Puppy Development and Socialisation – its effects on behaviour

It has been generally considered that there are four stages to puppy socialisation.  However, according to Bradshaw, in his book “In Defence of Dogs” there may be more periods of socialisation, they may go on for longer and start even earlier than we think.

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The critical period is generally considered from birth to 12 weeks, although most researchers nowadays would agree that it goes on to 16 weeks.  This is where the development of the dog’s mind can be most influenced and will determine the kind of dog the puppy turns into.  It is important to realise, however, that each puppy will have individual characteristics which will influence the way it interprets and handles its environment and what happens within that environment.  It’s own genes and the mother’s hormones also influence the puppy – even long before it enters into the world. 

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It has been discovered that human babies are influenced during their time in the womb.  During the BBC’s recording of “A Child of our Time” music was played to the foetus and was recognised by the newborn baby and also later when the child had consciously forgotten it.  Monitors showed that the brain recognised the music and would give off signals to this effect.  As both dogs and humans are mammals, it was thought likely that dogs could also learn in the womb (although not by sound of course).  It has now been found to be so.

So, although there are four stages outlined for a pup’s socialisation (info to follow below) – we should consider how much influence there has been on the puppy during the “pre-natal” period and how this may effect the way the puppy will respond and develop “during” those four stages of socialisation.  

In “Defence of Dogs” Bradshaw says that the relationship with humans is set in motion from around 3 weeks actually and not four as is often suggested and that the dog has, of course, already existed for twelve weeks – prior to this three week period.  That is, nine as a foetus and then three more as a helpless puppy. 

For years, the anthropocentric view thought that the dog could not learn anything when it was born as it is both blind and deaf, however, this view forgot to take into consideration, their highly developed sense of smell.  What’s important is that we now know that puppies can learn to distinguish between odours even before they are born, as well as during their first three weeks!  Twelve weeks following conception may be a time when reactions to the world are significantly influenced by outside events.  Research shows that the time from conception to birth may be critical to the development of behaviour.  We can not therefore afford to ignore this.

The environment experienced by the mother can have a profound effect on the character of the offspring.  In humans, stress in particular can cause anxiety, poor intellectual and language skills and a lack of emotional control.  It is known that stress similarly effects aspects of animal behaviour – they can exhibit impaired learning, poor play skills and a weakened ability to cope with challenges.  With additional maternal care after birth however, deficits appear to be reversible.  They will be made even worse however if an animal is removed from its mother prematurely, or if her maternal skills are deficient.  

Sadly, as Fogle outlines in his book, due to humans selectively breeding for certain behaviours or body shapes, we have unintentionally impaired normal mothering abilities in some breeds.  Bradshaw also talks about this a lot, and highlights the fact that dogs – such as the Boston Terrier, can no longer give birth naturally but has to have pups born by Cesarian section.  When a mother licks her pups dry it imprints the pups on the mother’s mind.  As Fogle (in his book “The Dog’s Mind”) explains, this is why there are more rejection problems for puppies born by Cesarian section where the mother can’t carry out this imprinting procedure. The licking is the first “outside message” a puppy will receive – it lets them know what their mother’s saliva smells like.  This is vital for their survival as it lays a saliva trail – licking the pups and licking her own nipples, she guides them with a trail of smell to where they can suckle.  If nipples are cleaned with soap and water the puppy can’t find them!  As Fogle states – this is why it can be frustratingly unsuccessful to get a pup to suckle simply by putting it’s mouth on a teat.  From a personal view, I feel that we should all take more responsibility in not buying puppies from such breeds as it only serves to perpetuate some of our ill conceived breeding programmes. 

When a mother is pregnant and is put under stress – such as fear – the heart rate is raised and this of course stresses the unborn puppies too.  Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol fly around the body when the heart beats quickly.  During pregnancy, these can leak across the placenta and into the bloodstream of the unborn.  Once there, they speed up the foetus’s heart rate and replicate other effects of stress.  Fortunately this only really happens under “unusually high stress” and the mother’s body naturally tries to protect her unborn offspring from the effects of normal and everyday stresses.  

By controlling a pups environment during the first twelve weeks we can influence the final form and structure of the dog’s mind.

The period from around 4 weeks to 12 weeks is called the critical period as these are the most important 8 weeks of the puppy’s life – where he learns to live with both his own kind and with humans.  It is essential that he be exposed to many different things as well as many types of humans – male, female, young, old, bearded, in wheelchairs, colours and sizes!

