Socialisation: a misunderstood concept in dog training?
Last year, one of my clients said something that made me really reflect. She had a ‘pandemic puppy’ and wondered how much this had been responsible for her dog’s behaviour around other dogs.
She was almost weeping as she told me how she felt entirely responsible for her dog’s reactive barking and lunging.
“I didn’t get time to socialise her properly!” she told me.
As someone who works across Europe, I can definitely say that the pandemic had significant differences in how it affected puppy purchasing and also how it was reported in the media.
For instance, in the UK, the media blames the pandemic for the sharp rise in fatal attacks on humans. Some ridiculous papers are now also trying to lead campaigns to ban certain breeds while linking it to the pandemic.
Certainly, there are interesting questions we can ask. Why were people in the UK able to get hold of an extra 3m animals in a 12-week period? That’s certainly not something that happened in other places. The BBC reported that 3.2 million pets were acquired during the pandemic.
And what have been the financial impacts of 13 years of austerity on low income individuals? The moment I hear people bleating about licences and banning breeds and status dogs, I don’t have to look far to find classist assumptions at work. The lives of dogs are very much a mirror of our societies.
So there’s a lot we don’t understand about the impact of the pandemic in terms of canine behaviour. Blaming ourselves for our dog’s struggles (and blaming lockdown) misses a lot of the nuance.
So much more than a 4-week block
Emotionally robust dogs are the result of far more than the perfect four-week socialisation period.
They are the result of thoughtful breeding for temperament and personality. Genes are a strong factor in why our dogs develop emotional resilience. I’m reminded here of my lovely friend whose gorgeous German Shepherd was a pandemic puppy. He came from a breeder who cared about health and structure as well as personality. If socialisation was everything, how come her dog is emotionally resilient and others were not? My friend lives by herself and didn’t break lockdown rules, so we can see that for a dog whose humans care about personality, events like the pandemic are ones that may have much less of an impact.
We also know that gestational stress impacts puppy behaviour in later life. The 3m animals suddenly ‘found’ to meet British needs in a 12-week period probably didn’t have the most auspicious of starts. There’s not much robust data on where animals come from, so it’s not known how many come from puppy farms. Given that the RSPCA counted nearly 2000 ‘on the books’ large-scale commercial breeding establishments in Wales ten years ago, there’s no doubt that austerity coupled with economic division will have worsened the situation.
With commercial establishments providing so many puppies, it’s certain that the boost that maternal care can provide is less than optimal for many young dogs. Added to that, we also know how important the weaning period is for dogs too.
In many ways, socialisation is the cherry on the cake.
Socialisation: massively misunderstood?
Added to this, the last forty years in canine welfare and training have provided some advances, but not without cost. I remember being advised to take Heston through a checklist of places he should go when he was 8 weeks old, including a busy train station and an airport. He needed to have seen men in high-vis jackets and people in wheelchairs and men in hats and shouting toddlers…
Both naively and thankfully, I had no idea that I was supposed to rush him through a 100-point ticklist of people who were supposed to handle him and pass him around like a parcel. I say naively because I really didn’t have any idea how that tiny window of openness to experience coupled with a lack of fear can be best used to help build resilience. I say thankfully because I’m pretty sure the checklist would have caused untold damage.
The notion of socialisation meaning handling by a bunch of strangers and meeting a bunch of ungoverned puppies in a ‘puppy party’ is perhaps the worst thing to have come out of the last forty years. I cringe when some places share details of their ‘puppy parties’ where on-lead mixed-age puppies greet other on-lead mixed-aged puppies in a giant free-for-all.
The photos are generally filled with anxiety, restraint, awkwardness and over-stimulated puppies who have few social skills going nose-to-nose in close confines with other anxious, restrained, awkward and over-stimulated puppies who have few social skills either.
When I think of how few well-socialised adult dogs would actually thrive in such a situation, it really makes me wonder when we’re all going to give our heads a wobble.
The development of fear in puppies
Young dogs can be said to be psychologically protected from fears in the first few weeks of life. Although their startle reflex is apparent from just over two weeks, they are generally curious and exploratory.
Their fears begin from around 5 weeks onwards.
After this time, it gets harder and harder for them to encounter potentially frightening situations without fear.
In fact, around 5-8 weeks, they start to develop two specific fears. One is a fear of strange dogs and humans. The other is a fear of separation from the family group. Done badly, a dog’s first experiences in the world can have far-reaching consequences.
Other fears start to come on board too. I remember a litter of puppies dropped off with me at 6 weeks. They trembled for 48 hours as the car journey and handling had been their first stressful experience. Because they’d not had any exposure to life other than a room and two other people, everything was strange and new.
In many ways, first experiences of things will determine how puppies feel about them. For that reason, we can’t see socialisation as starting at 8 weeks. They’ve already had 8 weeks to experience things.
We want some of those experiences to have happened before then. We also want them to have been positive ones.
