From the time Jyah arrived at seven weeks of age to the first year of his life, I took him everywhere - walking in town, into stores that allowed dogs, visiting at friends' houses, walking in the woods, stopping to look at farm animals, eating on restaurant patios, swimming at the lake, into pet stores, attending seminars, going on trips - everywhere I could think of.

Additionally, from the day he walked in our door, I was molding Jyah's social manners and teaching him foundation actions and behaviors needed for his future occupation as a canine actor in our movies. Although Jyah was an avid learner, he had an extremely strong will and was constantly testing his limits. It took my undivided attention to every detail in his life that first year to utilize the potential I knew this amazing dog had.

Jyah grew into an extraordinary adult - masculine, sensible, intelligent, athletic, curious, respectful, and kind. He is innately good with other dogs, children, animals, and people. Friend or stranger, Jyah knows intuitively how to handle any interaction. He also has strongly developed natural abilities, once tracking me a quarter mile through the woods when he was only six months old.

Finally, after one year, I felt Jyah was ready for a sister. Knowing his father to have a good temperament and because I was so impressed with Jyah's temperament, I decided to acquire a puppy from a litter that had the same father as Jyah.


When Sydney was seven weeks old, Glenn flew to Ohio to pick her up. On the way home at the stopover between major airports, Glenn had Sydney out on the grass to relieve herself. She happily explored her environment, totally unperturbed by all the airport noises. When she arrived home, she confidently greeted our other dogs; Standard Poodles Jyah and the elderly Stoney and April, and rescues Molly (a small mixed-breed) and Oscar (a Beagle). I was delighted with her confident, out-going personality.

The very next day, I came down with bronchitis which turned into pneumonia and was subsequently bed-ridden for the next two months. At that time, Glenn was working and living in Florida, coming home only a couple of days a month; so he was also unable to carry out the crucial socializing and habituating that was necessary for Sydney's development into a well-adjusted adult. Researches say there is only a small window of opportunity during which a puppy is most accepting of new people and experiences. They say puppies that were sequestered from six to twelve weeks usually grow into fearful adults and may become resistant to desensitization.


Sydney's experiences from seven to twelve weeks could not have been more different than Jyah's. “Sequestered” is the perfect word for what happened to her. I was too ill to do much other than lie in bed, so she was either lying on the bed with me in the total silence of my room (no radio, no TV, no visitors) or she was following Jyah around the house or playing with him in one of our three large, fenced back yards which are surrounded by woods. (Jyah, not me, was responsible for housebreaking Sydney, and, to my knowledge, she never had an accident in the house). Fortunately, my illness occurred in perfect weather for leaving the door of the house open to the back porch which is screened and has a doggy-door to the back yards. We live in a quiet area: our house is over one-hundred feet back from a rural road, and the front yard is also fenced . . . so there were no people or other animals in the vicinity to socialize Sydney to strangers during that critical period.

Two months later, when Sydney was 14 weeks old, I was well enough to begin taking her out on a limited basis. However, the synapses that made pathways from her brain to her nervous sensory system had matured to accommodate the environment in which she had been living - unfortunately not the one I had planned for her.

 I had long known about research showing the benefits of early socialization for puppies; I never suspected that I would one day unwillingly test those theories.

By Charlene Dunlap

Written for 
The International Parti Poodle Gazette
January 1, 2007 Issue

Traveling by motorcoach

Art museum grounds where we have visited many times.  Notice the difference between the two dog's body posture.

“She's been here so many times, it seems like it wouldn't frighten her anymore,” I grumbled to my husband Glenn. “Cut her some slack,” he replied, “she's doing the best she can.”

The object of our conversation was our parti-color Standard Poodle Sydney. It was a glorious autumn day and we were sitting on a patio surrounded by a waist-high brick wall enjoying lunch outside at a restaurant situated next to a busy street. Sydney's half-brother Jyah was stretched out on his side, eyes closed, at my feet. Where Jyah was as relaxed as a rag doll, Sydney was strung as tightly as piano wire. With tensed body, hunched shoulders, and tight eyes, she sat with her back protected against my leg, eyes darting toward each new noise or sight that vied for her attention.

Much to my deep regret, Sydney is the product of inadequate early socialization and habituation in that critical period between six to twelve weeks of age


Socialization means that a puppy has been familiarized to people of different genders and ages and other species of animals so that it feels at ease when in the company of strangers and new animals. Habituation means that the puppy has been accustomed to different environments, objects, and sounds so that it feels comfortable when exposed to novel places and things.

Puppies that receive insufficient exposure to people, other animals, and new environments during the period between six to twelve weeks may develop irreversible fears, leading to timidity or aggression. Puppies mature into adulthood with the double limitations of their genetics and their early development. A genetically shy dog from a poor socialization and habituation background will be more resistant to desensitization later on than would a dog with more resilient makeup.


