Puppies are a lot like children in the sense that much critical, life-altering experience and learning takes place in the very early stages of life. Children, it is said, have figured out the rudiments of language by 6 months of age before they have even uttered a word. In an article entitled, Starting Small, Thinking Big, in the American Prospect , Irving B. Harris claims that the most cost-effective spending in education should focus on early childhood learning, from conception to age 5.
Most dog breeders know that the sensitive period of learning in pups occurs prior to 12 or 14 weeks of age. But how many appreciate the critical significance of the period between birth and 8 weeks of age prior to a puppy’s adoption? And even if they do recognize the importance of this early stage, what measures do they or should they take to ensure that new owners adopt a flawless pup? Also, I wonder about how much instruction on proper socialization of pups they give to new owners and how emphatically they stress its importance?
The most rapid learning occurs in the infantile and transitional period spanning the first 2 to 3 weeks of life. A pups overall rate of learning may have halved by 8-weeks, although some specialized types of learning (fear learning) may be peaking at this time. Thereafter, imagine that the rate of learning is halved again by 3 to 4 months of age and then again by 6 months. This somewhat hypothetical depiction of the sharp decline in a pup’s rate of learning over the first few weeks or months of life stresses the importance of providing ample opportunity for positive learning experiences in the early part of life and the corollary to this is also important; that pups should be shielded from any negative experiences. This is something all breeders should know and should be actively striving to achieve.
There are three main areas to address when considering the impact of early learning and all of these should be being addressed from the time the pup’s eyes open and its ear canals are fully patent following the transitional period [14 to 20-days of life]. The three areas are: socialization, acclimation to novel stimuli, and acclimation to novel situations. In order to determine exactly what social cues, novel stimuli, or situations to begin working with, it is only necessary to project forward in the pup’s life as to what it is likely to encounter.
The start of the socialization period is generally regarded as being 3-weeks of age. From 3 to 6 weeks, pups are learning about their littermates and mother. Left to their own devices and desires, they will normally accomplish this admirably, as nature has planned, and will turn out to be socially proficient within their own family circle.
But stop to consider for a moment, if you will, the feral situation, when a pup is raised by its mother with its littermates in the wild. Such a pup will not grow up to fit well in the fabric of society as one would wish and expect of a pup to be adopted into a person’s home. In fact, pups raised without human contact until 12-weeks of age will never be good with people whatever happens after that. It is as if the window of social learning has been closed or the blind pulled down.
So, how important is the first 2 months of life with respect to socialization? It is vital. And how important is the third month of life immediately following adoption – it is also extremely important. It is not sufficient for breeders to simply leave a bitch and her pups in the whelping room or in an outhouse to learn for themselves. They will learn – but not about everything that they will later need to know. One breeder said, “Oh yes, I socialize my pups. Each day I spend about 10 minutes playing with them.” This is simply not enough time and not a broad enough spectrum of socialization.
The concept of ‘puppy parties’ was first entertained by Dr. Ian Dunbar of Sirius Puppy Training in Berkeley, California. Word about this technique has percolated through breeder ranks but not far or fats enough in my opinion. All too frequently, I am brought dogs with behavior problems that were raised by breeders in isolation and without proper socialization. And all too frequently, this omission is at the root of the problem that I am trying to address and I cannot undo the past. It is far better for breeders to make themselves fully cognizant of all aspects of socialization and then to conduct it properly and diligently for the benefit of their puppies and for future owners.
Puppy parties involve inviting an assortment of benign friends around the house for refreshments and have them handle and address the youngster or youngsters in a gentle and positive fashion. Novelty food can be introduced once the puppies have begun to show an interest in solid food. The more puppy parties the better. The greater the assortment of people, the better, and the greater the assortment of garbs, the better. Puppy parties should continue from the end of the transitional period through the breeder’s tenure and through the new owner’s tenure up to at least 14-weeks of age. But wait, there’s more! What about other dogs as opposed to just littermates? They should be introduced, too, at this sensitive time for social learning.
Of course, it is the breeder’s responsibility to make sure that any dogs introduced to young puppies from the earliest time are under control and are of a benign disposition. Negative experiences with other dogs may cause a permanent setback. Finally, there are other living things with which puppies may need to cohabit in later life. Not the least of which is cats. Just to be on the safe side, especially if a new pup is to be adopted into a home containing a cat, it is important to introduce cats to the pup at this sensitive time for learning so that they, too, may come to be appreciated as insiders, not as foes and certainly not as prey items. Again, the prerequisite is that the cat should be a suitable, calm and composed disposition, and should be stage-managed so as not to cause the new pup any alarm.
Desensitization to Novel Stimuli
Many pups, even those who are good with people and other animals, grow up to be overly fearful of certain stimuli. The most common excessive fear or phobia is that of certain sounds. The sounds can range from fear of thunder, rain and wind noise, to fear of the sound made by smoke alarms, power equipment, or the household vacuum cleaner. Other so-called inanimate fears are things that are scary because of their appearance, whether these fears are primary or secondarily learned by association.
