Why Socialise your Puppy?

You can’t buy loyalty, they say
I bought it though, the other day;
You can’t buy friendship, tried and true,
Well just the same, I bought that too.

I made my bid, and on the spot
Bought love and faith and a whole job lot
Of happiness, so all in all
The purchase price was pretty small.

I bought a single trusting heart,
That gave devotion from the start.

If you think these things are not for sale,
Buy a brown-eyed puppy with a stump for a tail.
— author unknown —

Puppy socialisation has been a buzzword for a few years now.  Is it really as important as people make it out to be, if so, why, and what should you be doing with your puppy to socialise him correctly?

Early puppyhood is regarded as one of the most important periods in a dogÙs life.  Just like little children, young puppies absorb impressions like a sponge, and sometimes they retain things we would rather they forgot.

The brain of a dog (and of a human) is both specific and plasticSpecificity refers to those brain characteristics which are absolutely hard-wired and unchangeable.  Plasticity refers to those aspects of brain structure which are pliable and subject to environmental influences.  Generally speaking, the higher up the evolutionary tree an animal is, the higher its brain plasticity will be.

Although the temperament of a dog is partly genetic, puppies come into the world with highly plastic brains; in other words, they are extremely susceptible to environmental influences.  This window of susceptibility closes at around 16 weeks (although it may take until 5  months to close completely), by which time the brain has more or less completed its development.  After this, although the dog can still learn, he will not be as adaptable and susceptible as in those early weeks.  The impressions created in those first few weeks literally affect the way the brain develops, and are extremely difficult to eradicate later.

Negative impressions in those early weeks can affect the puppy for the rest of its life; similarly, positive impressions bear fruit for years to come.

Puppies at this stage are said to be imprintable; the first encounter with a particular stimulus will be difficult to eradicate.  So, for example, if a Dobe puppy is bitten by an adult Siberian the first time he meets one, he may develop a lifelong fear and dislike of Siberians, or of furry dogs in general, even if his subsequent encounters with them are positive.

Maternal imprinting takes place within the first 24 hours of life.  The puppy bonds with his mother and learns to recognise her by smell.  The mother accepts and recognises her puppies; breeders have plenty of anecdotes about bitches who can count and know when even one puppy is missing from the litter!

Fraternal imprinting takes place between 3 and about 8 weeks.  This is the period during which the puppy learns to interact with other members of its species.  Older puppies will teach one another bite inhibition, play behaviour and the beginnings of sexual imprinting (learning the behaviour appropriate to oneÙs own and the opposite sex.)  For this reason, it is important not to remove a puppy from the litter too early, otherwise it may have lifelong difficulty in getting along with other dogs.  Around 7 or 8 weeks is usually a good time, but if the puppy is left with the litter for longer, then the breeder needs to begin socialisation to people, strange dogs, cats etc so that further social imprinting can take place.

Between about 8 and 10 weeks of age, a puppy is especially susceptible to fear-producing experiences, which may have a lasting effect.

What should you be doing as a new puppy owner to ensure that the puppyÙs socialisation continues on a positive note?

Join a puppy class:  Good dog training schools usually operate a puppy class for puppies of 8 weeks and older.  The most important thing the puppies do here is play!  They spend time with other puppies, have a ball, overcome their shyness, get told off by other puppies if they get too boisterous, and generally learn the basics of dog manners.  They also learn that meeting other dogs is fun, and this does wonders for preventing dog aggression in later life.

Meet people: Expose your puppy to people of all shapes, sizes, sexes and colours from an early age.  Dogs discriminate extremely well, and many dogs are undersocialised to certain groups; for example, dogs belonging to single women are often wary of or aggressive toward men.  ItÙs particularly important to introduce your puppy to children – but supervise the situation and donÙt allow the puppy to be mauled or bullied.  Get people to feed him high-quality treats; remember the power of classical conditioning and try to make his socialisation positive rather than neutral!  Older children can also feed the puppy.

Go for walks:  Take your puppy into all sorts of neighbourhoods – the noisier the better.  Get him used to traffic, sudden noises, crowds, shopping centres.  Two words of warning here: your puppy is not fully immunised until he has had his third vaccination, so try to avoid places where he might be exposed to disease.  Also, make sure that your puppy is not becoming stressed by his surroundings.  If he seems to be struggling, take him out for shorter periods and feed him treats while heÙs out and about.  Remember, you want to create a positive experience, not a negative one!

Go to the vet:  Take your puppy to the vet a few times just for a visit.  (ItÙs a good idea to wait until after the 2nd shot to do this.)  Ask if you can take the puppy into the surgery for a few moments, and ask the vet to feed him a couple of treats.  This will make your life much easier later on, when those visits  may mean injections or other painful treatments.

