written by Bonnie Wittrock
submitted by Marj Brooks
A Doberman’s suspicion level is often overlooked in the raising of a Doberman puppy. Maybe I shouldn’t say overlooked, but instead say not understood and then misinterpreted. For some puppies learning how to deal with their natural suspicion can be a trying experience especially if they don’t have a good foundation of socializing to fall back on.
Socialization, along with a strong nervous system, are two of the requirements required to have a happy, well-adjusted adult. For many years now I have written article after article about how to socialize a Doberman puppy, the importance of that socialization, that no matter how much you do socialize the puppy, it could always benefit from more and if you miss critical periods you cannot regain what you have lost. Once the window closes in those critical periods it cannot be reopened again with the same success as when we had our first opportunity.
Suspicion in a Doberman is a natural trait. It is required for the dog to be a good personal protector. If a Doberman doesn’t exhibit a certain amount of suspicion then it would be more like a Lab or a Golden who just thinks
the world is always fun and safe so there is nothing to fear.
To keep it simple, there are basically two kinds of suspicion. Positive suspicion and Negative suspicion. We all strive to have dogs that have a good healthy positive suspicion level. With positive suspicion it is like the person who enters an area and sees something that doesn’t look quite right. The person watches the suspicious activity going on with a frame of mind that this doesn’t look right and maybe I should go and check it out. There is caution to the situation but courage and determination that the activity going on isn’t right and needs investigation. This type of suspicion is positive and good. Positive suspicion has no fear involved with it, only concern and caution with a desire to see what is going on and to deal with it if need be.
Negative suspicion is the type that the person sees what is going on, knows
it is not right but is quick to leave the area rather than deal with it. There is definitely fear, indecision and a desire not to confront something different or odd.
Our Doberman puppies go through many changes as they grow to maturity.
The phases that they go through can really be in conflict unless they have a
strong base of socializing to steer them to understand what is normal in life, what is abnormal, what is safe and what is dangerous. The dog lacking in socializing falls into the negative suspicion very easily. At a young age (3 – 6 weeks) we sometimes see puppies exhibiting a lot of negative behaviors. Worry or screaming when picked up, shying under the pig rail in the whelping box, avoiding new sounds or visuals. This is way to soon to judge a puppy temperament to a final degree. It does sound strange to say this but I have seen people make opinions of puppies at this age as if it were going to be a lifetime behavior. At these early ages, (3 – 16 weeks) the puppies are gathering information. Mother nature has instilled them with lots of negative suspicion so they can survive those first weeks. At this stage a child or a rattlesnake are the same to a puppy. The situation is new and needs to be met with some caution until the puppy figures out if it is safe or not. During this period it is up to the breeder to expose the puppy to all kinds of things that are new and different. Both visual and sound stimulus is needed during this time. As the puppy’s experience range changes so does the threshold for worry and the time it takes to move forward into something new is quicker.
A young puppy just doesn’t have the information needed to make them
confident that they can handle whatever the world may throw at them. They
shouldn’t be confident — they wouldn’t survive.
Now, there are many more aspects of why a dog displays positive or negative suspicion levels, nervous system strength, drives, experience, age, hormones, etc. Even the most well-socialized puppy will go through periods of indecision under certain circumstances but they don’t stay in that behavior for long and the smart owner will recognize those periods and step up the activity level for socializing and be more diligent in order to bring the puppy through this difficult time. The tendency, when a puppy starts acting too negative, is to keep the puppy home and out of sight so people don’t see the problem. This is absolutely the worst thing you can do. This puts the puppy into a comfort zone and that comfort zone doesn’t have confidence, courage, surprise, investigation, positive suspicion opportunities, etc. This is the time the puppy should be challenged to come through this critical period and grow more confident. Keeping a puppy home even just a week during one of these critical periods can make you lose something in the puppy’s confidence that you will never regain to the same level. Unfortunately if the opportunity is missed your puppy will never recover to the point they could have been had they been properly socialized and often it is a catalyst time that sets the mood for how the puppy will react in the future to things that are different. At a young age (lets say 8 weeks), if a puppy shows fright or caution over something new, it may take seconds to a minute or two of firm persuasion to get the puppy to check out the scary thing. This is a normal behavior for a young pup. If they flew head first into every situation at that age their survival would be at risk. However, the same puppy at 16 weeks may take 15 minutes to become more relaxed and may never be fully relaxed in that time span. By 6 months of age the puppy may not respond positively at all. In fact you may not even be able to get the puppy to use his head and approach the problem with some common sense. Fear will totally posses the situation. There may be some tolerance involved from the puppy but getting to a positive behavior with the puppy relaxed and tail up could be very difficult or impossible.
If you decide to buy an older dog or a puppy from a breeder who doesn’t let their puppies go to new homes until they are 12 – 16 weeks of age, you had best be sure that lots has been done with that puppy. Things away from the litter mates so you know that the foundation is in good shape to build a well adjusted adult on. I personally can’t imagine trying to properly socialize an entire litter to 16 weeks of age. I don’t think it is possible to do as good a job as someone who has just one puppy to look after. It still surprises me how some people can be in this sport, hobby, business for many years and not pick up on some of the very obvious behaviors to be careful of or diligent with. Rose colored glasses are in great supply in this sport of dogs.
