Socialisation is one of those words new or experienced dog owners hear over and over again. ‘You must socialise your new puppy’, ‘Doggy Daycare will help socialise your dog’, ‘Make sure you mix your new dog with people or they will be aggressive’.
These are just some of the things as a dog owner you will hear from your family, friends, other dog owners and dog trainers.
Let’s start with the basics. Socialisation is a process in which we aim for our dogs to develop a neutral or even positive association with a stimulus in the environment. These everyday stimuli include everything and anything, from people to dogs, cars to bicycles, household noises, children and more.
The aim is to achieve the same neutral response a dog has to (for example) a chair in the living room. The dog is in no way fearful etc of this household furnishing, as the chair is an everyday object in the environment the dog sees daily; the dog even can develop a minor positive association to the chair (if allowed to sit on it) by enjoying the period on the chair due to comfort.
An easy way for you as an owner to think about the situation would be what we like to call the train line affect. You buy a house situated directly behind a busy train line were the trains run every hour. At first you find the hourly train noise an irritable new stimulus to your environment; however, after a period you will stop hearing the trains as you get used to them; they become a noise in the environment you no longer notice. We as dog trainers and behaviourist call this process habituation.
The window for intensive socialisation development in dogs begins roughly around 4-5 weeks after birth and ends at around 16-17 weeks. However this does not mean after this period dogs are fully socialised, as socialisation is an on-going process throughout your dog’s life.
There are many reasons and factors affecting the temperaments of dogs in our modern-day world, however genetics play the biggest part. Many puppies these days are produced by people who lack knowledge and experience and simply breed to turn a quick profit, these ‘hobby/commercial breeders’ rarely take health or temperament into account when producing puppies.
Early life stages and experiences when being raised by some of these less responsible breeders has a further damaging effect on a puppies temperament, so correct socialisation is more important than ever in our current society.
Now, if I asked any average dog owner how they socialised their dog, the answer would be something along the lines of; ‘we let him play off lead all the time and he’s happy to run up to any dog to play’, ‘she goes to doggy day care every week and socialises there’ or ‘we take him everywhere with us and everyone fusses him, he jumps all over people’. Is this socialisation?
Partly yes, but mostly no. This is just 3 common cases where owners are unknowingly allowing their dogs to run around and play with no/limited social skills. Yes in some situations another dog may tell these over friendly dogs off and some owners may encourage this to ‘teach them a lesson’, but is it really fair when this correction by another dog can often be too harsh and cause a negative association with other dogs for the friendly puppy? Isn’t that in fact the opposite of what we are trying to achieve?
Throwing a dog into doggy day care or doggy day school isn’t the best idea for some dogs either. During a behaviour consultation with a very nervous Romanian rescue dog a year or so ago, I was shocked to hear previously a naïve trainer had advised this very nervous dog to be booked into the doggy day care 3 days a week to socialise her and ‘fix’ her fearfulness. Thankfully the owner was well educated on canine behaviour and had some foundation knowledge of what correct socialisation was, because of this she refused to place the dog into the day care environment.
Doggy day care is great for some dogs, with a structured routine of monitored play, rest, mental stimulation and learning; day care is great for these dogs to be exercised physically and mentally, all while learning correct social skills and being exposed in a positive environment to a variety of other dogs. However, for the more nervous dog, the dog who already behaves in a fearful/reactive manner or for the dog who just doesn’t feel comfortable in high traffic dog situations, doggy day care will send them backwards and cause more harm than good. These dogs would be forced into a situation where they would feel the need to react out of fear and stress, causing not only themselves to have a negative association with other dogs, but also the other dogs involved.
For all those wonderful people who have rehomed or rescued a dog that, due to its past, has a few behavioural issues, or you want to socialise your older dog, can it be done? Yes! Of course, any dog can learn associations. However, bringing a fearful reactive dog to a day care, dog park or group class is not socialising. This would be flooding.
Flooding is very damaging to a dog and can cause an explosive reaction or complete shutdown where the dog is too stressed and fearful to react at all. Dogs who already exhibit behavioural problems require slow reintroductions to situations/stimulus they feel threatened/stressed by. These dogs should never be pushed past their threshold, it will not make them like or even tolerate the presence of other dogs, and pushing them will only make them more fearful.
I don’t personally have a particular phobia, there is nothing really that scares me. However for your own thinking, take a moment and think of what you are scared of most, spiders, clowns, snakes, masked people etc. Now imagine a room full of your biggest fear. If I pushed you into that room and told you to socialise and get used to it, would it make your fear go away? No. It would make you a lot more fearful than you were in the first place.
HOWEVER! Slowly introducing you at a distance you felt comfortable with and with continuous exposure and a positive association you would be habituated to your phobia. You may never enjoy being around your phobia but you would eventually develop a neutral feeling towards it and you could carry out your day to day tasks around it. It becomes just a meaningless part of your environment.
The same process of socialising your dog to other dogs can be transferred to all the stimuli you want to habituate your dog to. You must also remember to socialise your dog in a variety of environments, the dark is often an environmental factor people forget to take into account when socialising/training a new puppy/dog. Is very important you carry out your socialising and training in a variety of environments. We want our dogs to have the same neutral/positive response to a man in the dark as they do to a man in the daylight. The same response to a pram in the house as they do to a pram outside.
When my eldest German Shepherd was around 5 months old we started our usual daily walk, this day we were walking as we did a few times a week to the local playing field to do some training and more vigorous physical exercise. We got to the end of my street when my dog froze. As I stopped and took note of what he had seen I had to myself think for a moment what was suddenly so different about the situation to have made him stop.
The day was a Friday, the day the recycling bins are normally collected. One household at the end of the street always, and I mean every single Friday, had a blue recycling bin full and an extra black bin bag out for collection. However, this day for whatever reason the bin men hadn’t taken the single black bag of recycling, so it sat alone by the side of the road. My dog had been habituated to seeing the bins on the street, the bins being collected, the noise of the bin lorry etc. BUT! What he had never seen in his 5 months of life was a single black bin bag in the street with no blue bin sitting alongside it.
It’s only a bin bag, right? True, it is only a plastic black bag full of empty milk bottles and tin cans. But to my dog it was something he had never seen before, was it friend or foe? He wasn’t to know this. So we stopped. We waited. He took a few moments and switched off from the bag, I rewarded this behaviour as I liked the decision he had made. He wanted to investigate and go closer – knowing this was an inanimate object that would be improbable if not impossible to cause him hurt etc I allowed him to investigate. Once he had accustomed himself to the bin bag he instantly relaxed. So we practised some training there and then. Walking home some time later from our walk he glanced at the bag and had no reaction, he was neutral to the stimulus.
It is so vital that each and every one of you as dog owners correctly socialise your new puppy/dog. If you are struggling, find yourself a force free trainer/behaviourist who is up to date with modern dog training. With a population of dogs who are socialised correctly we open the door to having not only happy, heathy pets but a happy, healthy and safe environment for them to grow and mature in.