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Puppies will now have a quiet sleep phase before falling into a deep sleep.  Initially vision is rather weak and variable but by around week 4 it is similar to that of an adult.  Similarly, co-ordination from balance (from the ear) means that the puppy is able to orient himself similarly to an adult, also at 4 weeks and he can now hear well.  By three weeks the puppy has touch reflexes on the hind legs and it is not long before he can start to walk and then co-ordinate himself.  The pain response is fully developed by 4 weeks of age and complex learning can begin.  This is the time when an interesting and stimulating environment is vital for the puppy as this period is the most important in a young dog’s life. At this time we have the chance to develop the brain and increase the number and connections between the neurons. 

As Fogle says:  How a dog behaves at any given time in his life is a result of a constant and fluid interplay between his genetic potential and his environment.  This is the time when a dog’s character is formed and the building blocks for his future behaviour are lad down.  What he experiences now will affect the dog for the rest of its life.

3 & 4 Socialisation Period (4 – 16 weeks): broken into two parts – socialisation to dogs around 4-6 weeks and to humans 4 – 16 weeks.  In the first period, where the puppy learns how to be “a dog” he discovers what the rules and boundaries are.  This is where the dog will learn the relationship of “dominance and submission”.  These terms are greatly debated and this is a huge topic on its own – but to simplify; this is the time that a dog learns how much is too much (learning bite inhibition) and what is acceptable and what is not.  According to Fogle this develops from the care dependency relationship with the mother and the fact she now starts to let the pup know that it can suckle less until it is totally weaned.  The severity the mother uses in this process seems to have a direct bearing on how each pup will ultimately behave with people.  It might even be better to describe that what a puppy is learning from the mother and from its siblings is “how to compromise” rather than dominance/submission because relationships between dogs and dogs and people are more complex than originally thought.

We should note at this stage, as it could and should be a consideration when it comes to the human training of dogs, that some mothers use more punishment than others. Others issue a punisher (growl/nip) to warn off a pup and then groom vigorously to put the pup back at ease.  In these latter cases there appears to be a stronger social bond and mothers “paw” pups into a submissive (accepting authority) state.  The way the mother deals with the transition from dependency to weaning will have a life-long effect on the dog’s mind – but as with everything it is possible to alter/train the puppy to be different if we put in the time and effort and correct teaching. There is no “cut and dried” answer as Fogle puts it; but it has been discovered that puppies raised under non-punishing conditions were later impossible to train.

Also to be noted is that although some will argue that dominance/submission does not exist and that punishers should not be used – Fogle makes a good point:  due to the way humans have interfered with breeding, we have created a neotenised animal – which means that it is not only dependent on us for life, but it also responds to us and learns/behaves with us, as a pup would from its mother. The rules and boundaries we set therefore are essential for to the dog’s understanding of how to behave within the home environment because basically, the adult dog is a big puppy living with a human mum for the rest of its life!  This puts a whole different perspective on things.

Those who study Pariah dogs and Dingos and try to claim that dogs do not live as “packs” have maybe not taken on the wider significance of this and the fact that Pariah dogs and Dingos have reverted successfully to independence.  Fogle explains that the same is true of feral dogs.  But at the early point of a puppy’s life there IS a pack (a family group) and for the domestic dog – this remains so because in effect – they never grow up!  The dog becomes what one might describe as an “adult puppy”!

This adult puppyhood would explain why we also see “the standard rules of interrelationship temporarily suspended” in play when so called dominant dogs play submissive roles and vice versa.  They are continuing to act like puppies because puppies play these games as a way to learn and play is a puppy activity.  Play is where adult social behaviour is moulded.  Through trial and error during play, puppies learn their communication skills.  Play will determine the relationship structure a dog will have within the family group and where it will develop the characteristics it will display as an adult.

During this period it is also possible for the puppy to socialise to new species also – so those growing up with cats will include them as part of their family.  All our Ridgebacks play and sleep with the cat and the cat plays with the dogs, jumps on them and goes for walks with them.  These same dogs also relate well to the chickens they grew up with and live in harmony with them.  It is this ability to bond with other species that makes it possible to raise sheep guarding breeds such as the Gt Pyrenees and Anatolian Karabash with the sheep they will one day guard.  This capability is highly unusual in the animal kingdom.

