Understanding your Puppy

Understanding your puppy

During the 1980’s, I ran a very busy training club and developed the first puppy socialisation classes in South Yorkshire. But why had there been no need for puppy classes prior to then and why were they so popular?

Throughout my childhood we always had dogs but there was never any thought of taking them to a training class. Training was for those people who wanted to compete with their dogs, family pets were just that…for the family, so all our dogs just arrived as puppies and learnt to live with us and around us. If any of our dogs growled at us the first question my parents asked was, ‘what were you doing to make the dog angry?’ There was never any question that the dog might have been at fault. For example, one of our dogs, a very tenacious Cairn Terrier called Sally, had regular phantom pregnancies during which she became intensely possessive over any item she could find, and be extremely aggressive towards anyone who went near her. Did we think it was a problem? Well no, that was what dogs did!! I will never forget my parents wearing gloves which resembled Kevlar, armed with a large washing-up bowl attempting to take a shoe from Sally!!

Nowadays, there is huge pressure on owners to ensure that their dog is friendly and reliable around other dogs, adults, children and other animals. Puppies need to grow up to have a sound temperament and to be friendly with other dogs and people – especially children. However, our pet dogs have to live in a very different social and physical environment than they did even 20 years ago and now owners are classed as irresponsible if they do not ‘train’ their puppies and dogs.

So what prompted this change? More than likely the change in family circumstances. When I was a child, most mums stayed at home to bring up the kids and very often the family acquired a puppy for the children. Puppies spent time with the pre-school children, mum walked to school with the older children and the puppy would go too and meet different people, other dogs and encounter traffic and new environments. Dogs were allowed almost everywhere Puppies would be taken on holiday, on family outings, to the shops, on the bus (mum probably didn’t have her own car). Puppies met anything and everything in those first formative months.

If a puppy is not exposed to enough challenges during its sensitive or critical development period, its level of sensitivity to some or all subsequent challenges may remain high into adulthood and it may always be reactive and fearful of novelty.

Now, our very busy lifestyles, and the fact that many couples get a dog long before they think about having children, many puppies do not have the opportunity to experience the full and varied emotional challenges necessary to ensure their behavioural stability as an adult dog as perhaps they did in the past when they were more likely to be brought up in an already established family. Enter the Puppy Class!

More than ever before, the development of each puppy needs to be balanced between the social, emotional and behavioural needs of each individual AND what the owners need – learning how to handle their puppy and how he/she interacts with the world. The outcome should be to see each little ball of fluff enjoy life and have fun with other puppies and develop into a well behaved and emotionally stable adult dog. Achieving this balance is what good puppy classes are all about.

If a puppy is not exposed to enough challenges during its sensitive or critical development period, its level of sensitivity to some or all subsequent challenges may remain high into adulthood and it may always be reactive and fearful of novelty. About 10% of the canine behaviour problems referred to British pet behaviourists concern problems of fearfulness resulting directly from a lack of appropriate early ‘stress immunisation’ or ‘emotional toughening’, and all of those cases could have been avoided.

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/she learns solid social skills with rabbits and cats. Conversely, farmers may want their dogs have 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 and adults, and other species of animal, on a frequent and regular basis not only at a puppy class but also in the “real” world if they are to grow into socially acceptable, well-balanced adult dogs. A word of caution here – at a puppy class, puppies learn that other people are pleasant and often rewarding! This can lead to puppies racing up to people when out on walks, and while they are small and cute their behaviour results in a pleasant response from everyone, but as they get older and bigger, that response to being raced up to can change, especially with medium and large size dogs. Puppies 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.

Puppies need to mix and meet with other adult dogs in different environments. Dogs are highly social animals yet the majority of puppies will not have seen another puppy since they left their own litter. Once safe to be taken out from their new homes, they need to learn how to interact socially with all types of dog and this requires practising to so that they become fluent in the canine language of social communication. This will enable them to socialise with unfamiliar dogs but they 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 weeks to eighteen weeks.

There are three main areas of socialisation:
1. Socialisation with litter-mates. 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 much of the social language that will forge and manage their social relationships and encounters in adulthood. As they develop physically and neurologically they are capable of signalling more complex intentions, steadily facilitating more adult forms of communication.
2. Socialisation with the mother. Puppies also pester their mother both for food and attention – all part of the process of learning in weaning and later, about bite inhibition and other necessary inhibitions to motivations. 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, turn away and 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 a more emotionally restrained puppy who is better able to learn how to engage.
3. Socialisation with people. If the first experience of human contact for a puppy takes place at five weeks of age or before, then it will usually approach most 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 have if he were a wild animal, i.e. people are regarded as hazards to avoid or defend against

Within the fun atmosphere of a Puppy Class, puppies can learn to interrupt their play according to human requests and respond to the usual simple verbal cues such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ ‘come’, helping owners improve their level of control in a relaxed and positive way.

Owner education has an important place in the Puppy Class and owners need to understand how their puppy learns. Dogs will work towards signals which precede success or a reward, such as the sound of a particular tin being opened prior to receiving a biscuit and the sight of their lead being picked up before going for a walk. This can explain the escalating excitement of a dog that is looking forward to the return of his owner. Each signal that predicts his owner’s imminent arrival will be met with increasing pleasurable expectation and anticipation by the dog. For example, the sound of the car engine as it approaches the house or of the garage door being opened, or the sounds of the car being driven into the garage, the garage door being closed, the owner’s footsteps on the driveway, keys unlocking the door and the final appearance of the owner etc.

The withdrawal or omission of an expected reward is known as ‘non-reward’. If we use the example of loss of social contact and attention when an owner leaves his dog alone in the house, each signal that predicts his imminent departure will be met with increasing disappointment by the dog e.g. picking up the house keys, putting on shoes and coat, opening the door etc. We can see how these events when chained together create a sequence of signals of non-reward, and how dogs with separation related problems can become sensitised to each one.

Understanding what makes your puppy ‘tick’ will help you to guide his behavioural development and for help with training contact your local CAPBT member: www.capbt.org

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