Other fears and uncertainties may be associated with the sensation of touch. For example, paw handling, brushing/grooming, and sometimes even certain floor surfaces. In an ideal world, it would be prudent to desensitize a dog to all of the above stimuli, starting at the 2 to 3 weeks of life stage and continuing through to say 3 or 4-months of age.
It may be possible, however, for a breeder to single out particularly important stimuli that he or she knows the dog will be bound to encounter and has reason to suspect may be cause for concern. For example, dogs of herding breeds, especially with a known family history of thunderstorm phobia, should probably all be desensitized to storm sounds from an early age. This can be accomplished by acquiring a high-quality tape or digital recording of storm sounds and playing it at first softly and then at slowly increasing volumes during pleasant circumstances for certain windows of time starting at 3-weeks of age and continuing throughout the entire sensitive period of learning.
A similar approach may be taken to other potentially disturbing sound cues by making recordings of them and utilizing the same step-wise desensitization principle. Paw handling, grooming, and shiny floor surfaces are likely to be a feature of all dogs’ lives so these stimuli should be gradually introduced at the earliest opportunity.
The most common situational fear is separation anxiety, which is extremely prevalent affecting some 5% to 15% of dogs in the United States. Paradoxically, the most appropriate of preventing separation anxiety is by preventing stressful separation of the pup from loved ones during the entire sensitive period of development. This means that a pup should always be with the bitch, except for the briefest periods of supervised separation, until the time of adoption. Following adoption, the new owners should attempt to pick up where the bitch was forced to leave off and provide continuous care and company. The more attention a pup gets when it is young from its attachment figures, the less likely it will be to become over attached and/or fearful of being left alone later in life.
Another common fear is that of riding in the car. Frequently, a pup’s first experience of riding in a car comes at the same time it is separated from the bitch at the time of adoption. What could be more frightening than to be separated from your mom and find yourself in an unfamiliar, noisy and lurching vehicle, heading who knows where? While scientific support of what I am about to say is lacking, it makes sense from basic principles. That is, it would seem wise to expose the pup, along with the bitch and perhaps other littermates, to the inside of a car first with the engine switched off; then with the engine running; and then with the car moving at first slowly and then quickly, for shorter journeys and then longer journeys. This way, the pup will grow up believing that automobiles, and the sounds and movements they make, are part of life which, as it happens, they are.
A final example of a situational fear that is rather inconvenient and distressing for all parties involved is fear of the veterinarian’s office. Why not from an early age, right after desensitization to car rides, take the pup on short excursions to your veterinarian’s office to introduce it to the receptionists, technicians, and even the veterinarian, whilst arranging for pleasant contingencies to exist at these times? One concern might be infection but, first of all, veterinarians know that they must disinfect their offices when animals with infectious diseases have passed through and, secondly, internal antibodies usually provide a safety net of protection for the first 2 to 3 months until vaccination can be conducted. In connection with the above enterprise, your veterinarian should be encouraged to spend the most time possible with the youngster to engender good feelings, to use food reward and to use the gentlest and least painful techniques should any intervention be necessary [e.g. should use the smallest gauge needles possible for injections and the least unpleasant oral medications].
Passing the Torch
All the good things mentioned above that the breeder has been working on at home with the new pups should be continued, perhaps at a slightly reduced frequency, by the new owner. In order for the new owner to do this, he or she must be instructed specifically how to conduct the socialization and desensitization exercises.
With this in mind, it is probably as well for a breeder to prepare a written handout to accompany a new pup at the time of adoption so that there is no question that this information is passed on. Also, a caring breeder should ask the adopter to contact them at the first signs of any trouble and make him or herself available for consultation. Other useful handouts for new owners would include one on house soiling, one on medical matters, and one of the values of using a crate as a lifetime sanctuary.
The above discussion assumes that a good breeder already knows how to get her bitch bred, the fact that the bitch’s nutrition will have to be beefed up during pregnancy and that she will need a suitable area to whelp. It also assumes that the breeder knows that a lactating bitch will require extra nutrition and proper health care prior to and following the delivery of her puppies.
The reason this was omitted from the discussion is that most breeders have this down and already produce fine-looking specimens of their breed and take care of their brood bitch. The most numerous and potentially damaging problems that arise in puppies’ post-adoption relate to behavior problems, which are common reasons for pups being returned to the breeder or perhaps surrendered to a shelter or pound. The latter, in many instances, amounts to a death sentence.
It may be somewhat of an exaggeration but it is has been said that half the puppies born in this country do not see their second birthday and the major reason for this is behavior problems that the owners believe to be, or find, irresolvable. This highlights the importance of proper socialization and desensitization so that pups will be able to integrate properly and function properly in their post-adoption lives.
As Irving B. Harris coined regarding optimal child-raising, it is a strategy of starting small, thinking big.