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Socialisation to humans – because the puppy can socialise to new species, this makes it easy for us to hijack the dogs normal kin recognition mechanism and become part of the dog’s family.  We can’t slot into the parent category in the same way the mother can be we do slot into the carer category.  Humans fit into the dogs unusual capacity for multiple socialisation (Bradshaw).  Once the mother finishes her job, it’s the human who provides play, food, water, love, reward and training.  We basically control our dogs at any given time during the day.

NOTE:  The organisation of a dog’s social brain is different from most other mammals.  It is this capacity which allows hunting dogs to run in a pack and sled dogs to run in a race, while still remaining under the control of their human handlers.

Evidence shows that the month or so immediately after the socialisation period, between 12-16 weeks is almost as important to the development of a dog’s adult personality as the socialisation period itself.  However very little research has been done on the dogs’ behaviour at this age.

Juvenile Period starts – starts 12 weeks: This could be considered the 5th stage of development and it appears that the first few weeks of this period are very important.  Dogs exposed to loud noises at this time, including fireworks helps the dog from becoming fearful later on and they are less likely to develop phobias.  Those failing to develop knowledge of coping skills can develop non-specific anxieties and therefore this makes them harder to fix.  These dogs may use strategies of avoidance or aggression when confronted with things with which they are unable to cope.

In Fogle’s book “The Dog’s Mind” he says that early handling “stressing” in the puppy’s life can be good for the emotional development of the dog and probably makes him better able to cope with stresses later on in life.  Mild stresses early in life influence the adrenal-pituitary system, fine tuning it to respond in a sensitive and graded manner later on in life rather than in an all or nothing fashion.  According to EEG readings on puppies, dogs mature faster if they undergo mild stresses early in life.  They also perform better at problem solving when they are older than do other dogs.  Of course, it is hard to know how much stress is “good” and how much is too much – as over stressing at an early age will lead to retarded development.

Apparently, even mild stress in the neonatal period is good for a pup’s mind.  Constant temperature, comfort and freedom from adverse conditions do NOT make for better puppies.  Mild stress accelerates body growth, reduces emotionality and may even increase resistance to certain diseases.  It is assumed that the amount of handling humans naturally want to give puppies is likely to be the “right amount”.  What we can be certain of is that a hands off policy – of leaving it to nature – is definitely NOT in the best interests of the puppy.  By providing an interesting and stimulating environment we can further enhance the development of the puppy’s mind.

In Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself” he says:  “Mental training or life in an enriched environment increases brain weight by 5% in animals and up to 9% where training is used to directly stimulate them.  Trained, stimulated neurons develop 25% more branches and increase their size, the number of connections per neuron and their blood supply.  All changes are possible later in life also, but they are slower.  In humans, post- mortems show that education increases the number of branches in neurons.”

Puppies taken from their mothers too soon or who have been dumped/abandoned before their 8th week are more likely to have problems such as:

  • Lack of bite inhibition
  • Exhibit more behaviours such as fearfulness and aggression
  • Suffer anxiety including more of these dogs suffering separation anxieties

Dogs are far better off with their mothers until at least 8 weeks and it has been found that those that remain in the breeder’s environment until 12 weeks are far more likely to develop into well balanced and non-aggressive dogs.  For toy breeds, it is considered that they would do better left with their mothers until 14-16 weeks of age.

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Poor socialisation will mean that the dog is missing information that will help it to live in a society with human beings and other animals.  Aggression most often occurs through fears and anxieties so with poor socialisation, this fear is from a lack of understanding about what things are and how to be.  For example, a lack of socialisation with other dogs and/or humans will mean that a puppy behaves more like a wild animal.  Various experiments have been done keeping puppies isolated from humans, dogs, other animals and external influences.  A wild animal has a heightened fight or flight response and as dogs are kept, most usually, in a more confined living spaces (garden or home) if there is nowhere to flee, then the response of the dog can become one of three things – avoidance, acceptance or fight.  If fight is the option then the result is likely to manifest itself as aggression.

Most fear aggression is due to a negative experience or a lack of socialisation/habituation.  A young puppy adapts to his environment and grows up not being fearful of noises, smells and sights encountered as long as they are introduced and become part of his understanding at an early age.  Without this the dog can bite out of fear.  The upside is that because fear aggression is mostly a learned behaviour, it is possible to help a dog overcome it by using various rewards such as food, touch, play and grooming.  Using “habituation” techniques, it is possible to help the dog overcome his fears.

