Socialisation: Not Everything

For so long, the message has been “socialise, socialise, socialise“. The idea has been that, regardless of the puppy you select, you should be able to socialise it into a happy, normal, well adjusted pup.

Markable Curly Coated Retriever puppies, socialising with some cows.

Markable Curly Coated Retriever puppies, socialising with some cows.

The more I learn about dogs, the more I am inclined to disagree.  I think we have hugely overlooked the role of genetics in determining many behaviours. While I will always advocate socialisation to get the best out of a dog, I think some dogs are genetically wired to be confident despite their socialisation experiences.

I have some anecdotal evidence to share with you.

I used to work in boarding kennels.  We had a pretty extensive questionnaire we’d ask new clients and, sometimes, owners would admit: “We didn’t really socialise her.”  Considering these admissions, most of these dogs were actually quite okay.  I can recall very few cases when these dogs were outwardly aggressive to people, and most were okay with dogs, too.  What kind of explanation supports this evidence?  To me, it suggests that these dogs were either genetically ‘good’ dogs, solid and confident, or genetically ‘mostly good’ dogs, which needed minimal socialisation to complete an adequate behaviour code.

Another example with my own girl, Winona.  Winona came into my household at a difficult time and got relatively little socialisation compared to other puppies that have come through my house.  However, she is a very confident dog.  She is tolerant of all handling, she likes all people, and though she is sometimes ‘overwhelmed’ by large dogs when she first meets them, she recovers well and interacts appropriately.  It’s clear that Winona is supposed to be a confident, happy, non-aggressive dog. Socialisation had, at most, very little to do with her as an adult dog.  Considering the confident, non-aggressive dispositions of her parents, I am not surprised.  Winona is genetically confident.

Mooch the Norwegian Elkhound

Mooch the Norwegian Elkhound – with us for 2 months due to her severe fear issues.

And then let’s consider Mooch.  Mooch was a foster dog we had last year for 2 months.  She was an incredibly fearful dog.  It took two weeks before my partner could touch her.  Once she was on my lap when a stranger approach, and she expelled her anal glands in terror (I didn’t even know this was possible).  From her history, it seems she was (almost) kept exclusively in a house for 2 years, being tended by immediate family, with few visitors and few outings.

It took very little effort to bring Mooch around to a near-normal dog.  She will never be perfect, but she didn’t take huge efforts or time to get her to be a decent dog. I took her out to tracking training with me a few times, and this is a very busy house – you need to get used to seeing a lot of people fairly quick!  You would think, from her history, Mooch would be impossible to restore to confidence.  I think Mooch was never meant to be a fearful dog –  I met Mooch’s parents and I have met few dogs as beautifully confident and contented.  I think Mooch was a genetically confident dog, with a hugely neglected socialisation period, that meant she displayed fearful behaviours.

Now, again, I believe  the environments and the genetics work together to produce the dog. I’d like to emphasise that I think socialisation is important, but not the ‘be-and-end-all’ of dog behaviour.  To me, the message of “socialise, socialise, socialise” is outdated.

I vote for a new slogan: “select, select, select”. I’ll explain in my next post.



The Iconic Australian Dingo

My non-Australian readers may not know about the Aussie icon, the Dingo (Canis lupus).  The dingo is the only large carnivore on mainland Australia, and it is unique as it is also a placental mammal (while most mammals in Australia are marsupials).

Headshot of an Australian Dingo

Headshot of an Australian Dingo - photo courtsey of Flickr (username: 0ystercatcher).

Aboriginal people inhabited Australia before the invasion by European settlers.  It is believed that dingoes entered the Australian environment by trading between aboriginal people and visiting Asian ships.  Though they are not strictly a ‘native’ Australian animal, they are practically and are the principal predator on mainland Australia.

While a lot of texts describe dingoes as ‘wild animals’, it seems that the relationship between dingoes and aboriginal people was (and still is) a bit more complex.  Dingoes provided companionship, like a dog, to aboriginal people, but also hunted and fended for themselves in packs.  It seems dingoes took the best of both worlds – the domesticated tameness of a dog but the ability to hunt, and the independence, of their distant wolf ancestors.

To me, the Australian dingo makes for interesting study for anyone interested in dogs.  It seems like the dingo has almost taken reverse domestication – they were imported from Asian countries (approximately 5,000 years ago) as domesticated, but then ‘went wild’ and hunted in Australia.  While Coppinger and others talk about wolves becoming dogs, it seems that dogs will then became dingoes again when given the opportunity (at least in Australia).

Screen grab from the ABC Radio National website.

Screen grab from the ABC Radio National website.

The reason I’m writing about the dingo today is after being reminded about their significance from the ABC Radio National ‘Bush Telegraph’ program’s recent segment called Iconic Animals – The Dingo.  For anyone who has an hour free, you are sure to enjoy this program.

This radio program talks about how the dingo entered Australia (briefly), before going into dingo vocalisations, colouring, and conservation.  Conservation is a tricky issue – with many farmers being legally able to shoot, trap, bait, and otherwise exterminate dingoes (as they appear to be ‘wild dogs’, and, fundamentally, are wild dogs), while they are also threatened as they are breeding with domesticated dogs to make dingo-dog hybrids. That is, pure dingoes are under threat of extinction (though pure populations do exist).  The program looks also at how connected indigenous (aboriginal) people of Australia are to the dingo, in that they believe that dingoes and humans are family.

It’s a broad program, looking at many different issues, but certainly interesting – and I’m sure would be especially interesting to my international readers who have not heard of the dingo before.

Click here to read about the program and listen.


Introducing Dulcie

I mentioned in a past post that Lucky wasn’t stay with us because we had a long term foster dog. It’s time for you to meet her.

This is Dulcie.

Dulcie the shar pei cross staffordshire bull terrier, upon arrival in South Australia

Dulcie the shar pei cross staffordshire bull terrier, upon arrival in South Australia

Dulcie was admitted to Queanbeyan Pound (New South Wales), and when her kill-date came around on the 6th of January she didn’t have any local options.  Adelaide All Breed Dog Rescue organised and financed her save, having her flown to South Australia, where she was then placed into my care.

Dulcie the shar pei x staffordshire bull terrier

Dulcie the shar pei x staffordshire bull terrier

She showed herself to be a very sweet loving girl, very people orientated. She knows ‘sit’ and uses it to demand attention (adorably!).  She adopted my fiancee, and spent most of the time hanging out with him.  She was a bit of a grump with the other dogs, but that’s okay – that’s what I have dog yards for.

But there was a big problem… Continue reading


The Week in Tweets (19 January 2012)

I’d like to start this as a weekly (or mostly weekly – I don’t want to be bullied by my blog!) segment, where I post my favourite links from the last week.  I normally Tweet my favourite links (at my Twitter account), but it occurred to me that some of you not on Twitter may want to check them out, too. Plus, I can talk about them in more than 140 characters here. Continue reading