From the time we brought Sherman home it was our hope that he would earn a Therapy Dog distinction. I’ll talk more about this when addressing purchasing vs adopting a dog and about our Therapy Dog journey itself.
The point being… I had read up on preparing a puppy for therapy work and one statement stuck out in particular: Therapy Dogs are born, not made. (Therapy Dogs International) OH NO! Lesson learned right off the bat; well over fifty percent of dogs who attempt to earn this distinction do not make the cut. Our dream for Sherman was, it turns out, more in his hands than in ours.
Knowing there was little we could do to determine the outcome a full year down the road (testing cannot occur until the dog has reached one year of age) we decided to do the only thing we could in the meantime. We were going to socialize the crap out of this puppy. We would take him everywhere he was allowed to go, introduce him to every smell, sight, and sound that would not harm him, and see what we had on our hands.
I recommend this with every puppy! The window for properly socializing a young pup is a fairly short one, beginning at four weeks and ending at fourteen to sixteen weeks. It’s traditional to bring home a puppy at eight weeks (that’s when we grabbed Sherman), but weeks four to eight are very important for puppy and his litter mates. By week four puppies do three things really well: they eat, they play, and they sleep. (Oh yeah… and they eliminate waste. And how!) Their play is often rough and tumble, and they are as happy to play with humans and mom as they are with their litter mates. During this first part of socialization, it’s best the puppy remains with his litter so he can be learning appropriate play and bite inhibition. That’s often what you’re seeing when an older dog snaps firmly at a biting puppy. “Hey punk! That hurt! Knock it off!”
So here comes the Little General at eight weeks and I’m realizing we have only about eight weeks to get this picture firmly ingrained in his head… it’s not about you, Sherman. You share this world with a whole lot of noise makers!
Within the first two weeks we suspected we did have a “born” Therapy Dog after all. Sherman displayed an innate gentleness with children and elderly people, as well as a complete lack of fear. I feel fairly confident saying this dog fears nothing! He took car trips, met a zutopia of other animal species, rode on elevators, moving sidewalks, stood near planes, trains and automobiles. We left him with dog sitters for a few hours, then overnight.
And that’s really the key to socializing a puppy. It’s probably best not to blow it off as “easy” or “anthropomorphizing”. The Monks of New Skete say in their book “Let Dogs Be Dogs” one of the more frequent and disconcerting things they see in letters from readers is “I had no idea he was going to suck up so much of my time!” to which the monks ask what you and I may as well. Really? Why bother having a dog then?
Socializing Sherman took a LOT of time, not to mention money (for training). There were things I had to give up… the one that hurts the most is that I had just gotten involved in running and was enjoying competing in triathlons. I was in the best shape of my life… note the past tense. In case you were wondering how exercising a dog 1+ hour a day stacks up against running 40+ minutes a day, let me tell you it’s no contest. I’m still swearing every day I’m going to get back to it.
But now there are two.
Zuzu is seven months old and well past her “socialization window” at this point. She was a little trickier than Sherman. For a while, I doubted she would pass the tests required for therapy certification as she was barking at children and older people. But in Zu’s case it was a matter of socialization. She had to learn that a) Children and the elderly won’t hurt you and b) You cannot bark at them in spite of your nerves. She learned quickly as she does most things, and I can already tell you this. We’re going to ace that part of her therapy test. She’s not quite Miss Social Butterfly… but she’s learning a lot from watching her brother!
One thought on “Mr. Social Butterfly”
I’m glad to see that you did your research and realized something that a lot of people don’t when attempting to train their own service or therapy dogs: it’s not for every dog.
Can’t wait to see more updates on your and your pups’ journey!