Puppy Socialisation and Habituation (Part 2) How to go about it

puppy jack russellHaving looked at the theoretical aspects of early socialisation and habituation in Part 1, what are the actual mechanics required to achieve it?

Instead of socialisation and habituation being a haphazard affair with experiences occurring at random, as is so often the case, the puppy's exposure to environmental stimuli should be as systematic as possible to ensure the best chance of it developing a sound temperament and capacity to cope in all circumstances. A lot of responsibility lies with the breeder. Of course, it is the breeder who selects the genetic make-up of a dam and sire best suited to produce puppies of good temperament. Having said this, it is not known what percentage of a dog's, or even a human's, temperament is determined by environmental influences. The breeder's role continues the moment a puppy is born, as it starts to get used to being handled and to the breeder's scent. The routines that are normally used to assist in whelping are enough to accomplish this, much more may distress the bitch. As the puppy and its litter mates group up, the breeder should increase the amount of interaction the puppies have with them and other people. If the breeder is a woman, for example, and she is the exclusive, or almost exclusive human contact the puppies have, they are likely to be less well adjusted towards men and children. It is sensible therefore, to invite men and children into the household to see and handle the puppies, particularly if the puppies remain with the breeder after they are six weeks old. It is, of course, important that the veterinary surgeon's advice on hygiene procedures is sought.

Taking trouble to ensure early and comprehensive socialisation is in the breeder's own interests. So many lady breeders, for example, complain that their dog "will not show under a male judge" because it is, to some extent, fearful of men thorough a lack of socialisation with them, which results in apprehensive behaviour at the best of times, but when a male judge is in the show ring staring at the dog and attempting to touch it there need be little wonder that it cannot cope. I have, over the years, seen some extreme examples of this problem. In one case, a Great Dane puppy called "Hamlet” was reared by a breeder who lived on her own and whose friends and visitors were all female. Hamlet was subsequently sold to an elderly lady who lived on her own in a rural environment. By about twenty weeks of age Hamlet's owner, not surprisingly, could no longer cope with such a large puppy, whose antics caused such a drama, so Hamlet was rehomed with a young family in a city suburb. I saw him two weeks later. He was able to cope with the mother of the family's presence perfectly and he was not too nervous with the children who were about five and seven years old, but he was absolutely petrified of the father. As soon as the father walked into a room in which Hamlet was he would hide under or behind the nearest piece of furniture. If at any time the father came too close, even if he was just walking past, Hamlet's head and neck would appear and snap at him like a conger eel before retreating. It was also impossible, without treatment, to get Hamlet to walk out of the garden and around a quiet housing estate as he simply collapsed in a nervous heap.

It is important for breeders not only to socialise comprehensively the puppies in their care, but they must ensure their exposure to environmental stimuli. Not being able to take puppies off the premises in the first six weeks is limiting, but a puppy that has had regular experience of a television, vacuum cleaner, etc. will be more able to cope with the world than one that has been shut away in a quiet kennel or room. Audio tapes of environmental stimuli can be made and played to the puppies. This may help but because of the dog's acute sense of hearing, tapes will never be a substitute for the real sound. However such techniques can be helpful if an older puppy is unwell or for some other reason cannot be taken outside the home.

Obviously, good breeders will make themselves responsible for acquainting new owners with the principles of socialisation and habituation at the same time as they advise on approved diet etc.

It is a good idea for breeders to ensure that the prospective owners have enough time and dedication to continue the socialisation and habituation process properly, because if they don't and the puppy subsequently develops a less than sound temperament, it is the breeding and not the rearing that is likely, but not justifiably, to get the blame.

