Puppy Classes and Socialisation: – More recent thoughts on what might be best for developing our dogs and how your local creche or doggie day care can help you.
Unfortunately, the way many puppy classes are run and the information available about how to bring up a puppy and socialise them still seems to be a bit in the Dark Ages.
Many people have still not heard about Dog Creches although they may be aware of Doggie Day Care. Doggie Day Care is sometimes the same thing but many cater for smaller numbers, some looking after as few as 1 or 2 dogs. A creche of course is a provider of doggie day care and is a place where dogs of all ages and breeds can mix together. The problem is that many people still view these facilities as places where they can leave their dogs when they go to work, when really they should be viewing them as amazing places to help their dogs socialise, stay socialised and learn dog etiquette. In addition to this, they are great places for puppies to learn co-ordination and physical balance. They usually provide interesting and mentally stimulating environments both inside and outside where a puppy can develop in a mentally, emotionally and physically balanced way and some even provide swimming pools and other activities and classes.
Creches often offer half day passes and will accept dogs as little as one day or half a day each week – owners don’t necessarily have to send their dog daily. Using a creche facility is the best way of helping puppies learn how to be a dog and are probably even more useful in the long run than puppy socialisation classes of the kind where puppies only meet other puppies for play!
As Dr Ian Dunbar states, things change in human social situations if we bring a child into a room of adults or if we bring an older sibling or an adult into a room of children. Sending a puppy to a group where there is a broad spectrum of ages is highly valuable. Imagine what a play school would be like without any adults present!
Most people think that after their 6 week puppy class has finished that training and socialising end there. Some may go on to further classes or to more advanced puppy classes, but even then, they aren’t made aware of the fact that rather than back off socialising at around 5-6 months, they should in fact, step it up.
Owners often end up relaxing over their puppy’s intensive socialisation programme after this time because their puppies appear highly sociable and extremely friendly with everyone and everything, however, what often happens is that puppies develop problems as they enter adolescence (sometimes during one of their fear periods) and owners suddenly realise right at a time when the Critical Period for socialisation and habituation are over. They find themselves facing a situation that now needs behavioural modification and specialist help.
Although we don’t know for certain, it is thought that puppies learn so fast and develop so quickly that information learnt and stored in the brain may get over laid with new information, thus appearing as though the dog has forgotten or lost what he learnt as a younger puppy. The best way of describing this in human terms is learning a language or other skill and then never practicing it again – we soon forget it and the area of the brain that stored that knowledge overlays the information with new, more recent and more frequently used knowledge.
There are also a few things that should be avoided or at the very least, should be better observed. One is pass the puppy, common in a lot of classes. What often happens is that owners, who are novice handlers (as opposed to experienced behaviour practitioners) tend to pass along their puppy to the next owner but their attention generally stays with their own dog. The new one they get handed, belonging to a different owner and if that new puppy is a little nervous and the handler doesn’t notice or recognise this, then the puppy is sensitised rather than desensitised to something else that could be happening in the room. This in turn can make that puppy more scared, not more confident. Some classes do this while playing sound effects, such as those of thunder or fireworks – now imagine the scared puppy, now in the arms of an owner not his own, is experiencing loud and unfamiliar noises. Rather than gaining confidence and becoming desensitised to thunder and fireworks, he is now sensitised to the point where rather than building confidence around them, the puppy is instead stressed and terrified around fireworks and thunder for life. Sadly and all too often, this scenario means that we create a much greater problem than if the puppy had never had the handling in the first place!
Uncontrolled off leash play can also cause problems, in fact quite serious ones. Some of the most common problems I come across are all because puppies were allowed to just bowl into each other and cavort around with little input from the trainer or the owners. Instead of growing confident, fearful puppies get more fearful and can even turn defensive and thus fear aggressive. If a puppy uses an aggressive response towards another and it works (the other dog backs off) that puppy will start to use aggression as his first line of defence. Dogs repeat behaviours that work. Alternatively, a puppy may become more nervous and hide or cower from a bully. The puppy that is over confident becomes more boisterous and more of a bully and in turn he will repeat that behaviour. The fearful dogs becomes more fearful and cowers more, he may become more submissive (if for example rolling over on his back stopped a bully) and he will use this behaviour more. Over using this response creates a dog that is over submissive and over submissive dogs find themselves more prone to attack because they make themselves a target. Over time they receive more and more attention from bullies or other unbalanced dogs. The dog that learnt to become yet more of a bully is the one that most dog owners recognise as the one that bowls up to everyone when he is out and about and off leash – he terrifies nervous dogs, turns submissive dogs more submissive, makes reactive dogs more reactive and terrifies the owners fear reactive and overly submissive dogs.
