The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs
The vaccination V’s socialisation debate
This recommendation to socialise puppies from the age of eight weeks raises another common question: “You want me to expose my puppy to the world, but my vet says not to take my puppy out until his vaccination program is finished. What gives? Who should I listen to?”
The vast majority of vets now understand the critical importance of socialisation, so it is rare to hear this, nowadays. As the worldwide movement of experts in dog behaviour raised the awareness of socialisation over the past two decades, the veterinary industry faced a dilemma in the advice they provided: Do we risk puppies contracting parvovirus by recommending intensive socialisation before their vaccination program is completed at ten weeks of age, or do we risk the development of anxiety-related behaviours by recommending puppies be protected from exposure to viral spores in public places until after their vaccination program is completed? In other words, do we risk possible physical health or likely psychological health?
The solution is actually surprisingly simple. Firstly, ensure your puppy comes from a bitch that was fully vaccinated prior to giving birth, then ensure the puppy’s vaccinations are given on time, at 4-6 weeks and again at 8-10 weeks. [Note: I recommend vaccines be given at six weeks and then a day or two over ten weeks of age – the medical reasons for this are too complicated to go into here, so see my vaccination tip sheets for detailed explanations of how the immune system works in relation to puppy vaccines].
Secondly, take your young puppy out with you as often as possible from the day you get him home, which is, preferably, right on eight weeks of age. Carefully expose him to the human environment, but don’t let the puppy have direct contact with anything or anyone. This means you must carry the puppy in your arms (or in a crate) to let him smell, see and hear the world, but don’t put him down on the ground, or let him touch, sniff or taste anything. This includes being handled by other people or being allowed close to any other dogs, because they could all be contaminated with parvovirus spores which are very common in the environment. Similarly, the person carrying the puppy must not handle any public surfaces.
Save all physical encounters until after the final puppy vaccination has kicked in, two weeks after it was given at 10 weeks of age. On this basis, you are already four weeks ahead on your puppy’s socialisation, than if you’d waited for his vaccination program to be completed, yet he has remained safe from the risk of the two most common contagious diseases – parvovirus and canine cough. (Note: distemper and hepatitis are not common these days).
Ideally, therefore, your intensive program of puppy socialisation begins at eight weeks of age when you can provide four extra weeks of careful exposure to smells, sights and sounds. Then, at twelve weeks (if the last vaccination was given just a few days over ten weeks of age), ramp up the exposure so that your puppy begins to experience the human environment from the ground. This is important for two reasons: a puppy must explore the world from its own level, not from the soft, warm protection of its owners’ arms. He needs to start feeling surfaces under his feet, be able to sniff places where other dogs have been, taste new and interesting things (within reason!), and be handled by as many different people as possible. If you see someone with a huge fuzzy beard, ask him to give your puppy some treats and pat him. Take the puppy to the skate park and ask kids of all ages to come and see your puppy and hand out treats for them to give.
A wise socialisation program ensures that all encounters are regular, controlled and gradual. The puppy should not be bombarded with new experiences, just once or twice over the critical period. In other words, the puppy should not spend Monday to Friday locked in a pen at home, when everyone is busy working, then taken out all weekend and overwhelmed by confrontations with the human world. A special effort must be made to deliberately take the puppy out every day, to a different place, to experience something new during the critical socialisation period. You only have eight weeks to get this done (or four if you have waited for the final vaccination to kick in). I can’t emphasise enough that if you put a lot of effort into those eight weeks of the critical socialisation period, when the puppy is between eight and sixteen weeks of age, you will save an enormous amount of stress, training problems, and be unlikely to need to the services of a canine behaviourist!
The intensity of these experiences should be gradually increased over the duration of the socialisation program. It should not begin with a trip to the landfill facility to see, smell, feel and hear huge trucks and other noisy machinery in action, nor with a trip to the off-leash dog park, to be mobbed by enormous, over-friendly dogs. Be assured, though, these definitely are essential elements on your ‘to do’ list of socialisation, but they are just further down the track!
The most important aspect of socialisation
The most important aspect of socialisation, as with any training, is the correct use of reinforcement. It is imperative to apply a consistent program of positive reinforcement when the dog exhibits confident behaviour when facing new encounters. Like children, dogs need to learn, from a very early age, that there are consequences to their actions. Learning that there are good consequences for offering wanted (good) behaviours, through the application of positive reinforcement, is absolutely essential. Sometimes there are bad consequences, too, such as being ignored, when unwanted behaviours are exhibited.
If the puppy shows a confident inquisitiveness towards an unfamiliar object or person, or during a new experience, or even if the puppy demonstrates a neutral acceptance, he should be rewarded with praise and given something he most wants – a treat, a tug game, or a tummy rub, for example. These good consequences, for showing the correct response, will reinforce the behaviour and make it more likely to happen again.
If the puppy shows any signs of fearful or anxious behaviour when faced with a new situation, he should be ignored – not molly-coddled or reassured! Simply remove the puppy from the fearful situation, or take him away a little until he no longer shows fear. Don’t say or do anything else. Just mark it down as a loss and learn from it. Did you take him too close to the fear-object, was the stimulus too intense, or was it too sudden? Analyse the situation, identify where you went wrong, take a big step back and try it again with a reduced level of exposure. By not reinforcing the unwanted behaviour, we are making it less likely to happen again.
With consistency and repetition, the puppy will start to realise there is a pattern to the process: “If I am confident, I am given a delicious treat, kind words and a rub – I think I’ll try that again”. Or: “If I show fear, I get nothing, so maybe I should try something different.” Of course this is not how your puppy thinks (they do not have such powers of deductive reasoning!), but with repetition and consistency, this is the pattern that will eventually form in the puppy’s mind.
Ignoring a puppies’ fearful response to exposure goes against our instincts as loving carers – our first reaction to seeing an anxious, stressed puppy is to comfort him and offer protection. But it is very important not to reinforce fear with these forms of reinforcement. A fearful puppy must not be given reassurance with pats, stroking and words of encouragement. Never molly-coddle the puppy for showing fear or try to calm him down by giving him soothing comfort: “Good boy, there, there, calm down, good dog, good dog, it’s okay, good dog, don’t be afraid”. These responses, while trying to calm the puppy and give him confidence, are actually reinforcing the wrong behaviour – you are telling the dog it is good to show fear! You are actually teaching him to react in this way. Instead, we must remain strong, brave and resilient – ignore the fear, but learn from it and do not make the same mistake again of exposing him to the eliciting stimulus again at such a high intensity!
Remember that our socialisation program must be controlled and gradual. Be careful how you expose your puppy to new things – take tiny steps and increase the intensity gradually. If the puppy begins to show anxiety or fear, you have taken the process too far too soon, so take a big step back to get the pressure off the puppy. Reduce the intensity of exposure (e.g. by starting from further away, turning off a motor, or slowing an object down), and try again. Don’t respond to any fear behaviours, but be sure to strongly reinforce confident behaviour.
It is very important to always finish on a good note, even if you have regressed during the session. If a puppy is showing fear because you approached a noisy machine, such as a lawn mower, too closely, take the puppy well back and start again, but think how you can reduce the intensity even further. When you get a good response to a lowered intensity, quit while you are ahead so that you have finished the lesson on a really positive note, with high praise, treats and a game.
Look out for the next part of this series on The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs. There are also many related topics to this, so look on our website for more great Good Dog Tips!
© Trina Morris – GoodDogTips.com – 2014