Puppy Socialisation during COVID crisis


Most caregivers are aware of the importance of wide-ranging positive socialisation experiences during the sensitive socialisation period in a dog’s development.

This period starts at around 3 weeks of age and ends around 12-16 weeks depending on the breed.

The first part of socialisation is learning about your own species by interacting with your siblings and your mother and perhaps this part won’t be too negatively affected by the changes we are experiencing as a community practicing social distancing. The bitch teaches the puppy how to behave, how hard to bite, how to play, when to stop playing and how to be part of group. Canine social rules are learnt. It is so important to have a kind and caring mother (for humans too!) The second part, however, starts around 8 weeks and goes to 12 -16 weeks and this period will likely be affected. This is the period where the puppy learns about the world he lives in and the things humans do. I guess we just have to accept that these will be COVID puppies and we will have to watch out for them as they mature.

They essentially have a RED FLAG now for future development. “Puppy born during COVID restrictions.”

So what can you do as a new dog guardian to minimise the negative effects of limited socialisation?

Firstly you should as always be selecting dogs from fit and healthy mothers who live in environments free from stress and distress. Ideally the mother is tried and tested. She has produced wonderful puppies before. Hopefully you have been diligent in sourcing your pup from someone you have developed a relationship with – enough to know the temperament of both the adults that produced the pup and the environment the puppy lives in. The breeder follows the latest advice in behaviour. They do not follow outdated advice such as being a strong pack leader, or showing their dogs who is boss. The breeders have a solid interest in producing puppies that will be sold to pet homes. They pride themselves with excellent temperaments. If you are looking for a pet you do not need to be convinced by the number of show ring ribbons or that the sire is from imported semen with strong guarding lines. You have not purchased from the internet with little information other than images.

You are not going to be able to do many of the things that we suggest a new puppy owner do. You may not even be able to attend puppy class, although some are still running, so look around for those who are able to offer a large facility and social distancing.

You may not be able to introduce your puppy to the large number of people we generally advise – 100 people in 100 days might have shrunk to single digit numbers. So I want you to be the 100 people! You can dress up – wear silly costumes, walk funny, put on sunglasses and hats. Get all your immediate family who you are not socially isolating from to do the same. Weird voices, funny laughs, fake beards, use a walking stick. Become a crowd!

You may not be able to take your puppy to cafes and markets anymore as they are no longer open, but you can still walk the streets and get the dog habituated to the sight and sounds of traffic and people at distance. I am afraid no people should be getting close enough to you to touch your puppy. I suggest pairing food with everything new thing the puppy is experiencing and taking note of anything that seems especially scary to the pup and increase the distance. You want to see a wiggly, happy pup the entire time you are exposing the dog to new stuff. He should want to engage even though he can’t. This will be a good sign.

Because no one but your immediate family is touching the dog you might want to get your pup used to the weird and intrusive things people might do in the future. Pair touching the dog’s head and reaching over the dog’s head with high value food. Practice the kind of greetings you want your dog to be accepting of.

You can increase the rudeness of your greeting as your dog shows he is not bothered at all by the stupid things humans do.

You may be able to mimic some of the sounds of the experiences you are not able to do in reality. There are sound apps such as SOUND PROOF Puppy and no doubt others that can be used to expose a dog to sounds. Have your television on a lot. The reality will be that the dog will not be experiencing these for real and it might be good to do more of this that you normally would and gradually increase the volume of different sounds, eg children playing may be something the new pup may be limited in seeing if schools close so use the sounds of these to socialise to. Even if you don’t like sport you can find it on You Tube and play these sounds.

You may be spending more time with the puppy than you normally would, and will in the future, and so you do want him to get used to you going out. Covid won’t last forever! So even if you are not working get him used to be separated from you and you leaving the home. When you enter your office place him away with something to do rather than have him next to you constantly. Go for a drive and leave him with chew toys and things to eat. Don’t spend every minute with him just because you can.  He needs to see your departures as his chance to eat and sleep. Watch him via a phone and laptop to ensure he is behaving calmly while you are out. Early signs of separation distress require treatment. Remember puppies need 16-18 hours of sleep each day so if kids are home from school make sure they give him a break too.

Crate training is a great way to teach a dog how to settle and done correctly it can be a useful trained behaviour for a dog who is moving home, going to a vet clinic, boarding etc. It can assist toilet training. Crate training should, however, occur in a stress free manner and therefore needs to be a planned. No dog should see a crate as entrapment and if your dog is responding in this way then the crate training has been rushed.