Fear Periods:

This fear behaviour can arise because it genetically is something that we have not necessarily bred out of the domestic dog.  In the wild, in order to survive, things that are unfamiliar must be treated with suspicion because it may be something that is hazardous or harmful to the young dog.  Although the domestic dog is not surrounded by the same kind of dangers he may encounter in the wild, this behaviour is still inside the puppy and helps to keep him safe.

The first fear imprint period is around 8 -11 weeks and falls in with the human imprint period, things that frighten a puppy now will have more of an effect than if it occurs at other times and so it is important for the human to be aware of this and work to make the puppies learning experiences positive. A puppy may not have shown fear of something prior to this time but it can happen when the “thing” is re-experienced during this phase.  In addition to this there is a second phase of fearfulness.

This second fear imprint period is from around 6 – 14 months (more on this below).  It is similar to the one that occurred during the socialisation period, but is much less defined. It occurs as dogs enter adolescence and apparently seems more common in males.  It is often referred to as adolescent shyness.  The dog may suddenly become reluctant to approach something new or suddenly become afraid of something familiar. This behaviour can be very frustrating to the owner and difficult to understand because its onset is so sudden and, seemingly, unprovoked.  If it happens it is is important to avoid the two extremes in response:

1  Not forcing the dog to do or approach, something frightening to him

2  Not coddling or babying the dog.

To get through situations that make the dog fearful it is better to be patient and understanding.  Desensitisation can work well at this time, by introducing the dog to the object or situation gradually and using food rewards and praise to reward attempts to confront the fearful object or situation.  It is very important to reward the correct and wanted behaviour.  It is at this period that the wrong response from an owner can train fearfulness into the dog and cause the dog to develop other issues.

Coddling or reassuring the dog in any way will encourage the fearful behaviour. However it is important not to “correct” the dog either as this will also increase the fear response.  It is far better to ignore the problem and allow the dog to work the problem out for himself while offering support for the correct responses and confident/non-fearful tries.

It is better to make light of issues, and encourage the dog with food rewards as he begins to deal with the fear better.  Helping a dog by engaging the nose can make a big difference and distract him from his fearfulness.  It is very important to really praise good attempts as the phase will pass with the correct approach and attitude.

It is essential to continue socialisation into adulthood because even if a puppy is exposed to many things when it is young, if there is a long gap between the introduction of new and potentially frightening stimuli in its life (even if the puppy was quite relaxed and accepting of them initially) the original socialisation and habituation to those things can wear off.  The puppy can then become fearful to something that originally it did not find at all worrying.

This possibly happens because there are so many new neural pathways forming and the brain is still developing at a rapid rate.  Those areas that learned behaviour can be overwritten by new experiences.  Continuing a dog’s training, socialisation and habituation well into maturity gives the dog the best possible start in life.  A dog that grows up in a rural environment, even if it was born in a city environment and initially habituated to traffic, can become fearful of car, lorry and general city noise despite the early socialisation carried out.

Also, because there is a second phase of fearfulness which is why it is important to keep up the socialisation and introduction of new things on a regular basis. The dog goes on learning for a long time – through the juvenile period and well into early adulthood, so to keep establishing confidence in the dog will make him a more balanced an all round “good dog” – a pleasure to be with, easy to live with and care for.  Also, if there are any minor set backs or glitches during the training process, to continue socialisation will help the dog overcome these without it developing into a major problem.  Any problems that do arise will be much easier to sort out and address.

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Important Additional Information on Fear Periods:

People often forget the second fear stage and become impatient or annoyed because they think their dog should be over fear now because he was doing well.  Pamela Dennison of Positive Motivation Dog Training says that she finds many owners think that once the dog has reached 16 weeks, all training stops and that often the dogs is then left at home without experiencing new things.  Owners then think that their dog has “suddenly” become fearful, shy or aggressive. Dennison lists approximate fear periods in the dogʼs life (showing that there are in fact more than just two fear phases) but of course, depending on the dogʼs breed and other factors in the dogʼs life, these can vary:

  • Between seven to nine weeks of age
  • Anywhere from four to six months
  • Again at around 12 months
  • At approximately 14 to 18 months and with some dogs can even be as late as 2 years

Not considering the time and work involved with a young dog is another big reason for people giving them up for adoption in their first two years. Many people think that the first 6 months are enough and according to Pamela Dennisonʼs experience, 4 months! Some owners may even extend this to the first year, but they forget that to get a really well rounded and balanced dog it is a life long commitment and in particular the first two years are essential.