The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs (Part One): Common Causes and How Socialisation Works

The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs


This four part series investigates a fascinating and very important aspect of dog psychology, which is presented as the solution to, arguably, the most avoidable problem behaviour seen commonly in dogs today – anxiety-based defensive aggression.



Part One describes the common causes, and explains how an intensive socialisation program of puppies, at the right age, works in preventing the onset of this debilitating – and dangerous – condition.


Part Two delves into the vaccination v’s socialisation debate and provides a simple solution to manage both aspects together, for the ultimate benefit of our vulnerable puppies. It also analyses the most important aspect of the socialisation process – the correct use of reinforcement.


Part Three illustrates in great detail, using one of the most common causes of anxiety and fear in dogs, how to socialise a young puppy to a potentially fearful stimulus, or an adult dog requiring desensitisation to a feared object.


Part Four reiterates the importance of socialisation and provides advice on how to go about sourcing a puppy or dog. It gives guidance on what situations to avoid and describes an unlikely situation which can be of great benefit in finding the best puppy for your circumstances.



We sincerely hope you find this four part tip sheet informative and thought provoking.



The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs



Part One:


The most common cause of anxiety


A surprising number of well-adjusted, happy dogs have deep-seeded anxiety which only shows itself when the dog is placed into an unfamiliar (fearful) situation. Just like people, some dogs are naturally anxious – they are genetically predisposed to stress. This can run in the breed or in the individual family line. If present, it can contribute to the dogs’ susceptibility to the much more common cause of anxiety: the experienced environment, or, in other words, lack of socialisation to the human world.


There is a common misconception regarding dogs with anxiety and defensive-aggression behaviour problems: owners often say: “He must have been abused as a puppy, because he’s really (this)”, or “he’s really (that).” Their dog is far more likely to have been unsocialised as a puppy, than abused as a puppy! There is no doubt that a puppy that has been abused will be fearful, but fortunately this is extremely rare in our society. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Anxiety is much more frequently the result of puppies being over-protected by their owners, by being deliberately kept away from sources of fear and by not undertaking a high enough level of puppy socialisation – exposure to the human environment – during the critical period.


By this, I do not mean merely attending a four week puppy training class inside a room where puppies are taught to sit and drop on command. If this is all a puppy class offers, find a different trainer! Sure, these ‘puppy preschool’ classes are definitely better than nothing, because at least the dog meets other puppies, different people, and has a car ride once a week for a month. Unfortunately, however, this level of exposure is often the only socialisation a puppy receives, whereas it should constitute only the very beginning of a socialisation program, starting at eight weeks of age. These puppy classes often come too late in the dog’s life to be of much benefit, because many puppies are not taken to puppy classes until after four months of age, and by then, the critical period of socialisation has closed.



How does ‘socialisation’ work?


A correct and thorough socialisation program of a young puppy involves exposing the dog to as many elements of the human environment as possible, between the age of eight and sixteen weeks. This is because, at this age, the puppy is old enough to process what is happening, but is still basically fearless when experiencing something unknown.


Very young children have no concept of what constitutes danger, which is why parents must be so vigilant. They will put their hand into a flame, run onto the street after a ball, stand behind a reversing car, climb into a pool before they can swim, crawl right off a high platform – they are fearless! As we age, we become more aware of danger and we experience anxiety when under stress, or fear when in peril.


It’s the same with dogs. Young puppies are also fearless at a certain age, and we can use this to our advantage! Exposure to all manner of experiences during this period of relative fearlessness is extremely effective at preventing anxiety later in life. Those same encounters, if experienced for the first time as an older dog, after the awareness of danger has kicked in, can induce responses ranging from mild anxiety to extreme fear, leading to aggression if the experience is bad enough, or recurs.


This means we need to expose young puppies to absolutely everything we can: riding in the car, bicycles, prams, skateboards, slippery surfaces, trucks, large dogs, bangs and flashes, people with beards, toddlers, postmen, flapping banners, looming café umbrellas, stairs made of mesh, people on crutches, Harley Davidson motorbikes etc. The list is endless, but these examples indicate how everyday things in the human world can be a source of anxiety and/or fear in an unsocialised dog.


The signs of anxiety and fear include: a reticence to approach, cowering, retreating, hiding, looking away from the object, licking the lips, yawning, flattening the ears, head lowering, tail tucking, lowering the tail and wagging it a little, raising one foot, rolling onto the back, urinating, barking, growing, snapping, staring, crouching with the head and body close to the ground. Get to know these signs and be observant in watching for them. We never want to place a puppy in a position where he feels anxious of fearful.


“I took my puppy to preschool classes, but he is still anxious,” you might be thinking. Ah, yes! But there are puppy classes and there are puppy classes! A well-run puppy training program will not merely teach you how to make your puppy sit on command, but will spend more time doing everything it can to expose the puppies to as many simulated and real life-experiences as possible. They will use props, costumes, mixed-surface obstacle courses, and encourage class members to bring in scooters, their toddlers, umbrellas, wigs, even granny in her wheelchair. They will play DVDs with sounds of thunder and fireworks, even have a vehicle for the puppies to sit in while running, while slamming its doors and tooting its horn.


The really good puppy programs will take the class out and about, to see trucks, crowds of people, traffic, activity on bicycle paths and skate parks, city streets, have coffee at a cafe etc. Most of all, a good trainer will provide their class participants with homework – a comprehensive list of things puppies should be exposed to. They will  expect their students to keep up this intense level of socialisation all the way through the six-week puppy program on a daily basis, and beyond, to four months of age… and beyond, perhaps on a weekly basis, moderating at around a year of age, but continuing with a minimum of monthly (preferably weekly) exposure… for life.


Puppies that receive such an intensive level of controlled socialisation usually remain confident for life, because not only are they familiar with the human environment, but they learn to generalise these experiences. This means they develop confidence – coping strategies – which will come into play when they experience something new later in life, even if they didn’t encounter that particular situation when a fearless youngster.


So the critical period of socialisation, between eight and sixteen weeks of age, is fundamental to the preparation of a puppy for an enriched life, relatively free of fear and anxiety… free of problems!




Look out for the next part of this series on The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety. There are many related topics to this, so look on our website for more great Good Dog Tips!


© Trina Morris – – 2014




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