Prospective owners can maximise their opportunities to socialise and habituate their puppies by obtaining them at six weeks old, having already made arrangements for the appropriate vaccination programme with a veterinary surgeon. Of course failing to obtain a puppy at exactly six weeks does not automatically lead to disaster, but the later puppies are acquired the more precious time will have been lost and the less likelihood there is of developing a sound temperament. This is balanced to some extent by the level of sensory stimulation the breeder has provided. Basically, a puppy obtained from a chaotic, noisy family household is far less likely to develop a fearful temperament than one that has been kept exclusively in a kennel or farm building. Conversely, if a puppy has been raised in an environment devoid of stimulation, such as in a barn or quiet kennel, the commencement of socialisation and habituation at six weeks does become critical.

The prospective purchaser of a puppy can check that some degree of socialisation and habituation has taken place. Ideally, they will have sought out a breeder who will let them see the puppies with their dam in their living quarters prior to the optimum "go home” age of six weeks. Searching questions should reveal the breeder's awareness of the need for a puppy's environmental enrichment, but the proof of the pudding is the reaction of the puppies themselves. They should appear to be content and confident. A few simple tests, such as the clapping of hands, the dropping of car keys etc. will enable the prospective buyer to gauge how well habituated the puppies are by observing whether they move away from the sound or towards it to investigate it. A mild reaction to the sound and a quick recovery from the surprise is ideal. Most telling of all is the puppies' response to the presence of strangers, i.e the prospective purchasers. They should be willing to approach and investigate the newcomers and be happy to allow themselves to be handled.

Prospective owners should also observe the behaviour of the dam and any other dogs that are in the vicinity of the puppies. If the puppies have grown up in the company of a nervous or aggressive dog they may have learnt to be fearful or aggressive from its example and it may be wiser to look elsewhere for a puppy than to take the risk. Many guides have been written on how to choose an individual puppy from the litter; the subject is somewhat beyond the scope of this chapter. However, I would recommend that several points of view are sought and that potential owners are ruled by their head and not their heart. The heart can take over once the choice has been made.

If you are about to purchase a puppy, or as a breeder you intend to run-on a puppy, there is a lot you will have to consider, such as toilet training, preventing chewing and how to get a good night's sleep. In the turmoil and upheaval, time must be put aside to consider the best locations for socialising and habituating your puppy. These guidelines should help:

Things that can be done at home

Visitors: Accustom your puppy to lots of visitors of both sexes and all ages. This will develop its social experience and help to keep territorial behaviour to manageable levels in later life. Ensure your visitors only say "Hello” and fuss your puppy once it has got over its initial excitement so as to prevent the development of boisterous greeting behaviour.

Children: Accustom your puppy to being handled by your and/or visitor's children, but don't let them pester it or treat it as a toy. Remain in a position of supervision. Arrange to meet someone with a baby regularly, especially if you plan to have a family. This will help to overcome the common worries about how the family dog will react to a new baby and toddlers.

Feeding: Accustom your puppy to you and other members of your family adding food to its bowl when it is eating. This will teach it that you are not a threat and prevent the development of aggression over food when it is older. Conversely, teaching your puppy that you can take its food away when it is eating is a bad idea, as this approach can cause the development of defensive behaviour later in life.

Grooming: Groom your puppy every day, even smooth or wire haired breeds who may not seem to need it. Grooming will accustom your puppy to being thoroughly handled and coincidentally it will help prevent the development of dominant behaviours.

Veterinary Examination: Every day examine your puppy's ears, eyes, teeth, lift up its feet and check its paws and check under its tail. When your puppy is happy about this, get other people to do it (it makes a good talking point at dinner parties!) The purpose of the exercise is to accustom your puppy to veterinary examination, very important, especially if first-aid ever has to be administered.

Domestic sights and sounds: Expose your puppy to domestic stimuli such as the vacuum cleaner, spin drier etc. but don't make an issue of them. The puppy should get used to them gradually without being stressed.

The postman and milkman etc: Carry your puppy and meet these people as often as you can. If your puppy gets to know and like them and more importantly learns that they will not "run away" if it barks, it is far less likely to show territorial aggression towards them when it grows up. (Many householders have to collect their post from the sorting office because the postman will not deliver as a result of their dog's behaviour).

