The Role of Socialisation in Preventing Anxiety in Dogs
A reminder on the importance of socialisation
I cannot place enough emphasis on the importance to adequately expose all young puppies to as many experiences of the human world as possible, before the socialisation period closes. It is absolutely critical in avoiding anxiety-based aggressive behaviour problems later in life.
The window of socialisation of a young puppy closes at around four months of age, so an intensive program of controlled exposure to absolutely everything we can think of up to this age is essential, if we are going to ensure a confident adult dog that has developed good coping strategies when confronted with anything new and, therefore, a potential cause for fear or anxiety. As well-meaning as adoring, devoted owners are in keeping their eight week-old puppy protected at home, and not exposing it to the world when it is young and relatively fearless, this almost always causes anxiety later in life. Anxiety is a nasty beast and has a habit of multiplying – before you know it, you have a dog that barks aggressively at people or objects when it feels threatened, and you are calling in the dog behaviourist.
This situation is made much worse if the puppy remains with its breeder for more than four months of its life, tucked away in the back yard, or worse, a back shed, far away from the world until after the window of socialisation has closed. When these poor mites are suddenly brought out into society by a new owner, they are swamped with encounters at an age where fearlessness has passed and the sudden onslaught of new experiences can be absolutely overwhelming. Anxiety is highly likely to result, and is often compounded by continued high intensity but very infrequent exposures, leading to a permanent state of anxiety. If left untreated, this generally leads to defensive-aggression – an extremely common cause for young dogs to be surrendered to shelters for rehoming. The older the dog is when it begins to see the world, the greater the potential for fear, and this is when anxiety takes hold of the dog’s psyche.
The critical period of socialisation does not slam shut at four months – it eases closed, so there is still potential for some months, up to around a year of age (and slightly longer in the large and giant breeds) to ease the puppy into the world through an intensive program of controlled exposure. To successfully introduce a young dog of six to twelve months to new things can certainly be done, but it does require greater care, and it can take longer for the natural fear of the dog to morph into a confident inquisitiveness that we so love in our dogs. Professional help is recommended in these cases.
Where do I find a bombproof puppy?
Is there one? Probably not, but the best way to avoid anxiety or aggressive behaviours in a family pet is to buy a puppy from a reputable breeder, and begin your socialisation process from the day you bring him home, at eight weeks of age.
Choose your breeder wisely: the best breeders undertake socialisation programs of their puppies before they release them to new owners, because the period of socialisation actually begins at three days of age! An experienced and knowledgeable breeder, well versed in dog psychology and behaviour, will not closet puppies in the back whelping shed until they are sold to new owners. They will expose them to an appropriate level of socialisation commensurate with their age and development, and with the pup’s vulnerability to contagious diseases in mind.
Interestingly, the best puppies and most well-adjusted dogs I encounter come from an unlikely source: the backyard (and lounge rooms) of large families! Breeders with loads of kids produce beautifully socialised, bombproof puppies! Every day of their lives, these dogs have encountered children, bikes, toys, balls, sudden loud noises, skateboards, rides in the car (and billycart), raised voices, kids screaming, loads of visitors, being handled constantly, and all manner of other normal family activities. By the age of eight weeks, they have already become resilient, experienced, confident puppies! When you arrive to take your little friend home at eight weeks of age, they are truly ready for the world, and for your ramping up of their socialisation program into the public sphere is just a natural step for them.
When acquiring a dog, do your homework and take time to consider what you are getting, where he comes from, what history and experiences he has had. While I commend anyone who is prepared to rescue a homeless shelter dog, this can be fraught with problems. These dogs have not been surrendered because they were the perfect family pet – they have either lived a tough existence, probably with little or no socialisation, and may already have developed problem behaviours. Sometimes these are very serious, requiring considerable behaviour modification work. Quiz the shelter staff on the background of their dogs, and chose one on the basis of its individual history, not its breed, sweet face or shy demeanour. Remember, shy and cowering personality traits often indicate that anxiety has already taken hold… if in doubt, take a dog behaviourist with you to the shelter to help you chose the right dog for your needs and situation.
Sadly, it is not always possible to undo the damage done to the psyche of a dog with severe anxiety-based aggression, so ask lots of questions about the dog’s history. If the source does not know the answers to your questions, think again about the risks of taking on an unknown quantity, or be fully prepared to put in a great deal of training and behaviour management if behaviour problems begin to appear once the dog has settled in. If you are not an experienced dog owner or feel you do not have the time or the home environment to take on a potential ‘time bomb’ shelter dog, get a puppy from a reputable breeder (with a dozen kids!) and socialise it yourself.
If you need further information on this topic or have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment at www.GoodDogTips.com and ask us for help.
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© Trina Morris – GoodDogTips.com – 2014