Having studied dog behavior for many years, I was well aware when I adopted both Jyah and Sydney that scientific research has shown the need for early socialization, and I was fully prepared to do this with both puppies. I knew that about the sixth week of life, puppies enter into a very sensitive socialization period. This phase lasts through approximately the twelfth week of life and is the period when brain connections are made and the nervous sensory system becomes well developed, adapting to whatever environment (inhabitants, sounds, smells, objects) the dog has been exposed to up until that time.

Many people like to acquire a puppy at six to eight weeks of age so they can mold it to fit their lifestyle. If a seven-week-old puppy has had littermates to play with, it has learned interactive skills with its own kind; if it has met a variety of kind people and children, it has learned to trust humans; and, if it was in a family situation where there were on-going changes in stimuli (rather than being isolated in a pen), it has learned to have confidence when in different environments and situations.

Once a breeder has laid this positive foundation, the new owner must be diligent about continuing to socialize and habituate the new pup to novel stimuli, especially up through its twelfth week of life. The young puppy's new experiences should be introduced in small steps. Activities should be controlled, such as introducing the puppy to new people but not letting them overwhelm him. The puppy should meet only calm dogs, not those that tend to bully other dogs or play too roughly. He should be exposed to other animals, places, and experiences.


The next major stage in the puppy's development occurs between three and four months to between six and eight months; although socialization and habituation must be continually reinforced throughout the dog's juvenile period - about twelve weeks to maturity. Research has shown that socialization and habituation can wear off. If a well-socialized puppy is placed in an isolated kennel environment between three and four months of age and left there until it is between six and eight months of age, the puppy will be shy of strangers and even of its caretaker if it has not been handled much. In this stage of the puppy's first year, socialization and habituation should be maximized.

There is a parallel in humans where from the ages of 11 to 14 years a young person loses a substantial fraction of the connections between cells in the part of the brain that enable him or her to think clearly and make good decisions.  "Ineffective or weak connections are pruned in much the same way a gardener would prune a tree or bush, giving the plant the desired shape," said Alison Gopnik, a professor of child development at the University of California-Berkeley.

The pruning process "appears to follow the principle of use-it-or-lose-it," said Jay Giedd, a child development expert at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. "Neural connections or synapses that get exercised are retained, while those that don't are lost."

Jyah, Sydney, and I are on a restaurant patio.  Sydney is sitting in a stressed manner while Jyah is relaxed.

Looking at fish in pet store display.  Sydney is somewhat stressed.

Surrounded by friendly childen in a strange location is stressful for Sydney but not for Jyah.

Meeting friendly dogs. Notice that Jyah is social
while Sydney is not.


There once was a time when, if I saw a dog behaving fearfully at seminars or training classes, I suspected that it had been abused, was being subjected to harsh training methods, or was genetically shy. Now, I know that a dog who has been under-socialized and under-habituated can also exhibit fear or aggressive behaviors when in an environment that its nervous sensory system is not prepared for.

At home, Sydney was feminine, funny, athletic . . . and boldly manipulative. Having lived with several dogs, she knew the rules of pack behavior and used them to her advantage. She teased April - playfully bouncing in, nipping her shoulder, and jumping away. As soon as April turned to reprimand her, Sydney would flip onto her back with the speed of light into a quasi submissive posture. Upon seeing Sydney's vulnerable tummy-up pose, April felt honor-bound not to carry through with her threat and never gave Sydney the good boxing she deserved. Sydney was well aware that she was using April's high principals to her own advantage.

Sydney quickly learned manners for living within our family, and I was making progress with her on the foundation actions and behaviors I teach my dogs for their movie work. In the beginning, our outings were mostly to places where we did not come in close contact with either people or other animals. Knowing she had missed that critical period between the time I got her and 12 weeks of age, I tried to ease Sydney into novel places and stimuli in the hopes she could gradually learn to adapt: I did not want to overly stress her nervous system as she seemed fearful in new situations.

If a dog has been above stress threshold, stress hormones may remain in their system for from two to seven days; so I tried to alternate places I took Sydney (along with the other three Poodles). One day we would go to a stressful place such as walking in town, the next day we would go on a relaxing outing to the lake or walking in the woods.


She was about six or seven months old when problems began manifesting themselves in unpleasant ways. Before, when going on outings with the other three Poodles, she may have felt safe; but with the passing of both Stoney and April, it was just her and Jyah. Or, perhaps she simply grew into a stage where she felt capable of backing up her aggressive ideas. Now, if we saw another dog, no matter how far away, Sydney would fly into a frenzy, barking and lunging at the end of her leash. If a person stopped to say hello, Sydney would stalk towards them growling softly (although she never gave me cause to think she would actually bite). Both of these behaviors were unacceptable, and I began a campaign to correct them.

Our wonderful veterinarian Dr. Staggs with Sydney, who appears stressed, and Jyah, who is comfortable.

Jyah and Sydney playing at the lake. Next to walking in the woods, this is Sydney's favorite place to go.

