"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Mindy, a member of the Dog Daze Gang, our summer Sunday morning training group. Alice the veterinarian nodded agreement.
The conversation was about exposing young puppies to the world . . . and to infection.
The herding breeds, if not well socialized at a very young age, can go through life shy, timid, fearful. I know about that all too well. In the early 70s, while we still lived in Cincinnati, I bought a Sheltie puppy. From a reputable breeder. Back then the only thing I really knew about dogs was that I liked them. But we had a conscientious vet, and he told us how important it would be to get Ginger to lots of public places, around lots of people and dogs.
Lord knows we tried. We took her on walks, to parks, to neighbors' houses. But Ginger lived her life painfully shy and fearful. She preferred to spend her days behind a chair in a distant part of the house. I tied her to my desk while I was working there, hoping that steady presence would help her bond with me. In vain. For a while I got her to play ball in a carpeted hallway. But one night the tennis ball bounced off her nose and she never played ball again.
The doorbell would ring. Ginger would run to the door and bark. As soon as we opened the door she would run under the bed and poop there.
All that has been on my mind as I have wrestled with the issue of socializing Presto! versus protecting him from infection.
Presto! was seen by Dr. Chuck Toben, our veterinarian of nearly a quarter century, the afternoon after I brought him in from Chicago. Presto was eight weeks and one day old. As he has done with every puppy I've carried in there, Dr. Toben cautioned me not to take Presto! into city parks or other places frequented by dogs until he had received all of his shots.
I heartily agreed. The risk was more than I was willing to take. But I had a plan.
First of all, I knew that Presto! and his littermates had been exceptionally well socialized before they went to their forever homes. Those puppies had been handled, played with, cuddled and loved by a small army of students and friends of the Inman family (the Wildfire breeders). I wasn't done at the American Airlines ticket counter yet when I found out that Presto! loves everybody. While those in line behind us shuffled impatiently, Presto! met, licked and was cuddled by everyone working behind that counter. So I was confident about that phase of his socialization.
Here at home I sent out an email to select obedience friends and close neighbors -- people I knew would come from infection-free homes. Presto! would be receiving visitors, I announced, and they and their dogs were invited. Quite a few came and the visitation program went -- well, in at least one case, swimmingly.
The owner of Barbara's company, Encore Realty, came for lunch. Thank God Bob is only DNA short of being family. Bob picked Presto! up. The puppy was hysterically happy to see him . . . and dribbled down the front of Bob's shirt.
Two weeks later Bob had fun with the episode when he brought it up at a staff meeting. And on that morning, in an economy that is still sluggish, in that real estate office a rollicking good time was had by all. Courtesy of my little pheenom.
Originally I had planned to take Presto! to a fun match in Flagstaff right after he had his third shot at 16 weeks. But Chuck Toben, whose conservative approach has served us well across 24 years, 3 cats and 8 dogs, wanted to do one more inoculation before I turned Presto! loose in the competition obedience world.
OK. But I was concerned that there was a big hole in my latter-day socialization plan. Presto! had, in fact, been a social butterfly during the past few weeks. But all that schmoozing and roughhousing and dribbling had been done on his own turf (and on Bob's shirt).
So at 17 weeks we ventured out. Not to the public parks and places like PetSmart but to "safe" but well-trafficed destinations such as AJs (an upscale grocery five minutes from home), Starbucks and eventually The Home Depot.
How would Presto! respond when at 17 weeks he encountered a world he didn't even know existed? Our first -- and so far only! -- challenge came before we even got out of our own driveway. The American flag in the front yard across the street was flapping in the breeze. That spooked my little guy, and it took him about five minutes to get over it.
Outside AJs and Starbucks he met new friends who gave him a treat and petted him. Later we heeled and wound up our visit by tugging on the leash.
On our first visit to The Home Depot we just heeled around, met new friends and got acquainted with carts -- normal size and those big ones -- rolling toward the parking lot. Of course they had emerged from the big automatic doors that also didn't faze Presto! And the big diesel trucks leaving the lot a scant 20 feet from us? They evoked a two-second startle response, then curiosity.
By the second visit we were heeling in the busy, noisy area where contractors load their trucks shortly after dawn. A bit distracting, but not frightening. (I wish I could say that about the thunder that's been rolling through here during the monsoon season.)
The verdict: Flapping flags aside, this dog has no fear. On the 22nd of September he'll do two rings in a fun match. We'll see how that goes. So far, so good.