If that same bully puppy meets a bigger more reactive dog who decides to try and put him in his place, that once over confident bully may either end up in a fight, or be scared to the point of becoming defensive and in turn fear aggressive himself…. and so the cycle continues!
When running classes we have to actively supervise, interact and guide dogs in the responses they give to each other. We have to praise, encourage and give feedback for good meeting and greeting, polite behaviour and correct sniffing and step in and redirect overly boisterous play. We need to guide dogs to play appropriately and also choose which dogs can play together and which can’t – some dogs may need to stay on leash longer or receive more support from their humans. Dogs should be chosen to play according to confidence and not because they are the same age or size.
Not all dogs need the same interactions and overall it may be more suitable for puppies to meet adult dogs and not play with puppies at all. Puppies need to be kept calm and controlled and although free play is important, it should not be at the expense of learning manners or developing self control. Puppies need to learn about adult dogs, grumpy dogs, old dogs, long dogs, dogs without tails or with squashed faces and short ears, dogs with tails that stick up and dogs that are calm. These are all a multitude of reasons why using a creche or day care centre is generally a great idea for puppies and often more suitable than puppy on puppy socialisation classes alone.
Sadly, too many puppy classes end up being the same as adult obedience classes but for puppies involving far too much on leash control and too many commands. Puppies end up like small robots and the common problem is that they then have no idea how to behave or what to do if they are not getting any instruction. I meet many puppies who have won their gold, silver or bronze level awards, yet still leap about out of control and unable to offer and automatic and polite sit around a visitor. Sadly, many classes still don’t allow for puppies to learn self control or how to be part of the decision making process.
Often in classes the “fifth F” is ignored or not discussed – most people know of fight, flight, fiddle about (avoidance) and freeze, but few mention flocking which is when a puppy might try and hide behind mum’s skirts. If this is seen, often owners or those running the class try and get the puppy to stop being silly and go and play – yet we end up losing a vital opportunity, which is, that if this happens in the real world, we would rather out dog ran to us and looked for guidance than decided to take on an adversary! Thus, rather than developing the dog, helping it learn confidence and guiding it by being supportive, we throw it to the wolves and it learns to fight in defence.
Often bullying is allowed in the home and this manifests as puppies chasing cats, chasing children, jumping around and annoying an older dog or showing attention seeking behaviour around their owners. We need to offer guidance and good house rules – we need to be the guiding parents and give feedback when there is appropriate behaviour. Puppies that are allowed too much freedom around an older dog in the home interestingly show 83% more dog/dog aggression. It is important that when we bring a puppy into a home where there are already dogs we need to increase their independent socialisation – the exact opposite of what most people do! Most owners expect the older dog to teach and discipline the younger one, when in fact, most dogs in the home are far too tolerant. If you have older dogs in the home – get your new puppy out to the creche or day care centre!
Dogs do not come pre-programmed like washing machines! I often get requests which state “he isn’t obedient” but dogs don’t arrive obedient, we have to teach them. As Dr Ian Dunbar says, you can’t expect your dog to follow the rules if you keep them a secret!
Creches have people that learn about dogs, observe dogs playing together and monitor play. They supervise dogs all day and don’t allow unaddressed bullying and they usually have places where they can put dogs that need some time out. They usually choose or guide dogs to appropriate play mates and many will help owners by continuing to teach manners or keep in place behaviours that their dogs are learning at home and in their puppy classes. They are not there however to train dogs! That’s the owner’s job! They simply do not have the time or ability to focus too heavily on training one on one, they are there to support and monitor the dogs of many owners, not just one owner. It is unfair on day care staff to expect them to train one unruly dog and it is equally unfair to the owners of the other dogs.
It is important to do our homework, find appropriate classes and put in the time and groundwork to guide our puppies, adolescents and socially maturing young dogs to be good canine citizens and we should in turn support our local creches and day care centres because they can help us create a mentally, emotionally and physically well balanced dog – don’t think that these facilities are just there for working owners, they are so much more!