Socialisation means learning how to interact socially with other living creatures, whereas habituation is learning to respond calmly and appropriately to everyday goings on and to ignore irrelevant environmental stimuli.
Dogs are highly social animals. They must develop a system of communication to enable them to socialise with unfamiliar dogs and must also learn to adjust to a range of environments and develop competence to cope with the many varied stimuli and challenges that they will encounter as adults. While such learning takes place throughout life, the period when a puppy is especially receptive and responsive is rather limited. The developmental stages clearly demonstrate that this sensitive period of emotional development, occurs from the age of about three to eighteen weeks.
There are three distinct areas of socialisation:
- Socialisation with littermates. From the age of two or three weeks, puppies in a litter play intensively with one another. They practise their repertoire of social responses and learn many of the social rules that they will abide by in adulthood. As they develop physically and neurologically, they are capable of more complex intentions, steadily facilitating more adult forms of communication.
- Socialisation with the mother. Puppies also pester their mother for both food and attention (all part of the process of learning in weaning) and, later, about bite and other crucial inhibitions. While playful mock aggression is acceptable from very young puppies, there soon comes a time when play biting and rough mouthing are less acceptable to the mother and older family members. Since most puppies leave the litter environment before such bite inhibition has been fully learned, they will usually continue to play bite their owners in their new home. The new owner must continue the job begun by the mother and, whenever a puppy uses its teeth in play, the owner is best advised to respond with a short yelp, ignore the puppy for just a few seconds, and then follow up with appeasing friendship. The puppy accepts and soon learns to enjoy being patted and stroked and, crucially, the relationship no longer depends on the assertive mouthing initiation of the puppy but on the offer of calm attention from the owner to an emotionally restrained puppy.
- Socialisation with people. If the first experience of human contact for a puppy takes place at five weeks of age or before, then he will usually approach people confidently thereafter. If delayed until nine weeks of age, it is likely to be a fearful event for the puppy, and if he has no contact with people until he is fourteen weeks old, is likely to react with the same degree of fearfulness he would if he was a wild animal, i.e. people are regarded as hazards.
So, what does this mean for the average owner? Pet dogs need to be able to relate well with humans, other dogs and other animals (in some cases). If a puppy shares his home with other pets such as cats and rabbits, then it is essential that he learns solid social skills with rabbits and cats. Conversely, farmers may want their dogs to interact socially with lots of different types of livestock, but the average pet owner will not want their dog to attempt to interact socially with sheep – they need him to ignore them!
Puppies also need to meet children, adults, and other species on a frequent and regular basis. They should learn to greet people without jumping up and should also learn that there are times to be friendly and times to ignore others and simply be focussed on their owner.
A puppy can be introduced to new environments, while limiting the risk of exposure to infection, by carrying him outdoors, although for owners of large breeds, this can become very tiring on the arms!! Urban and rural human places (e.g. pubs and cafes or local playgrounds) provide noise, rapid movement, unpredictability and children. The young puppy can be carried to the park to observe children, and hear and see the chaos of life, experience traffic and journeys in the car and a variety of more unusual places, such as the railway station, local football match, town fairs etc. Children, regular visitors, delivery personnel, cats and other dogs all need to be met under supervision. Puppies not only need to learn to communicate with other dogs in the household but also with the dog population at large, and in a calm controlled manner. Puppies also need to learn to be groomed, be approached when feeding, be handled and, vitally, to be left at home alone for short but increasing periods to learn to cope with solitude.
This may all seem overwhelming to the owner of a new puppy, but help is at hand. Puppy parties (which are run within a veterinary practice) and puppy classes (which are run by trainers within dog training clubs) provide a vital early opportunity for the puppy to begin his development in a structured way. There are many excellent, good (and not so good!) classes out there, so it is essential to check on the trainer’s experience and qualifications and visit a class to see what methods are used.
Having a new puppy should be enjoyable and fulfilling; after all, the time put in now will ensure that you and your dog will be able to enjoy a long and happy life together.