Are we socialising our puppies in the right way?

By: David Appleby MSc CCAB and Jolanda Pluijmakers DIP CACB

It is not often that we gain new insight into how dogs develop but there have been some exciting advances that will cause breeders to think again about how they raise puppies and the advice they give to new owners to assure that their puppies will have the best chance of developing into confident and happy dogs.

The good old 1960's
Until now the research on which the majority of our knowledge of the behavioural development of puppies has been based on work carried out in the 1960s and 70s. For example Freedman, King and Elliot kept puppies they were studying in isolation from people and environmental experiences until 16 weeks except for one week during which they received daily sessions of socialisation with humans and testing. Different groups of puppies received their socialisation sessions at different ages. They got results with puppies that were exposed to a passive person in a test area from the age of 3 weeks. These puppies immediately and confidently approached the researcher with a 'Hi, I'm a puppy' attitude. Those introduced at five weeks were initially hesitant but within ten minutes became as confident as the puppies introduced at three weeks. Puppies introduced to the test area for the first time at 7 weeks took an average of 20 minutes to approach the person. Those introduced to it at 9 weeks took an average of 30 minutes and those that had no experience of people until 14 weeks were said to have been and to have remained as wild as wild animals.

As a result of this and other experiments it was concluded that between 3 to 12 - 14 weeks of age puppies go through a stage of development that has greater effect upon their capacity to cope with new experiences than at any other time in their lives. This, of course, has important implications for the way we bring up puppies in the real world, which is more complex and challenging than the laboratory conditions described above.

So far so good? Or not?
So far so good but what if the interpretation of those early experiments was wrong? What if the increasing tendency to avoid new things after 5 weeks, such as the person in the test area, was the after effect of insufficient experience in an earlier period of development? This is the conclusion of a recent review of this and other research, which put a new perspective on how we should raise puppies. The aim of the current research was to create a method of decreasing the likelihood of inappropriate avoidance behaviour, fear and fear aggression in dogs. Everyone involved in dogs knows that many of them show an inability to cope when faced with challenging and even apparently benign situations in their environment, which has often been due to our misinterpretation of the important stages of their development. The welfare of these dogs is at risk. They appear to be unable to relax and enjoy life, they feel threatened by "normal" events and are more susceptible to stress and disease. They are less likely to make rewarding pets and are at a higher risk of being abandoned, re-homed or euthanised than those that experience adequate socialisation during early development.

Shocking figures!
The annual review of cases of The Association of Pet behaviour Counsellors in the UK further illustrates that the situation is worrying. Their figures show that fear is the basis of many behaviour problems. For example, fear aggression towards people and dogs were the most commonly referred behaviour problems of 2000. Twenty five per cent of the referred dogs exhibited fear aggression towards people. Between 1996 and 1999 this percentage varied between 20 to 28%. Fifteen percent of the referred dogs in 2000 exhibited fear aggression towards other dogs, which was between 7 and 14% between 1996 and 1999. In addition fears and phobias were observed in another 8% of the cases referred (including sound and visual fears and phobias) and fear is often the cause or a compounding factor in many separation problems. However, these figures are probably just the tip of the iceberg as not all dog owners seek help from a behaviour counsellor.

The way forward
What is discussed above suggests that the socialisation period is much shorter than previously assumed and may end at 7-8 weeks with the most important period being the 3rd to 5th week. The second point is that new insights into brain development have important implications, for example, the timing and manner in which we expose puppies to stimuli and homing.

Every breeder is concerned about the welfare of their puppies and wants to give them the best opportunity to develop into a happy dog. Now is the time for the reflection and reconsideration of daily practice necessary to be better able to achieve it. However, knowing how to prevent the development of problems related to fear is not enough. As the breeder is often one of the first, if not the first person an owner will ask advice from when confronted with a problem related to fear that does occur an understanding of the differences between anxieties, fears and phobias and their resolution is also important.

If you would like more information on this subject PET BEHAVIOUR GUIDES are holding a series of STUDY DAYS organized in cooperation with CEVA SANTE ANIMAL held on the 18th of June in Wokingham and 9th of July at the National Railway Museum in York.

During a series of 1 day seminars the newest insights and practical techniques for the prevention and treatment of fear problems and fear aggression in dogs will be presented by the internationally known companion animal behaviour counsellors DAVID APPLEBY and JOLANDA PLUIJMAKERS

For more detailed information or any queries regarding these seminars, please visit the website: www.petbehaviourguides or email me at: