, we met Alican again. He was on his scooter, so I asked him to show it to Hadley. He dropped it in the grass at a distance. Hadley went over to explore. Then I lifted it up. Hadley checked it out again. Next, I moved it back and forth in the grass, where it was less noisy than on the pavement. Hadley looked relaxed. Next, I asked our young friend to slowly ride the scooter up and down at a little distance. Hadley looked interested, but not scared, and I fed him liver pâté and other delicacies. I then rode the scooter myself, and Hadley followed without worrying and without trying to attack it. Yeah!

This had only taken a few minutes, and since our young friend was there, I asked his help for a different task – for a restrained recall. I’ve been working on the beginnings of a whistle recall. This time, I got Alican to hold Hadley, walked away for about 5 meters, whistled, clicked and reinforced with yummy treats when he got to me. Oh, what a happy puppy, running as fast as his little puppy legs would carry him and throwing himself into my outstretched arms!

(1) Compare Yin, Sophia. Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy off Right.

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