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What is the socialisation period and how important is it?

However, as important as it is for animals to be able to detect and escape danger, it is equally important that they do not spend their lives reacting to every change in the environment as though it were a threat, as this would result in them having little time to get on with living (finding food, shelter and a potential mate) and having time to rest and relax. Living in a constant state of autonomic (the part of the nervous system that responds to danger) arousal would also quickly deplete the body of resources needed to maintain health.

In order to allow animals to adjust to their normal environment and to still develop hazard avoidance capability, baby animals have a period of time in which they are particularly receptive to new experiences and attracted to social interaction. This is possible because there is a period before the genes for Hazard Avoidance Capability “switch on” i.e. there is a period of time when they do not see anything as threatening. During this time a young animal has the opportunity to explore its environment and store away its experiences as a large frame of reference for what is normal and a part of everyday life (sights, sounds, smells, contact with other animals etc.) while still under the protection of its parents. The brain is then able to recognise similar experiences in the future as non-threatening, preventing the animal from going into “survival mode” for no reason.

For us as dog owners and breeders, it is vitally important that we make use of this sensitive period in our puppies’ lives so that they are able to assimilate as many experiences into their frame of reference as possible and face the world with confidence. We need to ensure that there is little they will encounter later in life which would be likely to trigger a “survival” reaction (fight or flight). Why? Because the vast majority of aggression-related problems in dogs are an expression of “fight” survival behaviour. If our dogs see lots of things as threatening, they will regularly go into “survival mode” and may choose aggression as their survival strategy. Furthermore, once they have used aggression to deal with a threat, the emotional pay-off (relief) that results creates a very powerful learning experience and they will be more likely to resort to the same behaviour in similar situations in the future.

What should breeders and puppy owners do?

Hazard avoidance capability kicks in at around 7 weeks of age for the average dog. However, it overlaps at first with a period of strong social attraction that starts at around 4 weeks and continues to make puppies receptive to new experiences until about 14 weeks of age. The optimum socialisation period for the average dog is 4 - 14 weeks. After this time, puppies will start to treat novelty (new experiences) as potentially threatening and may begin to use fight or flight behaviours which can make effective socialising extremely difficult.

Interestingly, there are breed differences in this regard, with the most notable being the German Shepherd whose sensitive period of socialisation ends at around 10 weeks of age, a whole month earlier than the average dog. This is one reason why GSD’s tend to be quite reactive. On the other hand, Labradors have a very long socialisation period which tends to close at around 5 months of age - unsurprisingly they tend to be one of the least reactive breeds.

As a large chunk of the socialisation period falls within the time when pups remain with breeders, the onus for socialisation does not only lie with the new puppy owner, but with the breeder as well:

Breeders’ responsibilities:

1.     Only breed with emotionally stable mothers: Nervousness is a heritable trait. Furthermore, anxious mothers will create a stressful environment for their puppies. Puppies that do not have a confident and capable mother will be more likely to grow up into insecure and anxious dogs.

2.     Begin handling of pups at a very early age: Brief periods of handling from as early as three days have been shown to enhance neurological development. Handling for short periods on a daily basis leads to “stress immunisation” i.e. the autonomic nervous system becomes less sensitive, reducing reactivity to potential stressors.

3.     Allow and actively encourage visitors to interact with and handle pups: Once puppies start to develop social behaviour at around 4 weeks of age, they should be exposed to a variety of people. Obviously health must be kept in mind and the use of F10 (veterinary disinfectant) foot baths and hand spray can be used to ensure that visitors do not bring in contagious diseases.

4.     Increase the complexity of the environment in which the pups are kept: Wild Canids will move their pups from one den site to another in the first few weeks of their lives. An advantage of this is that the pups experience different environments and are faced with new challenges. Being kept in a concrete kennel for 8 weeks is close to sensory deprivation. Puppies must be allowed to experience grass, carpets, tiles and any other household surfaces. They should be exposed to household noises (TV, vacuum cleaner, washing machine) and learn to navigate over and around things (low steps, doorways, trees, furniture). They must experience new sights, sounds, smells and surfaces in order to facilitate their neurological and emotional development.