Lets not overlook that negative behaviors, like running away from something
new or unseen (sounds) which can be a normal reaction in some very young
puppies. That is mother nature’s survival instinct that is ingrained in the puppy. The running away is what you should be concerned about at a young age but instead you should be concerned with how quickly that puppy stops and thinks about what just happened and goes to investigate. That quick reaction to get a safe distance is a survival trait. Of course we all want a
puppy to charge headlong into any situation — it makes us proud. Well I tell you, I have lived with dogs like that and keeping them from hurting themselves is a fulltime job. It is nice for a dog to have some common sense and the ability to stop and think about some things. I decided years ago that drives and common sense are on opposite ends of a teeter-totter. As drive goes up, common sense goes down and when common sense goes up, drives go down.
When socializing a puppy the handler must be sensitive to the puppy’s
needs while at the same time being careful not to reward the negative suspicion exhibited. I see owners time after time petting and consoling their puppies, telling the puppy “its okay, don’t be afraid” the entire time stroking the puppy and putting the puppy into a comfort zone while the puppy is displaying the negative behavior. The correct thing to do is not make a big deal out of it, be understanding and let the puppy look it over before being pushed, but the handler must not reward the puppy with stroking and kind words. Just wait and watch the puppy. Now, this is assuming that you, like a good owner, have your puppy on a leash so they can’t avoid situations or run away from them. Give the pup a reasonable amount of time to decide for himself. Its okay to encourage the pup and to tap the object and if that doesn’t work then force the issue gently through play and encouragement. In a young pup with good temperament it won’t take but a minute or two to gain the confidence needed to overcome the fear. Of course our hope is that our puppies never show worry or fright to an object but that is the rare puppy and that kind of puppy comes with its own set of problems that have to be worked with. I had a puppy once that, at 9 weeks of age, crawled up on the wood pile and onto the roof of the house. When I saw where she was and yelled at her she ran down the roof and jumped from about 9 feet into my arms. Believe me, with a puppy like that we are lucky to reach adulthood.
So much can be learned by just sitting and watching the puppy work through problems. Its my belief in young puppies that they learn through stress. Too many people help the puppies through difficulties rather than letting them work out the problem themselves. I make a point of doing something slightly stressful everyday. A new set of stairs, a swing, a walk in the woods, a noisy toy, etc, etc, etc. It is all a new set of learning skills and the puppies threshold for worry or unwillingness will move to stronger areas with each success and survival of something new. Raising a puppy is no small task. It is a task I enjoy and would never want to trust to someone else. If you do the early training and socializing you will learn so much more about your dog. Getting your dog at an older age you would have missed many opportunities to understand what makes your dog tick.
Taking a puppy out of their comfort zone and area and to new smells, sights
and noises is the only way that a puppy can grow into a well-adjusted adult. You absolutely, unequivocally, cannot do all of your early socializing at home. Never! You must make the decision early on that you are either going to risk exposing your puppy to some disease or lose temperament opportunities. One thing is for sure; if you take your pup out you may or may not expose your pup to disease but by not taking your pup out you will lose temperament opportunities and socializing. Of course, if you take your puppy out you will be careful where you take it and you will be sure you are taking it to safe places. For example, with a puppy at 8 weeks of age you probably wouldn’t go to a dog park. There is too much risk there. Puppy classes, shopping areas, secluded parts of a park where lots of dogs are not at aren’t. Put some thought into it and you will find places that are new and challenging and fairly safe.
You will see the suspicion level change as the puppy gets older and
becomes more experienced with the world. Only with maturity can you have
positive suspicion. It is built into a puppy to be cautious. Seeing negative suspicion in a puppy only tells the handler that the stimulus for that suspicion needs to be checked out with the puppy to show them a positive end result. Letting them avoid a stimulus only builds more negativity into the pup. Check it out and it will strengthen the resolve in the puppy to go see.
Raising a well-adjusted, social adult with an excellent temperament is not just the responsibility of the breeder and the breeder’s breeding program. A
breeder basically hands over an 8 week old lump of clay that is just starting to understand the world. It is up to the new owner to carry on all the work the breeder has put into that puppy. To this point the good breeder has researched the pedigree for good temperament, health attributes, type of dogs, excellent conformation quality and used all of their experience to put the best puppy that they can on the ground. Then that breeder puts thousands of hours into the litter, teaching, feeding, caring for, training and socializing up to 8 weeks. Now it is up to the new owner to carry on the process to make this young lump of impressionable clay into a beautiful, well-adjusted, well-behaved, social, mature Doberman. Unfortunately when the new owner drops the ball on socializing it is the breeder and the breeding program that takes the hit.
I have said this many times before… “a properly bred, trained and socialized dog with an excellent temperament never has to have excuses made for its behavior.”