It is well recognized that in order to achieve balanced behaviour in adult life, puppies must be socialised and habituated at an age when, due to the necessity to complete vaccination programs, it may be difficult for them to socialise effectively.
SOCIALISATION AND HABITUATION
Socialisation is the process of teaching puppies to relate to humans and other animals. Habituation is the process of allowing puppies to become accustomed to a range of environments and habits. Both must be done at an early age in order to be successful. Failure to socialise and habituate puppies correctly will result in fearful or aggressive adult dogs. 'Fear aggression' is a major cause of unpredictable behaviour.
When a dog is frightened it may become aggressive in order to evade the unfamiliar stimuli because the natural reaction, flight, is often prevented by the owner or surroundings, i.e. on a lead, or in an enclosed space. Exposing puppies to different people, dogs and other stimuli normalises these experiences and reduces fear of the unknown. This makes the puppy more confident and confident puppies make well balanced and well behaved adults.
Remember, behavioural problems are the commonest reason for euthanasia in young adult dogs!
THE RIGHT AGE TO SOCIALISE AND HABITUATE
There are two critical periods of social and behavioural development; from when a puppy is born until it leaves its mother and from then until about 14 weeks. Later socialisation and habituation is less likely to develop sound temperament in adult dogs. As puppies generally stay with their mothers until they are at least 6 weeks old, the 'breeder' should also have taken take steps to provide early socialisation. This should have included stimuli such as handling by different people including children and regular experience of household items, such as the washing machine and vacuum cleaner.
It is important for prospective puppy owners to look at the living area of the litter and observe the behaviour of both the puppies and the adult dogs before making their decision to purchase the puppy. Puppies that have been raised in kennels and barns are not going to be as socialised and habituated as 'home bred' pups.
HOW TO SOCIALISE AND HABITUATE
There are several important processes for ensuring socialisation and habituation. Most of these occur during normal life at home provided you understand the significance of them.
CHILDREN – Accustom puppies to your own and/or other people's children. Allow children to handle the puppy but adults should remain in supervision so that the puppy is not pestered or handled roughly, especially with very small children.
VISITORS – Accustom puppies to a wide range of visitors including, if possible, the postman, milkman, paperboy etc., but keep the puppy under control and wait until after the initial excitement before allowing visitors to make a fuss of it. This will help prevent threshold and territorial behaviour problems in the future.
DOMESTIC SOUNDS AND SIGHTS - Introduce various items but do not make an issue out of them, just continue the usual household routine and the puppy will become accustomed to it. Be calm and don't deliberately excite the puppy over something you will want it to accept as normal in the future.
VETERINARY EXAMINATION - Handle your puppy on a regular basis. Examine its teeth, nose, eyes, ears, feet and under it's tail. This resembles a veterinary examination so that the puppy will not become too frightened during the real thing and you will find it easier to give medication, bathe wounds etc. in the future.
THE CAR - Short journeys will accustom the puppy to the movement of cars and reduce travel sickness in the future. Make sure that the puppy travels in the place it will always be expected to travel in when adult. This should be in the back of a hatchback/estate car behind a dog guard, in a rear seat well or restrained on the back seat by a harness/seat belt. Don't get the puppy used to only travelling in the car when it is going to somewhere exciting, like the park, or somewhere it fears, like boarding kennels and vets.
PUPPY PARTIES - Socialisation classes are invaluable to puppy development. They will generally start after the first vaccination. They allow puppies to learn how to read each other's body language and behave accordingly, and allow puppies to safely mix with strangers and encounter new experiences. Puppy parties also have several benefits to owners. You will improve your own skills in controlling your dog and there will be opportunity for you to compare your puppy's development with others. A major spin-off from puppy parties held in the surgery is that, because parties are an enjoyable experience, the puppies learn to enjoy coming to the clinic and won't be as frightened of visiting the vet when older. The vets will appreciate that too!
BEING LEFT ALONE - Socialisation is very important but it is also important to accustom puppies to being left alone. First ensure that the puppy is in a safe area, ideally where it would normally sleep (NB this must not be upstairs, in a bedroom or on furniture), a puppy cage is ideal. Begin by sitting in another room where the puppy cannot see you. Once the puppy has become accustomed to this, gradually start going out for short periods of time. This can be gradually extended until the puppy is happy being left alone for several hours a day and at night. This will help to prevent separation anxiety in adulthood. It is vital to avoid going to the puppy if it cries as this will only reward the behaviour and make the process even longer.
CAN SOCIALISATION AND HABITUATION WEAR OFF?
Experience has shown that un-reinforced socialisation and habituation can wear off in puppies under six months old. It is therefore important to constantly introduce puppies to new experiences and reinforce the socialisation skills learnt at an early age, until they are at least six months old. You can teach old dogs new tricks but it is very much more difficult.
Above all, enjoy your puppy but remember, although your puppy is a member of your household, he/she is a dog. You must resist the natural temptation to humanise your puppy. Puppies that are allowed too much privilege and attention will develop serious behavioural problems as adults.
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