Socialisation – what it’s NOT and how important is it…


Socialisation is not taking a small puppy to Bunnings and have it bombarded with attention and pats.

Socialisation is not taking an adolescent rescue dog down to dog beach to “play” with all and sundry.

Socialisation is not taking a fearful pup to a cafe and asking people to greet your pup while is cowers in your arms.

In a natural setting socialisation takes place when the pup, with mother near by, meets and interacts with new things. It happens in a safe way. It happens when the dog is neurodevelopmentally ready for the interaction. It happens because the mother dog is feeling safe and knows the interaction is safe too. She is not about to introduce her precious pup to something she deems is unsafe. Everything she is introducing the puppy to is something that later the puppy may experience as a “safe” object/state/place to be around. After a certain period of time, about 12-14 weeks of age, the pup becomes fully weaned from the mother and separates from her, and after this time anything newly introduced may be greeted with mistrust and a fearful response. It makes sense not to stay open, infinitely. Otherwise you might just bound up to the first tiger you meet. It is a good survival mechanism and has evolved over tens of thousands of years.

In normal development the mother is also able to move away from the puppy – to source food for herself, to toilet and to exercise, and so a pup learns that time away from mother is normal. Independence is gradually grown, not abruptly enforced. Bitches who are not allowed to move away from their puppies – as in a puppy farm scenario – may not be tolerant and nurturing in the same way that a mother who has time away can be. Then puppies are drastically separated, whilst at the same time forced into frighteningly new scenarios with all new sensations and with no nurturer to safely retreat to.

When we take on the job of socialising a young animal because the pup is no longer with its mother it is important to remember that socialisation experiences will only be good and beneficial to the pup if the feeling at the time is one of relaxation and associated with positive emotions. The pup must not be forced to interact, but rather make the choice to.

If the experience is frightening and causes the puppy to want to avoid and repel the new person/thing/place then the experience may be creating a very different outcome from want we aimed for. Fearful early experiences can create later phobias.

Ideal socialisation in a breeding setting would be a breeder who is able to expose puppies to all the future possibilities of its destined home. Some proactive breeders take part in programs such as Puppy Culture – where they follow a timetable of introductions ensuring a wide range of future possibilities. But a good rule of thumb is to consider all the senses and making sure puppies are experiencing a wide range of surfaces and obstacles, unusual sounds, smells, food textures, background noises, sights.  Puppies should be faced with some challenges and some mild frustrations that help to build impulse control. They should be being exposed to a wide range of people, other animals and environments consistent with their future homes.

CAN Socialisation FIX everything?

Recently I had a internet conversation with a person involved in dog rescue who had been worried by my labelling of a post of a dog as “another reactive rescue” and then we discussed how there is indeed a prevalence of behavioural problems in dogs whose mothers had experienced stress and distress in pregnancy, whether they be purebred dogs or dogs from rescue.

Sadly even pedigree dogs may be being bred in environments where mothers are stressed and distressed. Paying a lot of money for a dog does not preclude future behavioural problems. There is evidence that stress during pregnancy and during the neonatal period creates permanent effects on the ability of the offspring to deal with stressful experiences later in life. These animals may be permanently effected by their poor start and this may be reflected in later behavioural abnormalities.

Purchasers of puppies need to have reliable information about the source of their dog  and know that the mother was well-fed, well cared-for, emotionally stable and responsive to her puppies.

People adopting dogs sometimes assume that purchasing a puppy at 8 weeks of age is like buying a blank drive – ready to have information uploaded and stored, but the truth is that so much is already downloaded and installed, and sometimes, continuing the computer analogy, corrupted from the get-go by the early history and the genes inherited.




Euphemisms in Dog Breed Descriptions


aloof = fearful

loyal = fearful

protective = fearful

one man dog = fearful

good guard dog = fearful

watchful = fearful

shyness = fearful

cautious of strangers = fearful

courage = fearful

reserved = fearful

sensitive = fearful

discriminating = fearful

bred to work = compulsive tendencies if work unfulfilled

zeal for work = apt to develop compulsion

high prey drive = apt to chase others

people oriented = prone to separation distress

It seems to me that breed descriptions are awash with descriptions that paint a picture of fearful breeds as acting out of loyalty and love. But these descriptions are cover ups for dogs who are on a continuum of the fearful scale and some will, as adults, be more prone to develop aggression because of their fearful nature.

Before seeing any companion in my referral business I research its background, its known genetics, and the breeding facility it came from.

Some of the things that also concern me are: seeing that the kennel is large – has several or even tens of female and male dogs. This can mean that bitches give birth and raise their puppies in kennel environments rather than in the home. More akin to a factory than a home. Ideally the new dog owner wants to bring home a puppy that already has had much socialisation and experience of a regular suburban environment – full of the noises of televisions, microwaves, passing traffic, screaming children and boisterous family life. A large kennel in a rural setting may not give pups adequate exposure to this. A wide range of sound and a variety of experience may be lacking.

Flying puppies – Often this is done during the fear period (between 8-10 weeks of age) and hence can set the puppy up for future phobias – e.g. noise sensitivity, storm worries.

Working dog lines sold as family pets – I often see working breeds who are sold as family pets and the breeders state that they select the pup with an appropriate temperament for the family. Dogs that are bred to work are selected for a very different skill base than those that suit a family. It seems somewhat nonsensical to believe that the two dichotomies can be bred from the same stock.

It makes no sense, to me, to say that dogs bred to do protection work also make good family pets. It makes no sense to say that dogs who are bred to work sheep all day will also do well with life in suburbia.

Always remember that behaviour is a result of three crucial elements – genetics, prior learning (e.g. socialisation history) and the environment (both the internal physiological environment and the current physical environment facing the dog). Because of their genetic tendencies for fearfulness some breeds will require more active socialisation than others to result in an adult animal comfortable around a variety of situations.

However hard we try we cannot turn a Rottweiler into a Golden Retriever. Years of selection and breeding has gone into produce both the look of the dog and the temperament that goes along with it. People choosing any breed should be aware of what that breed was originally selected to do, and expect the temperament type that comes along with that work, and in the end not be surprised that their dog is not an appropriate dog to spend its time in a cafe conversing with the dogs designed to do just that. It is not sufficient to like the “look” of a breed or choose one because its coat doesn’t shed. There is so much more that should be considered.