Much has been written and spoken about the early stages of canine learning, it has been a topic of research and debate within the dog training world for approximately 40 years. Words like socialization, critical periods are spoken about every day, in all sorts of Canine Training establishments, all over the world. Having a clear understanding of these terms and the influence of the early “Critical Periods” on later canine behavior and development is a must for any person involved heavily within the canine world. Whenever we look at behavior and the possible alterations to such behavior, a clear understanding of the possible influences on and triggers to behavior are a must.
Very few areas in the understanding of canine behavior are as important and will have a greater influence upon behavior as the early stages of development. Few other time frames within a dog’s life can gain as much benefit or potentially carry the risk of causing as much damage as can be done within this time frame. Educating our customers to gain the most development from their puppy will gain them the best chance of creating a sound adult dog, including how to avoid pitfalls that can inhibit this process. Further to this understanding such development may enable us to determine if a behavior is learned or if it is genetic and how best to cure such a problem. By better understanding how behavior is formed when the dog is young we give ourselves a far greater chance of understanding where the behavior of an adult dog has originated and how to best avoid any problem behaviors that may eventuate later in a dog’s life. Armed with greater knowledge as to the development of dog behavior we will be able to ask more decisive questions of the dog owner thus giving us more specific answers and a better understanding as to the possible cause of the problem behavior. How could we possibly hope to solve a problem behavior if we do not know the probable cause of such, or the psychology behind it?
There are many dog trainers dealing with the public every day who do not have this level of developmental knowledge and are giving advice that reflect this. The most common example of this is the old catch cry of “he’ll grow out of it”. Although there are many behaviors that a dog will in fact grow out of there are many more that they will grow “into”. Fear and anxiety based behavioral problems certainly fit into this criteria, and are amongst the behavioral problems that can be positively effected by correct early developmental work.
Canine development is generally broken down into what is called “Critical Periods”. These are periods in a dogs life where his/her development is at a vastly more accelerated pace and where this learning and development will have a greater effect upon the dogs behavior for the rest of it’s life. As the name suggests it is very important for the dog that through these periods any experiences it has will have a positive effect upon it’s life. Any trainer that has had to deal with solving a behavioral problem in an adult dog would appreciate how important it is to avoid this problem as a puppy. Many such problems have been created through poor handling, raising etc through these critical periods.
Scott & Fuller discovered critical periods in a dog’s development in the 1950’s. They conducted an experiment on over 250 dogs from the day they were born to the day they died. They had five different breeds of dog and hybrids there of. They found that a dog has a number of critical periods in its life. However they found the most critical of these periods is in the window between the ages of 0 and 16 weeks of age as they found this to be the age where exposure to stimulus had a direct effect on the brain mechanism. They further found that this period could be again broken down into 3 more Sub Periods. These being,
1) The Neonatal period 0-2wks
2) The Transitional period 2-4wks
3) Socialisation period 4-16wks
(Variations of a week a possible in these critical periods)
Another period that we should also look at if only briefly is the Prenatal Period. It has been found that a mother’s physical and mental well being during the pregnancy is very important to the development of the puppies. Puppies born from a stressful pregnancy have been seen to show a greater sensitivity to the socialization period’s as well a reduction in learning ability. Thus it is very important that during her pregnancy that a mother has a warm place to sleep, plenty of food and to avoid x-rays or any illness. She should not be under going any high level of work that can add any high level of stress both physically and mentally to the bitch. Also if you are buying a puppy from a breeder always ask to see the mother and where she slept. If you do not like what you see then do not buy a pup.
In the first two weeks of a dog life he/she is totally dependent on its mother. The mother is responsible for everything from the dogs feeding to its elimination. At this time the pup has very little brain activity. The only senses that the dog has active are a small amount of touch (only around it’s face and more in regards the difference from warm to cold) and a slight sense of smell and taste. The only real thing that we can do to help the young pups in their future life is through handling and creating temperature changes for the pups. Scott & Fuller found that when a pup is handled at this age that the brain waves of the pup are increased which will physically increase the size of the brain as well as increasing the nervous system of the dog. It is believed that one of the possible reasons for this is that mild stress placed upon the pup actually increases brain activity. It is for this reason that a lot of high level working dog breeders are now actively causing vast temperature difference to the pups environment through this period. It is believed that such changes will cause the mild stress spoken about and give the best development through this period. How true or false this theory and technique is, is hard to prove however many experienced and knowledgeable trainers/behaviorists use it extensively.
As the pups only real interaction at this age is with the mother it is once again important that the mother is kept in a stress free environment and in good health. The importance of this has best been illustrated in a Swedish Study which showed that stress placed upon the mother had a detrimental effect upon the pups future development and threshold to stress.