Kikopup – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUzF0g0PwY4

Susan Garrett – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8HNO79bZMY

Even though I do not underestimate the importance of good socialisation I do think that if the individual has sound genetics (stable, calm mother that had a dream pregnancy and her influence on her pups was positive in their early in life) he will be okay despite not having as much socialisation as we would like. The real risk is for dogs who have the genetic predisposition for fearfulness and then they are, on top of this, under-socialised due to COVID. These dogs will likely be the patients of the future.


What to look for, and what to avoid, in sourcing a dog trainer…


IMG_1558Every second week I have the pleasure of teaching final year veterinary students about canine behaviour and canine mental health disorders. They are eager and enthusiastic students, but just like the regular dog owning population they too have bought into dog training myths and need direction about what to look for when recommending a dog trainer.

Here is my advice:

  • read between the lines – what does “years of experience, love of dogs, owning dogs” – as a prerequisite for being a good trainer mean – I have “had children, been around children and love children” – does that make me a teacher of children? No – I need a degree for that.
  • ask the trainer about their methods – if they do not name the methods they use but write things like –“you’ll learn to speak dog”, “become a good pack leader” etc then AVOID. A science-based trainer knows to use positive reinforcement and knows what that looks like. A science based trainer does not talk about your dog’s behaviour issues as a problem of dominance.
  • ask the trainer what equipment will be used to train your dog – avoid anyone who uses equipment such as prong, choke, electronic and shock – there is NEVER a reason for this, and it will invariably worsen your dog and the trust they have in you. Train without PAIN.
  • avoid trainers who use the word BALANCED – this sounds good, but it really means they are prepared to use negative reinforcement (taking away something aversive to the dog to increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future) and positive punishment (adding something aversive to the dog to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour accusing again in the future). Does your trainer really understand the Quadrant of learning?
  • avoid trainers who don’t use food – food is a valuable reinforcer and a way to condition a new emotional response – its effects are powerful and a useful tool in positive reinforcement training. Do you expect to still get paid no matter how long you’ve been in the job?  Well dogs expect be to be paid too, and taking away a working wage will reduce their enthusiasm to work with you. There are other reinforcers for dogs and these can include play and toys – whatever the dog likes. Most dogs are not as interested in pats and verbal praise as we would like to think.
  • avoid trainers who say some dogs need a different kind of training – this is not the case – at Animal Sense all dogs are modified with positive reinforcement – no matter how they present. It is ethical and compassionate.
  • avoid trainers who have had no formal training in dog behaviour – as an unregulated industry anybody  can set themselves up as a dog trainer or even call themselves an animal behaviourist. Therefore look for some one who has studied this subject through reputable organisations and who has become a member of groups that advance animal behaviour through science and compassion. Some recommended groups would be IMTD, Karen Pryor accredited, TAFE certificated in animal care/science, CASI accredited, is a member of PPG, APDT, Delta. If a dog trainer has undertaken education they are likely to have written about this education on their web site and if they fail to write what their qualifications are, then it is likely that they don’t have them.
  • choose those that work alongside veterinary behaviourists and know when to refer a case. Good dog trainers realise that dog behaviour issues are often as a result of fear and anxiety and these issues are not training ones but ones of mental health disorder and therefore they require the input of a veterinary behaviourist.
  • avoid those whose websites are adorned with men in bite suits. Dogs involved in dog sport (shutzhund) might engage with a person in a bite suit – but this is not the equipment a trainer should be using for working with someone’s pet dog with fear issues.
  • avoid those who offer life time guarantees – dogs are not automobiles and there are no guarantees with behaviour treatment.
  • avoid those who suggest you leave your dog with them for a training or boot camp. Training and modification needs more than ten days and works best when caregivers are taught how to work and condition their dogs. There are no short cuts.
  • avoid those who advise clients that medications are not suitable or needed – trainers are not veterinarians and  do not have the knowledge base to advise on medications. Psychiatric medications are often useful for animals in mental distress, just as they are for people, and when they are indicated they should be used early in the disease state to achieve the best outcome. They are not the treatment of last resort.
  • avoid those that shake or throw noisy chains at your dog, teach you to say BAH, and poke your dog in the side of the neck – all these methods have been shown to worsen a dog’s behaviour and emotional responses over time.
  • take a look at my website for those trainers who work closely with me, and when you are recommended a trainer endorsed by Animal Sense you can be assured that I know they are force free.

So now you know what to look for in a behaviour trainer!

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.