Instead of feeling like everything rests on this tiny window of openness and curiosity with reduced fear, it’s helpful to view it as a single piece in a jigsaw. We also know those pieces have a cumulative effect in creating emotional resilience. The more pieces we have, the less likely we’ll struggle. Genes, prenatal experience, maternal care & nurturing and early familiarisation are all part of that jigsaw.
It’s also helpful to think about life skills rather than a checklist.
Our dogs will experience many things in their lives that we cannot prepare for.
I remember taking Heston for a walk one Sunday and walking headlong into a Venetian masked carnival parade. We can either say ‘I will teach my dog they are safe to approach if they want to but I will let them take their time if they feel unsure’ or we can add Venetian Masked Carnival Parades to our list.
Then there was the time we went on Eurotunnel. Do we now have to take puppies through Eurotunnel or on ferries and add that to our list as well?
Or would it be better that they learn that the things they will encounter in life are generally safe? That we can take our time to investigate them? That our human family will respect that right to take our time?
Core skills for puppies
Perhaps one of the most useful skills our puppies can learn is to listen to themselves when they feel unsure. Sometimes, we cause escalating feelings of panic because our puppies are learning that the last time they felt unsure, they had no choice.
We cannot expose our puppies to every single thing that they will encounter in life. It’s simply not possible. What we can do is make sure we build up our dog’s confidence in supporting them as they approach and investigate potentially scary situations. In many ways, being there to celebrate triumphs is a huge part of that. Relying on us as safety crutches does not make for a brave and confident puppy, just as it does not make for a brave and confident child.
By creating environments in which our puppies can learn key skills gradually, we’re likely to see the most success. No throwing them in at the deep end!
The best way to do this is to do so at low intensity. When our puppies are highly aroused, this is when things to go wrong. Our collies get excited by cars or cyclists. Or our spaniels see a bird and it sets off all the most exciting cascades of chemicals. Our terrier bites a passing trouser leg. Their first experience of all the things we want NOT to be exciting turns out to be ALL the fun!
We can’t fight against initial learning. Initial experiences set the mental schema through which our puppies will view the world.
Giving our puppy time to take things in at low intensity will make all the difference.
Learning how to regulate frustration and how to control impulses is so important, yet these are skills brushed over or forgotten by many puppy books.
Being able to tolerate delay is vital. Sometimes we have to wait for things. And yes, we need to be able to cope when we can’t get what we want in life.
Learning how to do this is important.
Sometimes the simplest of things, like tug, can be the easiest of ways to teach core skills. Tug can make such a difference to a young dog’s life if we teach it without pressure. It helps our dogs understand objects we interact with, and objects we don’t. It helps us control the intensity, increasing and reducing to help our puppy cope. We can make it interactive and we can make it lots of fun.
Of all the games we can play with our dogs, tug is the single game I love the most. It’s not our dog playing by themselves, reducing us to a ball-thrower or frisbee launcher. Because we can monitor pressure, we can monitor physical exertion too. Unlike other physical games, teeth go onto an object, which keeps them busy. Far too many physical games go wrong when our young puppies sink their teeth into our flesh.
We can also build up problem-solving skills through play, as well as through social interaction. Much more simply, we can use some of our puppy’s food in simple, graduated puzzles. While all puppies should have access to frustration-free food, small amounts of challenge can help inoculate them against the big stresses later in life. You can find some ways to do that here.
Far too many of us with exciting and energetic dogs make life really, really fun and forget to teach our dogs how to switch off. We also forget to teach them how to cope on their own. Unlike my fellow semi-feral Gen Xers who cope extremely well on our own and are very good at entertaining ourselves, many of our puppies grow up dependent on us for all the fun stuff.
Building up their independence is important (and also knowing when to listen!)
Simple things like learning to relax with a chew or learning to disengage and go find their mat for a nap can be vital. It’s useful if this is consistent so we can lean into our dog’s sleep and rest habits, rather than realising that they’re so tired they are no longer able to regulate teeth and patience.
I’m a huge fan of co-sleeping with young dogs. Co-relaxing is also important. If my backside is on a chair, play is off-limits, although puppies are welcome to cuddles and contact if they want it. I want puppies to know that when I do certain things, only certain interactions are available. That helps any time humans are sitting down – puppies learn that this is time for them to switch off too.
Many of the adolescent dogs I work with who struggle with frustration and absence simply have no idea how to make decisions for themselves. All their thinking has been done by the human, so they’ve never had to listen to their own body. They never know when it’s time for a nap. They don’t feel comfortable taking themselves off from the group to relax either.
For some dogs, they’ve always depended on what they do being dictated by us or mediated by us.
When we focus on key life skills rather than checklists, we make sure our puppies are prepared for the world. Using play and exploration, we can keep the flames of curiosity and confidence alive as well as teaching our puppies how to handle challenge. Adding in some focus on relaxation makes a huge difference too. We don’t have to blame ourselves if our puppy is less resilient than we might have hoped – socialisation is one piece in a much larger puzzle. It’s all important but none of it is the only cause for anxiety or fearfulness.