|Kennel Syndrome: what is
In puppies, who in the imprinting phase, had little or no social contact with humans, the need of inclusion towards humans is absent or very poorly developed. We then speak of kennel syndrome, normally seen in dogs coming from "puppy mills". It is a syndrome of emotional inflexibility, which emerges if dogs are kept in within restricted kennel environments (with insufficient socialization to humans) during the first months of their lives. These kennel-dogs exhibit a behavioral syndrome characterized by extreme and persistent timidity and anxiety, and at times, fear-biting when removed to an unfamiliar environment. They will always be afraid of humans. The results of bad socialization, however, are for a part breed-dependable. A Labrador Retriever is less sensitive for this than many other breeds, probably because of its natural will to please.
Generally, a dog suffering from kennel syndrome is practically unable to cope with any change from his routine environment. It is extremely shy, and afraid to be touched. The impressions gained by the dog during the imprint phase stays with it for the rest of its live. What is done during this period can never be undone. Without proper training and handling with an experience dog trainer, it will display chronically disordered, antisocial behavior.
A dog suffering from kennel syndrome has to learn to trust and interact with humans. It is extremely nervous and wary of our well-meant care. When approached, it tries to make itself scarce, and if this does not succeed it will drop its tail between its legs. Its eyes are glassy, its ears laid back, and it often passes some drops of urine or rolls over onto its back. It is terrified by the noise of the television or passing traffic and will try to run away. This behavior occurs again and again, even though the television is on the whole day or cars are going by continuously.
It goes without saying that a dog suffering from kennel syndrome is desperately unhappy. It lives in a world which is, quite simply, terrifying. Any attempts to approach it on your part, however friendly, are experienced as frightening and the same holds for all other impressions which it missed out on or barely received during the response phase. In this situation, no matter you try when training dogs who are suffering with this condition, it’s going to be extremely difficult for both of you.
(Source: Scott J.P., Fuller J.L. (1965): The development of behavior (ch.4), The critical period (ch. 5), The development of social relationship (ch. 6), in Dog Behavior: The Genetic Basis, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965, Phoenix Edition 1974., 84-182.)
Kennel Syndrome: how to treat it?
First of all: a dog will never “overcome” kennel syndrome. Any damage done in the imprint phase can not be undone. The only thing you can do is to make its life (and your life with a dog suffering from it) more acceptable.
Routine is very important here. Since a dog suffering from kennel syndrome is unable to cope with any change from his routine environment, we need to describe this routine environment, to establish our starting point. Try to answer the following questions:
1. Is the dog afraid of you?
2. Is the dog afraid of other people in your family?
3. Is the dog afraid of people in general?
4. Is the dog afraid of sounds (vacuum cleaner, traffic, etc.)?
5. Is the dog afraid of other dogs?
6. Does the dog bite when it’s afraid?
7. Is there any situation in which the dog seems to be quite happy and relaxed?
Once you’re able to answer the last question with “yes”, or “I think so”, you may start thinking of a set of goals, but don’t be too optimistic. The method we use to train the dog is called “shaping” (training by successive approaches). This method is used when desired behaviour can not be learned in one go. In shaping we are always one step closer to our goal and the dog is gradually trained.
So this might be your set of goals:
1. I want the dog to trust me and be comfortable with me.
2. I want the dog to trust my partner and be comfortable with him.
3. I want the dog to trust my neighbors and be comfortable with them.
4. I want to be able to take the dog for a walk.
5. I want to be able to take the dog to the vet’s.
Once you have reached these goals, you may start thinking of a next set of goals, but again: don’t be too optimistic.
Give the dog confidence. Don’t push the dog, give it time to trust you. Reward it every time it exhibits desired behaviour. While you’re bonding with the dog, don’t let it be distracted by anything or anyone, like the radio, or other dogs. Don’t force yourself on the dog; let it come to you when it’s ready. Reward it when it does. Don’t ever punish the dog! Ignore undesired behaviour.
Once (or if) you’re able to walk the dog around your house, and once (or if) this has become a routine the dog is reasonably comfortable with, you can expand this circle, little by little, until this new circle has become a routine.
Once (or if) walking in your neighbourhood is not a problem, you can try to walk to busier parts of town, but don’t overdo it. Remember that it’s hard for the dog to cope with any change from his routine environment.
Don’t be afraid to give up. This is not a sports match. You don’t have to be a winner. After all your effort and time, your patience and frustration, there comes a time that you have to admit that this is all there is, at least for the time being.
A Labrador has an amazing will to please, an incomprehensible love for people and trust in people. I remember a situation years ago, in the USA, where over 80 Labradors were rescued, all underfed and mistreated, some of them entangled in barbed wire. The photographs were heartrending. The vets were ready to put them out of their misery and euthanize them, but just couldn’t when they found out that these Labradors were still wagging their tails when they were released, were still loving and loveable animals.
Jason, a yellow male Labrador suffering from kennel syndrome, came to me after he was mistreated. He was even afraid of his own name, so I changed it to “Joe” and avoided using any “a-sounds” in his presence. Everyone who knew this dog said it would never be able to go to a dog show. Four months later, after I succeeded in giving him the self-confidence he so desperately needed, I took him to a dog show. The judge’s report said: “Excellent. Happy young dog with good features. Promising.”
Unfortunately Joe had gained so much self-confidence that he thought he could be the leader of the dogs’ pack, so he had to lose a couple of fights with my Artie before he dropped that ambition.
What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t overreach your goal. Surely you don’t want an extremely submissive dog, but you certainly don’t want a dog that dominates you. And however unlikely that may seem to you right now, don’t rule it out and keep paying attention to what is happening. Don’t underestimate the manipulative skills of your Labrador! :-))