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Chatting with Temple Grandin on dogs, fear, and socialization

“The top three questions were: Why is my dog afraid of the vet? Why is my dog afraid of thunder? And why is my dog afraid of being home alone?”

Temple Grandin, PhD, MS, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, named one of TIME Magazine’s 2010 list of 100 people who most affect our world, and all-around veterinary rock star, was talking to NEWStat about a recent video call she’d done with the staff of an animal shelter.

“I was kind of surprised that the first question was about fear of the vet,” she said. But she wasn’t surprised that fear on the part of dogs was top of mind in general. “Dogs today have more fears than they’ve ever had.”

Part of that problem is pandemic related. In an age when even dogs need to social distance in public and some are inside most of the day with their working-from-home owners, dogs aren’t getting socialized the way they were even a year ago. And Grandin said that’s been the trend for decades: “A lot of dogs are afraid of more stuff now than dogs were ever afraid of when I was a child.”

“Thunderstorm phobias did not exist in the ’50s and ’60s, and the reason for that is because the dogs ran around loose outside,” Grandin said. She concedes that there were some major downsides to giving dogs all that freedom—primarily the sheer number who were killed by cars. “But the upside is [that dogs] didn’t have very many behavior problems.”

Grandin said that’s because all that time outdoors made it easy for dogs to socialize, both with other dogs and with people. The answer: “We need to expose [dogs] to more [and] different things so they won’t be so afraid. Dogs need to see a lot of people, see a lot of things.”

She concedes that the pandemic has its upside for dogs, as well: “In some ways, they have it better than they’ve ever had it because they’re not left home alone.” But when the pandemic’s over, she added, “some of these dogs are going to have a problem with how, all of the sudden, they’re left home alone.”

Grandin also believes that younger generations relate to pets differently than members of previous generations.

“They’re looking at them as members of the family,” Grandin said. “On the other hand, dogs are not people.” That’s why it’s especially important that puppies be introduced to toddlers as early as possible.

Grandin said that just because a dog becomes socialized with adults, that doesn’t mean the socialization translates automatically to children, too: “An animal is a sensory-based thinker,” Grandin said. “They think in pictures. And a small person looks totally different than a big one.” Particularly very young children.

“It’s very important for puppies to learn that [kids] are people, too,” Grandin said. “So it’s really important that puppies get socialized to children, and we need to make sure these are good experiences [for the puppies] because little kids can sometimes get rough with puppies.”

In short, said Grandin, “Puppies need to learn that it’s ok to have other people touch you.”

Join Temple Grandin and a plethora of experts at AAHA’s upcoming Veterinary Management Institute! Classes start online in July.

Photo credit: © Rosalie Winard

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