“This is the period when most of the pup’s senses become active, at 13 days they can start to see, hear and their teeth begin to appear. Tails start to wag, they growl and bark for the first time and their temperature regulation and physical co-ordination allows them to leave the mother and will if possible leave the nest to eliminate.”1 The brain waves of the pup will increase sharply as the pup begins to experience sights and sounds of the world around it. Evidence has shown that a puppy reared in a sensory rich environment through this period will have increased brain development.
It is at this age that pups should be prepared for the socialization period. At 2 ½ weeks a pup should be handled for at least one minute a day building up to 5 minutes a day by 4 weeks of age at the very least. This will help to imprint humans as a natural part of life for a dog. For this reason children should also be encouraged to handle the dog within this period. Obvious care must be taken at this point as not to harm the pups in any way.
It is also during this period that the behavior of the mother will have it’s greatest effect on the pups. A large effort should be made to reduce any undesirable behavior that the mother may have upon her pups ie nervousness or fear of handlers etc. Studies in Holland have found that a dams behavior can have the greatest effect on a puppy at this time. Studies were conducted where pups from a confident bitch where swapped with a nervous bitch at aprox one week of age. The pups from the nervous bitch originally all proceeded to become confident little pups where as the pups from the confident bitch originally (who went to the nervous bitch) turned out to be far more nervous in temperament. Now whilst as this nervousness is not genetically imprinted and thus could with a dedicated/knowledgeable handler be improved if not completely overcome it does create much more work in order to get simply what could have been achieved if the pups were not exposed to a mother under going such stress. Although there are aspects of this study that go unanswered the results can be viewed to show just how important the condition and type of the mother is.
As the name suggests this is the critical period where true socialization begins as the pup now has many of its sensors working at full adult levels. Trying to socialize the pup prior to this time period will not be completely successful, as the pup is not fully aware of its surroundings. This time period (in my opinion) is the most important of all the Critical Periods. Any socialization missed in this period will only gain tolerance of the object rather than true acceptance of it and thus greater increases the chances of fear related behavioral problems.
The term “socialization” in modern times is often used a lot to describe any dog being exposed to stimulation (especially other dogs) in order for them to feel more confident around them. But in true scientific definitions and specifically Scott and Fullers definition of socialization, true socialization can only be done within this 16 week period. Exposure to previously stressful stimulation in order to desensitize the dog to this stimulus after this period is truly only “habituation”.An example of this is a dog that has not seen children in this time period, and feels stress by them will only ever grow to tolerate the children rather than truly except them as part of its life. Scott & Fuller took a pup from its mother at 2 weeks and gave it no human contact until it was 18 weeks of age. They found that the dog showed all the signs of being a wild dog and it took them many weeks of training just to get it to accept them.Within this period the pups will start to play a little harder with each other and will learn many behavioral patterns that it will take into adult life. The pups will learn to communicate, co-operate with each other as well as how to establish their position in the pack hierarchy. Pups that miss this time period of play have also been known to become self-mutilators later in life. They also show poorer learning skills and far higher levels of fear towards all things new.It is vitally important that the pups are introduced to as many situations as possible in this Critical Period. Poor exposure to stimuli with in this period will often be shown later in the dog’s life with fear/anxiety related behavioral problems. Further having a dog conditioned to the fact that there are new things out in the world that it is going be exposed to, that it should not fear them and simply investigate will help to create a tolerance of new objects and thus create a wait and see mentality rather than a fear first ask questions later mentality.
This is generally also the period in the dog’s life where it is relocated to its new home. Which makes it all the more important that the socialisation in this period is done correctly. It is also the first time that customers are likely to bring the dog to us or ask us for advice. There are many thing that the customers can do to help during this period, the biggest is to correctly socialize the dog.The dog owner can also do some exercises that will stimulate the brain waves of the dog, which will promote brain growth. These entitle putting the dog in a slightly stressful situation and enabling it to deal with the situation confronting it. It is also a great phase in the dog’s life to build a relationship between the dog and the owner. At this age we can build trust, attain leadership and develop loyalty that can grow at a later date. Once these things are developed they will not soon be forgotten and will mean that the behavioral problems are unlikely to arise in the future.
The most commonly missed areas of socialization are toward dogs and small children and once these areas missed it is difficult to correct the behavior. As I have stated before the dog may learn to tolerate the dogs or children but often will not truly accept them. This lack of socialization is further encouraged by the fact that most vets will tell people to not take a new pup out of the house until it is at least 12 weeks old and it is common for some vets to actively discourage owners from taking their dog out until after 16 wks of age. By this stage the socialization window is well and truly closed. Most Vets do this with the best intentions. They have not been exposed too much behavioral knowledge and research but have been taught and exposed to many health related behavioral problems such as parvo virus where the risk of a dog contracting such a decease is reduced if kept in a safe environment until the dogs is fully vaccinated. However it is my belief that with so many dogs still being destroyed or abandoned due to behavioral problems (vastly more than ever suffer from parvo virus or similar serious illnesses) that are often created through poor early socialization I believe that taking a calculated risk (if we expose young dogs to stigmatization under controlled environments the risk of contracting such deceases is very low) with correct early socialization is a risk well worth taking. However this is defiantly an argument that will go on for a long time as both arguments are not without merit.
