Feral Children and Unsocialized Dogs: You Are How You Are Raised

Perhaps you’ve never heard of the term “feral child.” Essentially, a feral child is a child that has spent his critical years of early development segregated from human society – basically, they grow up in environments devoid of physical touch, language, mental challenge, development, and enrichment. The phenomenon of “feral” or “wild” children has always held a great deal of interest for me.

Perhaps the most famous of mythical feral children are Mowgli, from Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book and Tarzan. But there are real, documented cases of feral children.

I admit it’s been a woefully long time since my last college psych class (I also admit that I’d love to take a refresher course – any individuals wishing in sponsoring my return to higher education can certainly contact me any time via phone or email…I MISS SCHOOL!), so I had to refresh my memory and look up critical stages of child development. Check out this handy chart to refresh your memory or learn about critical stages of human development.

I also love charts.

If you read the chart, you’ll see that before the age of five years, human infants learn many critical life lessons, including:

  • perception of physical contact/touch as necessary and reinforcing
  • ability to respond appropriately to facial gestures and other body communications
  • ability to understand and utilize speech and language as communication tools
  • development of personality: sense of humor, ability to cooperate/share, controlling of temper, impulse control, fear issues/phobias, responsibility/guilt, etc.

Wow, all that before five years!

The not-so-surprising (if you’re a dog trainer) conclusion to the feral children story is that children who don’t get to experience this natural social development routine end up naturally unsocialized. In the past, feral children who have been exposed, even carefully, to human culture after missing out on these critical learning stages don’t recover the skills. They have missed their opportunity to experience enculturation (in dogs, this process is called socialization). These children may never learn to use language well, may never be able to give or understand appropriate body language communications, may not be able to control their impulses, may always be fearful of the sounds and chaos of human society, etc.; and all this despite intensive intervention from the top professionals in the fields of psychiatry and behavior. Additionally, because many (most? all?) feral children suffer from lack of appropriate nutrition and likely, impoverished motor skill coordination, they may never reach their full potential as humans socially, emotionally, or physically.

Also, individuals who do grow up with these skills lose them if separated from society for extended periods. Those who are isolated for years will eventually lose the capabilities of speech, communication, appropriate social interactions and cultural niceties. These traits, which give a person their “humanity” aren’t actually inherent traits at all. They’re learned behaviors. We aren’t born knowing how to speak, and if we’re raised in non-speaking environments or spend extended periods of time in these environments, we don’t develop or lose these skills. We aren’t born knowing how to play nicely with others, control our impulses, appropriately recognize and respond to threatening situations in the environment, etc.

What on earth does this have to do with dog training?

Dogs are like this too. They have critical stages of development, and the most important of these windows close by twenty weeks. Puppies who do not receive appropriate and adequate exposure during these times do not mature normally socially. Think the hard work of raising a well-rounded dog is done when you complete puppy class? Think again! Adolescence is a very challenging stage for many dogs and their owners, and socialization and enrichment with new dogs and people must continue throughout the dog’s adulthood (with careful attention paid to the special needs of seniors) in order to maintain the skills you’ve begun developing.

Start your puppy in classes as soon as possible after she is brought home. Continue her training at least through adolescence, and maintain her training while continuing with socialization throughout her adult lifespan.

Waiting until your dog is six months old to start training class is like waiting until your child is 17 to enroll them in kindergarten. It might turn out ok, but you’re not exactly setting them up for success!

Ready to start your pup in classes right away? Fill out an application for training today!

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