What you can learn from the First Family's puppy

Apr 15, 2009
By dvm360.com staff

For the next 100 days, all eyes will be on Bo, the 6-month-old Portuguese water dog the Obamas welcomed into their presidential home over the Easter weekend. And that's just the way it should be, says Dr. John Ciribassi, DACVB, owner of Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants in Carol Stream, Ill. To ensure the "First Pup" will be obedient and agreeable, the Obamas will need to properly socialize Bo.

"Socialization is basically desensitization," Dr. Ciribassi says. "It's gradual exposure to stimuli or situations that can be aversive or fear-inducing to an animal." While dogs are most open to socialization around six to 14 weeks of age, there's no steel door that serves as a cutoff point. "It's more like a window screen," he says. "Information can still come through, just not as well as the open window."

The fact that the Obamas, like many pet owners, can't take advantage of the initial socialization period doesn't mean they can't help increase their puppy's ability to interact with the world. The First Family should still be looking for opportunities to expose Bo to calm, positive situations, Dr. Ciribassi says. For example, with daily White House tours Bo will need to become accustomed to large groups of strangers. To expose Bo gradually, the Obamas could invite friends to calmly approach Bo one at a time until he becomes used to those situations.

Other basic socializing tips all pet owners should be aware of, no matter how old—or famous—their pets are, include teaching dogs appropriate interactions with children and other dogs, proper functioning on a leash, and suitable reactions to loud noises. The best advice anyone can give President Obama right now is to socialize Bo, Dr. Ciribassi says, using positive reinforcement training techniques. Evidence shows that punishment-based training can actually cause agression in dogs, he says. And that's the best advice team members can give their clients too.

Click here to check out two common socialization myths.