All animals – including both dogs and humans – have, at the start of their lives, a uniquely ‘sensitive developmental period’. During this time they encounter the world for the first time – and learn to accept what they find.
In puppies, the ‘sensitive developmental period’ lasts until about 14 weeks of age. Anything a puppy experiences during that time will become part of its natural order of things. After that age, unfamiliar objects and experiences can cause a fearful response and could ultimately lead to aggression.
It is important, therefore, that the owner introduces his or her puppy to as much of the world as possible, as early as possible. Learning to interact normally with adults, children, other dogs and pets is called socialisation. The experience of household noises, appliances, cars, the countryside and city – becoming accustomed to a wide range of habitats and environments – is called habituation.
More young adult dogs are euthanased because of behavioural problems, than die from the diseases we vaccinate against.
The vast majority of these behavioural problems are brought about by poor socialisation. For example, if a puppy has never met a postman, or a child, and encounters one for the first time later in life, it can become extremely fearful. A natural response of a fearful dog, if it has not other means of escape, is aggression.
Proper habituation helps prevent similar problems. Imagine trying to take a dog who has never encountered a car, on a journey- the poor animal will be sick with fear, and may become aggressive. If a puppy has not been accustomed to separation from its owner during the ‘sensitive developmental period’, in later life it may bark, whine, lose toilet control or be destructive whenever it is left alone.
Both socialisation and habituation are relatively easy to achieve, but the process does require a little thought and effort from the new owner.
Over-stimulation of the very young dog can be counter-productive, and could teach a puppy to be frightened of something for the rest of its life. A phased programme of socialisation and habituation is needed, with the stimuli gradually increasing in strength.
A programme for effective socialisation and habituation
|Birth||Should experience both human scent – both male and female. Gentle handling.|
|3 weeks||Expose to household noises e.g. washing machine, vacuum, TV etc.
Start to accustom to a normal domestic environment.
Plenty of handling, start grooming, mock vet examinations.
6 weeks (common age of transfer to new owner)
|Should meet all the family.
Postman and milkman
Visitors of all shapes and sizes!
Start to accustom to being left unattended.
Add food to puppy’s bowl while it eats.
Start exposure to other fully vaccinated dogs whilst indoors.
|9 weeks||Start to introduce stronger stimuli e.g. street noises, crowds, children’s
Begin lead training.
Ideal time for puppy socialisation classes.
|12 weeks||Ensure a broadening range of experience.
Avoid dogs that are aggressive or badly behaved in parks, as these may encourage fear and teach bad behaviour.
|15 weeks||Lessons learnt can be forgotten unless you reinforce them. This should continue right up until social maturity – typically after 12 months of age.|