It’s hard to find books these days that keep me up until I have finished the last word. Perhaps I am too picky, as a writer myself? In any case, I have just finished a book that made me shove aside everything (including eating!) until I consumed it: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz.
Before I go any further, it’s important to note that this book is a very difficult read and even more so for those who suffered abuse or neglect as a child. It really needs a trigger warning, so I am giving you one here. Dr. Perry shares stories he collected about children who suffered horrific abuse and neglect. It sounds terrible, but the book is enormously uplifting because he also tells how he reached into these children’s broken sides and helped them heal.
What does this have to do with dogs? A lot, actually
Dr. Perry is a student of the brain. He has studied it his entire career, and in doing so, he’s discovered some amazing things about the brain’s response to stress (chronic or a one-time trauma). He shows how undesired behavior (defiance, rage, hyperactivity, inability to connect) can begin as a chemical and hormonal response in the brain. While it is certainly true that genes and environment hold the keys to the person we become, both dogs and humans are social animals whose brains act in very similar ways.
We know from rat studies that when a rat cannot control when a shock is coming, it often completely shuts down and quits trying (learned helplessness). I shudder, for example, when I see “cute” photos of dogs standing perfectly still while standing under a water faucet. To the untrained eye, it might look like the dog is enjoying the water shower. More likely, he is frozen in fear and literally cannot move.
We also know from scientific studies that there is a window of time as a puppy develops in which she must be acclimated to human touch. Human babies are the same way. In fact, the first handling of a newborn puppy or baby can come as quite a shock to that little being. Babies and puppies learn through repeated touch that it is a welcomed sensation and not an aversive. Done improperly or too late in the young life, and touch can become an aversive.
Childhood for humans and puppyhood for dogs are the CRUCIAL times that set each animal up for success or failure in our social world. Dr. Perry says that human “socialization” needs to happen by the age of three. Puppy socialization needs to happen by the time the puppy is 12 weeks old (this one of the reasons I cringe at people shipping vulnerable puppies, all but guaranteeing they will arrive in a stressed state). By this time, important building blocks in the brain have done their work, and if you haven’t socialized a being by this time, some things will never be able to be mastered. Please read this paragraph again.
What’s more, the brain is similar to a muscle in that the parts you use the most often become stronger. As Dr. Perry writes, “The brain develops in a use-dependent manner. Neural systems that are used become more dominant, those that are not grow less so. Further more, this use-dependent development must occur at specific times in order for these systems to function at their best. If this ‘sensitive period’ is missed, some systems may never be able to reach their full potential. In some cases, the neglect-related deficit may be permanent. For example, if one of a kitten’s eyes is kept closed during the first few weeks of life, it will be blind in that eye, even though the eye is completely normal.”
Development begins before the young one even arrives. What happens in the womb is crucial to a healthy development for both species. If you have a stressed-out or fearful mother, that creates an environment for a young being to come into this world stressed and fearful (numerous studies prove this). Stressed-out mother dogs, like those kept purely for breeding or those imprisoned in puppy mills, are very likely to pass down a life of fear to every puppy they are forced to breed. If we want healthy, well-adjusted dogs, certain things must happen while their brains are still forming. It begins in the beginning and with the mental and physical well-being of the mother dog.
Do you know what a mammal’s most primal emotion is? I want desperately to tell you it is love, but it isn’t. It’s fear. If a puppy is born from a fearful mother and then experiences an unpredictable pattern of events that scare him, the fear center of the brain is getting overdeveloped. Dr. Perry notes that the fear response is “graded, calibrated by the brain’s perceived level of threat.”
If a puppy at the right time meets well-adjusted, friendly dogs, his brain is learning to trust other dogs, and this greatly diminishes fear of new dogs. If a puppy is attacked — even once – the brain begins to recognize other dogs as a “trigger” for the fear response. (A majority of adult dogs who end up in my Growly Dog class were attacked or scared badly as young puppies by other dogs.) The brain goes through a series of responses that lead up to the fight-or-flight response. Repeated stress gets the dog to that response faster and faster. Repeated fearful incidences can also lead to hyper-vigilance and hyperactivity.
What can you — the compassionate and smart dog owner — do to create a more resilient dog? Here are some crucial steps to take:
1. Create a safe environment for your puppy
Introduce the puppy to new stimuli by making everything she encounters as positive an experience as possible. Don’t force puppies to approach things that scare them. You need to be building a wealthy bank account of positive associations to start building a resilient dog.
2. Create a predictable, positive environment
A worse-case scenario for both children and puppies is someone who comes home drunk and is violent when in that state. When they are sober, no harm comes to the animal. This creates an unpredictable environment for those living in it, and it is especially damaging to young brains. The person doesn’t even have to be a drunk. Damage is done daily to puppies when angry owners come home to find a puppy who went to the bathroom in the house because he had no other place to go. Instead of screaming or scaring the puppy, create a better environment with more potty breaks during the day.
3. Give your puppy a sense of control over her environment
Obviously, this does not mean you allow the puppy to bite your children. It means that you do not permit a child to force his attention on a puppy — you protect that puppy from potentially tail-pulling young children. If the pup wants to move away from something scary, allow her to do that, and then allow her to approach the thing when she feels confident (and you can coach her). Young brains need MANY repetitions and episodes of learning in a positive, supportive, and nurturing atmosphere.
Reading The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog left me in despair because of the many harsh treatments meted out to both children and puppies by uninformed or cruel adults. Some of the language is exactly the same I hear from uneducated dog owners, such as: “The dog is just being stubborn,” “Let the puppy cry it out alone,” “Don’t comfort a scared dog,” and “We need to ‘break’ the dog to teach it.” All of these things are detrimental to brain development.
But this book also brings enormous hope for human babies and puppies, because the more we understand about how the brain operates, the better we can adjust our adult treatment of vulnerable, young beings.
As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you now know a bit more about how to care for your puppy’s developing brain.
Read more from the Ask a Trainer series:
- How to Prepare Your Dog for Holiday Guests
- Ask the Trainer: How Can I Stop My Dog from Barking in the Car?
- Ask a Trainer: How Can I Get My Dog to Stop Licking Me?
About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.