Handle the puppy:  Go through a grooming routine with your puppy every day.  Examine his ears, teeth and feet.  Trim his toenails if you can.  Feed him treats while you do this.  Ask other people to do the same.

Practise object exchanges:  Teach your puppy to give up toys and other objects easily by giving another toy or a treat in exchange.  Do this with his food as well; pick up the bowl while heÙs eating, add a couple of treats to it and give it back.  If your puppy objects to you removing his food, feed him from your hand for a couple of days.  This will go a long way toward establishing you as dominant and preventing resource guarding in the adult dog.

Carry on teaching bite inhibition:  Puppies who have been left with the litter for long enough usually have quite good bite inhibition, but you can help.  Whenever the puppyÙs teeth close down too hard on your hand, yelp in a high-pitched voice until the puppy lets go, and then withdraw your attention for a moment.  You can gradually shape the puppyÙs bite to a point where he barely touches you.

Introduce your puppy to adult dogs:  Your pup needs to meet older dogs, and needs to learn to treat them with respect.  Find out how the older dog usually behaves with puppies before attempting an introduction; you donÙt want your puppy to be bullied or even injured.  Most adult dogs are very tolerant of puppies, but will sometimes discipline them by giving them a quick shake and a growl if they get out of line; this is not a cause for alarm and is in fact often beneficial, particularly with a boisterous puppy who may otherwise get himself into some nasty fights as an adolescent.  Make sure that the bulk of the puppyÙs experiences are positive, however, and avoid the occasional adult who is really ugly with puppies.  In particular, if you have other dogs of your own, try to intervene as little as possible if they decide to discipline the puppy.  You should take action only if there is serious bullying going on.  It is critical that your pup learns to understand that he is at the bottom of the pack.  If you incessantly defend the puppy, he may decide to challenge your older dog when he reaches adolescence.  The older dogÙs response to a puppy will usually be nothing more severe than a growl or a nip, but in the case of an adolescent this may develop into a full-scale fight with severe injuries to one or both dogs.   

Reward recalls:  Call the puppy over and over again and give him a treat or a cuddle every time he comes to you, no matter what heÙs been up to.  Never, ever, ever call him and then punish him (this is the Number One New Dog OwnersÙ Mistake!).  He will associate the punishment with coming when called, and not with whatever he was doing before you called him, and you will end up with a dog who is resistant to coming on command.  You want to condition your puppy to believe that coming to you is the best thing in the whole world; this will stand  you in good stead when you start doing serious obedience work later on.

Keep the volume high:  The more positive experiences your puppy has and the greater the variety of situations you can introduce him to, the better.  Ten good experiences are better than one, and fifty are better than ten. 

What happens if your puppy does have a bad experience?  Suppose your neighbour comes to visit with two small children who bully the puppy and frighten it badly?

All is not lost, as your pup is still highly imprintable.  What matters now is that you try to create a large number of positive experiences with children.  One good experience wonÙt undo the damage; twenty or thirty might well.  Find a doggy friend who has a child who is well-behaved around dogs.  Introduce the child to your puppy and ask him or her just to feed treats at first.  If the puppy wonÙt go near the child, donÙt force the issue.  Try feeding the puppy some really high-quality treats yourself while the child is in the same room.  Gradually bring the child nearer and nearer while you feed, until the puppy will tolerate him or her quite close by.  After a while, the child should be able to feed the puppy, and then to stroke it while he feeds it, and eventually to cuddle it and handle it.  It is extremely important to go at the puppyÙs pace; at the first sign of nervousness the child should back off, but as soon as he or she has left the room you should also stop feeding the treat.  The puppy will learn that the treat is associated with the child, and that if he wants to go on getting the treat, heÙs going to have to tolerate the child near him.

If you can find a child who can sit still for long enough, another very useful technique is to lay a trail of treats up to the child and scatter a few on the childÙs body.  Let the puppy find the treats and approach at his own pace; this helps him to overcome his fear.  This is also useful with older dogs who are afraid of people.

Repeat this with as many different children as possible, as many times as possible.  If your puppy has a nervous temperament, it may take some time and patience on your part.  If heÙs a more confident, resilient puppy he will probably bounce back without too much trouble.

The objective of puppy socialisation is not to stress your puppy out by flooding him with too many stimuli to handle at once, but neither is it to cushion him to the point where he never has to deal with any fear.  A puppy who is startled by something but then plucks up his courage and approaches it with positive results is developing what Jean Donaldson calls bounce-back.  Multiple opportunities to overcome spookiness develop resilience and a better temperament overall; and at this age, even supposedly genetic characteristics such as social dominance are remarkably plastic.  Assessing your puppyÙs inherited temperament and then working hard to correct any nervousness will reap benefits for years to come.

Puppy socialisation, properly done, is an investment in your future – and your dogÙs.   DonÙt leave it to chance.

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