5.     Allow each pup to spend a few minutes alone before 5 weeks of age: Before 5 weeks of age puppies do not have the emotional capacity to panic. If left alone with a chew toy and a comfy bed they will likely sleep or chew. This is a valuable opportunity for them to learn a coping strategy (chewing or sleeping) for being left home alone. If puppies are not given this opportunity and only experience isolation at 8 weeks of age when they are homed, they will panic and experience very real emotional pain. This is can lead to ongoing separation-related distress.

6.     Arrange for pups to meet children: Children are scary for dogs who have never met them. Many homes that puppies go to do not have children and allowing children to interact with puppies before they are homed can go a long way to ensuring that they are relaxed around children as older dogs.

7.     Allow pups to interact with other tolerant and well-adjusted dogs in the home: Interacting with other dogs in the household will give puppies a wider range of experience with their own kind. It goes without saying that such dogs have to be socially well-adjusted themselves.

8.     Use a variety of toys and obstacles to encourage problem solving skills: There is such a wide variety of occupational toys and puppy “equipment” available today that there is no excuse for not providing good stimulation for a litter of pups. Tunnels (cheap fabric tunnels), mini-A-Frames, half-shell pools filled with balls, an old skateboard, hay bales, Kong toys and buster balls are all good stimulation for pups. The more things a pup is confronted with and learns to figure out, the more easily they will adjust to the outside world.

9.     Protect puppies from bad experiences with people and dogs: As much as pups need social interaction, bad social interaction is as detrimental as none at all. Teasing, bullying and excessively rough handling by other people or dogs must never be allowed.

10.  If the pups are not homed by 10 weeks, take them to puppy classes: By 10 weeks of age puppies should be getting into the outside world and experiencing something other than the place they were born. If a puppy is still waiting for a home, then it is the breeder’s responsibility to begin puppy socialisation classes.

Owners’ responsibilities:

1.     Give your puppy 5-7 days to settle into your new home before starting socialisation: Leaving mother and siblings and the environment they have known from birth can be very traumatic for a puppy. Before expecting your puppy to cope with the rest of the world, make sure they are secure and totally comfortable in their new home. They must always have a “safe place” to return to when venturing out into the world.

2.     Enrol in a puppy school by 10 weeks of age: Many puppy schools will not admit pups once they are over 14 weeks, because as they mature their play patterns change and they may bully younger puppies in the class. Do not wait until your pup has had three vaccinations before enrolling in class as this will be too late! Baby puppy classes held in enclosed areas that are not open to the public and where all other pups are also vaccinated with 1 or 2 vaccinations are relatively safe for your puppy to attend. Please see the statement by the American Veterinary Association in this regard: Please note that a good puppy school will only use positive reinforcement, will allow free play, but always closely supervised, and will be able to offer you good advice on raising your puppy. Puppy schools should be run only by qualified behaviourists or puppy class instructors.

3.     Take your puppy out for car trips: I regularly see adult dogs with fear and aggression problems related to car travel. Puppies that do not experience car travel at an early age often end up becoming car-sick and developing car phobias which can generalise to anything related to going out (leads, collars, harnesses, car keys, going out the front door, going back to the car park at the end of walks). This can be a really crippling problem.

4.     Take your puppy for walks: Until your puppy has had at least two vaccinations, it is not a wonderful idea to take them to popular dog walking areas where the vaccination status of the other dogs is not known. However, there are quieter places where one can take a puppy. One can also carry the pup out for short walks, just to see the world. Once your pup has had two vaccinations you should start venturing out into more popular spots and allowing your pup to meet new dogs and people.

5.     Take your puppy for “social” vet visits: Vets are generally viewed with fear and trepidation by most dogs (I am sure that none of us feel all warm and fuzzy when going to the doctor!). By taking puppies for social visits where they simply meet the staff and receive treats, they can develop good associations rather than bad ones with vet visits. Many vets today are very happy to offer their services in this regard. Bad veterinary experiences are one cause of aggression problems in dogs, so find a vet that understands how important it is that they put your dog at ease.

6.     Invite friends and family to visit your puppy: Most friends and family (hopefully!) will be excited to see your new puppy. Invite them over for a braai or for tea so that your puppy can get to know them. This is the time to suddenly get close to people you know who have children! If possible, get them to bring the kids over to play with the puppy (supervised!). Always make sure that interactions with people are good ones - using treats or even having visitors feed your puppy his normal food as treats will help build good associations.

7.     Allow your puppy to interact with other tolerant and vaccinated dogs: If you are lucky enough to have friends or family with healthy, vaccinated and tolerant dogs, ask them to bring the dogs over for a visit or take your puppy there. Do supervise any play and ensure that your puppy is not bullied or does not become over-stimulated. Keep play sessions fairly short and always interrupt if things start getting a bit too excited.

8.     Protect your puppy from bad experiences: As was said before - a bad experience is as bad if not worse than no experience. Never allow your puppy to be teased or bullied and be ready to protect them and stand up to whoever is frightening your puppy, whether it is a trainer, family member of even your vet! Never force your puppy to interact with anyone or anything he is not comfortable with. It MUST be your puppy’s choice. If something does frighten your pup, find a way to help him resolve the situation as satisfactorily as possible e.g. if someone suddenly appears with a hat on and your puppy shies away, ask the person to take their hat off and toss your puppy a couple of treats. Show your puppy the hat, put it on yourself and then finally give it back to the person and have them put it on while feeding your puppy. By this stage your puppy should realise that there is nothing to be scared of. Try to ensure that every experience ends on a positive note.

9.     Continue socialisation for the rest of your dog’s life: As your dog enters adolescence (from around 5 months) he will start to become less and less at ease with new things if socialisation is not kept up. 6 weeks of puppy class and then complete isolation is not the way to go. Socialising is a life-long endeavour.

10.  Reward good choices and polite behaviour at all times! It is a normal part of life that as your pup matures he will come across situations that he is unsure of or people and dogs that are not that nice to him. ALWAYS reward your puppy for dealing with such encounters in a non-confrontational way. If your puppy or dog steps away from a dog that snaps at him, reward him like mad. If he avoids a person who is behaving strangely and chooses to come to you instead let him know he has just won the jackpot! Let your puppy learn that calm avoidance is a GOOD and SUCCESSFUL strategy to use when he is unsure of something and that coming to you instead will result in all manner of good stuff (treats, praise and play). If he is able to develop a healthy strategy like this for dealing with something unpleasant, he will not need to resort to fighting, biting or fleeing into the distance!

When acquiring a puppy (or deciding to breed a litter), always remember that if you neglect those early weeks you will never get them back. There is no excuse for getting a pup and then being too busy to socialise them properly. Your goal for your dog should be to make them as “bomb-proof” as possible. As a responsible dog owner your entire life should revolve around this in those early days, weeks and months.

In order for any animal to survive, it is vital that they are able to react quickly to a possible threat. The brain has mechanisms that are incredibly sensitive when it comes to detecting danger and having the body respond accordingly in an instant. The ability to detect and respond appropriately to danger is known as “hazard avoidance capability”. There are various options when it comes to escaping or neutralising a threat: Flight, fight, appeasement (fiddle about or flirt), freeze or faint. Different species have different tendencies in this regard e.g. horses are flight animals, while possums are one of the few species that actually faint when confronted with danger. Dogs may choose between flight, fight and appeasement, depending on the situation (if they are on lead flight is not an option), their genetic predisposition and previous learning (what worked or didn’t work in the past).

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