Cats: Introduce your puppy to your cat in a controlled manner. Ensure that the cat is able to retreat to high areas well out of reach of the puppy if they want, such as shelves, the top of a wardrobe, or other furniture.  As your cat gains more confidence in the puppy, they may start to spend more time closer to them.  This type of low-threat, low-arousal exposure is just what is needed for both puppy and cat to adjust to each other.

If you have a cat who is fearful of dogs, consider their welfare before making the decision to adopt a puppy – most cats are happier without canine or feline additions to the household!

Other dogs at home: If you already have a dog introduce your puppy to it in the garden. Once the initial acceptance has been made by the older dog, the two should find their own level and settle down without too much intervention from you.

How is this done? Whenever a puppy uses its teeth in play the person concerned should respond with a sharp "No! and sound as if they have been really hurt. They should then walk off and ignore the puppy for about five minutes. In this way the puppy learns (a) to limit the strength of its bite in both play and for real and (b) that biting is counter-productive as an attention seeking device.

Leash training: Prepare your puppy for walking on the lead by getting it used to its collar and lead in the garden.

Going solo: Socialisation is very important, but so is learning to be alone. Puppies who are not accustomed to being left unattended on a regular basis are much more likely to suffer from separation anxiety (i.e. become anxious when separated from the owner) in adulthood. The three main symptoms of separation anxiety are destructiveness, incessant howling or barking and loss of toilet control.

To help prevent your puppy from suffering from this very common syndrome, you need to leave it unattended (i.e. in the house on its own) for over an hour on most days, preferably in the area that it sleeps in overnight, which should not be your bedroom, as sleeping there can contribute to separation anxiety and other problems.

For your puppy's safety, to prevent it from toileting in inappropriate places, chewing inappropriate items etc. ensure its area is "chew proof" and free from hazards such as electrical cables etc. You may need to construct or buy some purpose-built barriers to make a pen. Indoor kennels are often used and are readily available. Leave your puppy with some appropriate chew items, such as long lasting chews from the pet shop, and fresh water.

Initially you should accustom your puppy to you sitting in another room, with the door between you open. Over a period of time the routine can be carried out with the door shut. Once your puppy accepts this you can start to leave the house; go next door for a coffee, for example. Gradually extend the time you are away until you are absent for over an hour on a regular basis. Do not go back if you hear your puppy crying. Return when it is quiet. If a puppy thinks it can "call you back “ it may never accept being left.

Be very matter of fact about going out and coming home. If you fuss your puppy before leaving you will unsettle it and make it want to be with you every moment you want your absence to be accepted. (There is nothing in dog language for "Bye-bye, see you later" . Any interaction means, "Let's go!") Too much fuss on returning home highlights the loneliness of your absence.

Prevent Play Biting: As puppies grow up, adults and litter mates alike become increasingly intolerant of their sharp teeth when they go through the natural process of mouthing and playbiting. On finding this puppies learn that other individuals react negatively and learn to control the strength they use. When a puppy is introduced into the family this learning process is normally incomplete and the family must take over where the puppy's mother and litter mates left off.

The simple way is for the person concerned to respond with a verbal signal then freeze or walk away and ignore the puppy for a few moments. In this way the puppy should learn to limit the strength of its bite in play and to do so results in the withdrawal of interaction. Sometimes, however, preconditioning is required because the puppy continues to bite despite the families’ best efforts, sometimes because it turns the sequence into a game, or does not cope well with the frustration of the person withdrawing. There are several variations on how to do this training and below is just one example.