Socialization Technique: Within this article I have spoken about “correct socialization technique”. Whilst it is very important for the pup to be exposed to stimulus it is almost equally as important that this exposure be done in a way to make sure every experience be a positive one as whilst huge gains can be accomplished within this time frame it is also true that much damage can be done if the pup experiences poor socialization. Much of the day to day socialization actually occurs with little or no human interaction, however when the owner of the dog is involved there are certain techniques and rules that should be followed to help make sure all socialization conducted is effective and positive. Many different techniques exist. This is the one that I use and recommend.
Firstly we must find an object that we wish to socialize the pup with. We then place the pup at a distance were it can see the object but is in no way showing signs of being nervous of it. Signs of being nervous can include cowering, ears back against the head, hair on back up, backing away from the object, barking at the object,growling at the object etc. When we reach the point where the pup is relaxed but curious of the object we allow the pup to become comfortable with where it is in its surroundings. (It is better if we are outside the back yard etc to already have the dog on and used to the lead and collar). Then we encourage the pup to move towards the object (tapping the ground in front of the pup, calling it forward etc not pushing the dog to move). With every forward step we praise the pup (treats etc can easily be used at this point). If we see the pup become fearful we ignore the pup and if it wants to we allow it to move away from the object. This is where most mistakes are made. Many people will force a pup to hold its position. This is only creating greater anxiety within the pup as it feels that the option to run is taken away which encourages the feeling that it cannot escape the situation. Also many more people at this time will speak to their pup in a soft, soothing tone saying “It’s all right Fido, good boy (or Girl), it OK” (or similar). This is effectively praising the dog and encouraging the pup to show this sort of fearful behavior more often. The best option is to totally ignore the pup. Allow it to move back and get itself comfortable and relaxed and then encourage forward motion. When it moves forward praise/reward it once again. Quickly the pup will learn that forward motion gains praise and it will seek to move forward. With every mildly successful encounter the pup overcomes it will grow in confidence and learn to investigate new things.
Don’t be in to bigger rush. Allow the pup to take things slowly. It does not matter if it takes several repetitions to get a pup to meet or touch the new object. If you see real improvement in the pup with the object then finish for the day and start again another time.
Another area that we should discuss under the “correct socialization technique” is in regards dog to dog or really pup to pup socialization. Specifically I am talking here about whether socialization between two or more puppies from litters other than their own should be done in an on or off lead environment. At ECDT we do all our puppy classes on lead 100% of the time. We do this for a few reasons such as not allowing puppies to run off to other possibly less than friendly adult dogs but more importantly we do this to not allow the bigger dogs (mentally as well as physically) to bully the smaller dogs which will have a two fold effect. It will teach the larger dogs that they can beat up on and dominate the smaller dogs and the smaller ones to be scared of the larger dogs as they can beat up and hurt them. Both of these scenarios can create behavioral problems that will need to be rectified later and thus is against the very reason we try to do early socialization with the pups. The main schools and puppy classes you will see this not to be the case is at the Vet (which are usually run by one of the vet nurses) or Volunteer run classes.
In concluding we can see how important it is to know the stages of a dog’s early development so that we can give the best advice possible to our customers about picking the right breeder, avoiding problem behavior and above all solving behavioral problems, as we can see the possible starting points of these behaviors. We can see how early socialist ion will lead to a far happier, calmer and better adjusted dog that will be confident in all situations. Confidence is the number one attribute that we are trying to give a dog as it will far reduce the chances of aggression as well as increased learning ability. Education of the owners of these facts is the only way that we can hope to reduce the number of poorly socialized dogs in the future and by doing so reduce the number of dangerous dogs in our community.
Although there is no doubt as far as I am concerned that giving a dog a correct start to life is important it may not be enough to avoid behavioral problems that will be created due to the dogs genes. Some dogs have a predisposition to having behavioral problems that may be helped greatly through early development and socialization, it may not be enough and behavioral problems may still be apparent However with such dogs any missed socialization within these periods will have obvious results.Also I do not believe that once these critical periods are over that a dogs behavior is fixed forever more. A dog can be habituated at any age and grow to accept any object, if we have the time, knowledge and resources. It defiantly becomes more difficult with age and can in many cases, I believe, have been avoided if correct early socialization had been conducted with such dogs.