Crossing the skywalk above a busy interstate highway.  Strangely, Sydney is not unduly stressed


Since Sydney appeared to believe that other dogs were a threat that had to be driven away, I needed to modify her perception of the other dog from something sinister to something good (or at least tolerable). So, as soon as Sydney saw another dog, I began stuffing little wads of peanut butter into her mouth. This did two things: it gave her something she enjoyed doing (eating peanut butter) while associating it with the sight of another dog; and, it gave her something to do with her mouth besides bark. It got to where if she saw another dog, rather than rant at it, she would look to me for peanut butter. When Sydney was calmly eating peanut butter (and not yelling at other dogs), I praised her. I would then cue her to “sit” - enforcing compliance if necessary. This gave her something to focus on besides the other dog and assured her that I was in charge and would handle the situation. Since I was consistent about doing this, over time her behavior modified to where other dogs at a distance did not bother her. Next, we worked on her acceptance of other dogs in closer proximity.

Fortunately for me, at this time my friend Melanie had a training building. Every week for several months, Sydney, Jyah, and I would make the two and a-half hour round-trip to attend classes where there were several other dogs. Working on the principal of modifying Sydney's fear/aggression, I fed her treats and played with her only when other dogs were in close proximity. To relieve her stress I then took her a short distance away from the dogs, but ignored her. I would cycle her in and away - giving her food and attention when near the dogs and none where we were away from the other dogs. This modified her perception of dogs in close proximity from something scary to something good.

Now at five years of age, when we are out in public Sydney totally ignores other dogs unless they get into her personal space . . . or, unless they walk by and say something ugly to her. She will probably never feel safe/comfortable up-close and personal with strange dogs, but at least she tolerates them.


To modify Sydney's fear/aggression to strange people, I asked strangers to allow her to come up and make contact with them (rather than visa versa) and to NOT look her in the face (which she finds threatening); then I asked them to give her a treat (which I provided). Around people, Sydney is now much like she is around other dogs. She will tolerate them being close (as close as within mere inches) unless they make eye contact or try to engage her in some way; then she will softly growl, warning that they are making her uncomfortable. She seems to care only for the good opinion of Glenn and myself and does not desire social contact with other humans. It is not uncommon for dogs who have been deprived of adequate socialization in that crucial imprinting period to become one-person (or, as in our case, two-person) dogs.


Since I had not been able to habituate Sydney to novel environments at the optimal time in her development, the best I could then do was to try to desensitize her to places away from home.

To keep her stress level from getting too high, I used a rotation process. On one day, Sydney, Jyah and I would go to the lake -- which would be fun for her. (Low stress.) The next day I would take the dogs to the center of our small town and walk up and down Main Street in front of stores where people were coming and going. I began with very short trips (walk to the end of the block and back) and gradually, over time, lengthened the time in town to 15-20 minutes. (High stress.) The next day we would go to the college which has a one-mile walking trail around the perimeter. (Medium stress.) The day after that, we would walk in the woods. We walked at city parks in neighboring towns, around shopping mall parking lots, in plant nurseries, in stores that allowed dogs, and anywhere else I could think of.

I hoped that Jyah's total ease in different environments would help lessen Sydney's fears, but I saw no effects that that happened. When Glenn was home, he would sometimes take Sydney while I took Jyah and we would walk in opposite directions, but whether they were together or apart we never saw a change in Sydney's demeanor.

When we are away from home, I have used (still do use) food, play, and asking for compliance to obedience signals - which has helped in some places and to some degree; but these have not worked as a “lasting fix.”

I have also given Sydney “stress-free complex” vitamins and have used one of the D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromones) products which mimics the natural occurring pheromones produced by a female dog when nursing; but these seemed to have little to no effect on her stress levels.

Then as now, we go on outings almost every day and Sydney is always delighted to get into the vehicle. She loves going for rides - it is only getting out that sometimes bothers her. In some new places, she is surprisingly relaxed; in other places she has been to numerous times, she is just as surprisingly fearful. However, wherever I ask her to go, she goes willingly, never refusing . . . although her body posture may show her anxiety.

Jyah and Sydney visiting cattle,
exotic animals,
 and going strange places.


It is painful for me to see how Sydney's early lack of socialization and habituation has effected her; painful to know that I was the unwitting cause. (We may never know how much her genetic makeup factored into her over-reactiveness.) However, with patience, management, and attention to her stress levels, I have seen her come a remarkable distance. At home, she is an extremely loving and funny dog: self-confident on her own turf, bold on our obstacle equipment, eager to learn the new actions and behaviors I am always teaching her. She has a delightful, quirky personality, and a knack for getting whatever she wants.

All dogs, as well as all humans, have varying degrees of disabilities - no one is perfect in every way. Sydney has an over-reactive sensory system which causes her to be overly fearful at some times and in some situations. However, she is an inspiration to us because in spite of a lack of early socialization/habituation experiences she has developed the ability to cope with the world she lives in and does not allow things that frighten her to diminish her personality or her life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

To read about all of the developmental stages in dogs:

Developmental Stages & Socialization
What happens when - how your puppy changes and developes

For additional information on neurological development, go to:

Sensory, Emotional, and Social Development of the Young Dog
By Dr. Joel Dehasse (Behaviorist Veterinarian)
3 ave du Cosmonaute
1150 Brussels, Belgium