Hold a food treat between the index finger and thumb of each hand and hold your hands about 45 cm either side of your puppy’s face, slightly in front of his nose. It helps sit on a chair or kneel down so that you are closer to his level. Move one hand a little toward him but when he tries to snatch at the food treat quietly say a word, that is not used for anything else, you want to become your signal. As you finish saying it move your hand upward and out of reach in the curling motion used in weight training. Your puppy may try and jump at your hand a few times but should eventually give up. After some repetitions of the procedure your puppy should learn to respond to the sound of the word by turning his face away from your hand or by stepping back. However, at this point you should just wait. Wait for the moment he looks at your other hand or, if you prefer to train it, he looks you in the eye, at which point give him the food treat that was held in that other hand and praise him. Through repetition your puppy should learn to stop his interest in one hand and to indicate the other, or look at you if that has been your objective, regardless of whether it is left-hand to right-hand or right to left.

The purpose of this training is to teach the puppy that the signal means a) to move its mouth away and b) that it is going to fail to get what it wants. After several training sessions the verbal signal can be used if the puppy is mouthing or play biting. After the signal is given the person can walk away or just freeze. Of course, it would be desirable to reward the puppy for stopping but it could learn to do the behaviour to get the rewards. However, it is important to distract it with something else to do once it has stopped play biting and to reward it with attention when it interacts without play biting.

Things to do away from home

Go to all the environments you can think of that will help your puppy become "bomb proof" . Start in quieter places and gradually find busier ones.

The street: Expose your puppy to the sound of traffic and the movement of people. Start in quiet side streets and gradually build up to busy ones.

Places where people congregate: Any environment where people tend to congregate to sit and chat will do, so that they have the time to take interest in and handle your puppy.

Children's play areas: This is obviously a good place to meet lots of children (but consult your veterinary surgeon about the appropriate worming programme before bringing your puppy in contact with children). Children should not talk to strangers, so make arrangements with their mothers. Start with just a few children and control their enthusiasm to prevent your puppy from being overwhelmed, which can easily happen.

The car: Plenty of car travel will accustom your puppy to it and help prevent car sickness. Do not let your puppy sit on the front seat or on someone's lap. Accustom it to travelling in the place it will occupy when it is an adult.

The countryside: Accustom your puppy to the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside and livestock etc. (in your enthusiasm don't forget the Country Code).

Leash training: Once your veterinary surgeon has said that your puppy can be safely walked on a lead instead of carried, carry on as before but go back to using quiet areas, then gradually build up to noisy and busy ones again. In addition think about the unusual places to which you can accustom your puppy, for example, open staircases can be a problem, as can the vibration of station platforms when trains arrive or the movement of the floors on trains, buses and lifts. In the countryside keep your puppy on a lead and reward it for staying with you and ignoring livestock.

Socialising with other dogs

Removing a puppy from its dam and litter mates at six weeks is ideal in terms of socialising it with people but its socialisation with other dogs stops. As already discussed, socialisation will wear off, which means that some steps have to be taken to ensure that the process of learning to interact with others dogs continues if owning a maladjusted puppy is to be avoided. However, socialising with other dogs does not entail allowing your puppy to run amok with other dogs in the park. If they, the other dogs, are not properly socialised with their own, interactive and communication skills may be poor, which can often result in a misunderstanding and aggression. This sort of encounter could result in the puppy learning to be aggressive towards other dogs. If you go to any town park on a Sunday afternoon you will see plenty of dogs not getting on simply because they cannot communicate properly.

In order that their puppy's canine interaction skills can be properly developed, it is very important for puppy owners to locate and attend one of the increasingly popular puppy socialisation classes, even if it means travelling some distance to get there.

Finally, what should you do if a puppy shows fear whilst it is being socialised/habituated?

(a) Do not try to pressure a puppy into approaching the item as you will highlight its fear by drawing its attention to it.

(b) Expose the puppy to the type of stimulus that worried it as often as possible, but initially from a distance (i.e. reduce the size of the stimulus) so that the puppy can become desensitised to it. As the puppy's reaction improves you can gradually increase the amount of stimuli.

(c) Reward the puppy every time it does not react to the stimuli, or as soon as it recovers from its fright if it does react.

(d) Do not overreact. If you try to reassure a puppy it may reinforce the behaviours it uses as a means of coping when it is frightend