One of the main reasons for behavioural problems in adult dogs is them not being adequately socialised as puppies.
The socialisation and experiences of puppies have a much greater impact on their behaviour as adults compared to their breed or their genes.
What is socialisation?
As puppies, or any other animals, grow up they need to experience different things at the right point and spend plenty of time with other dogs and their mothers. If this does not happen at the right point the puppy may (but not always) develop behavioural problems in certain scenarios as an adult.
Lack of socialisation is worse in puppies who were born on puppy farms or smuggled in from abroad. These dogs have often been separated from their mothers early and, in worst cases, may have been isolated from their brothers and sisters. These dogs often spend less time with people and may not grow up in a home; at least not in when very young. The main problem with this is them not hearing the normal sounds around the home as their hearing develops so they don’t get used to sounds such as the vacuum cleaner. As a result, the vacuum cleaner is something many adult dogs fear and it can be very difficult for them to become used to.
Not only that, many dogs spend at least a portion of their time when they are first bought being isolated from other dogs. Though this may be good to stop them catching viruses and bacterial infections they are not fully vaccinated against, it can cause them to not develop normal relationships with other dogs or get used to there to the vast variety of dogs and their different body shapes and behaviours. For instance, a Miniature Dachshund will not recognise a Great Dane as even being the same species as them in some cases and their size will be very daunting. They will also struggle to recognise the body language with dogs with features which make this difficult such as the squashed nose of a Pug, the hairy face of a Old English Sheepdog or the lack of a tail such in dogs who have been docked (in the UK it is still legal for a small percentage of dogs) or the lack of tails in some Bulldogs. Your dog has to get used to these and all the different behaviours to grow up without fear of them.
When is the Best Time for Dogs to get Used to New Experiences, Objects and People?
Puppies are born with very underdeveloped brains.
Like human babies, very young/ new-born puppies can’t do much. They struggle to move, are blind and deaf and can’t smell very well. During the first three weeks of their life, puppy’s brains rapidly develops and their senses quickly start to work and improve.
Up until they are two weeks only very small amounts of handling should be done. Mild and small amounts of stress caused by them being handled may be useful, too much stress can delay their learning. Over the next week, they start to be able to see and hear as well as smell better. Coincidentally, by the end their 3rd week of life, puppies start to wag their tails. It is unknown whether them wagging their tail is related to them being able to interact with the world around them more or not.
The Most Important Time for Socialisation is at 3-12weeks old.
Once puppies have reached three weeks old they need to be able to explore. During this stage, up until they are seven weeks old, pups need be able to approach strangers on their own without people interacting with them.
If they puppies can’t do this; such as if they are in a puppy farm or have no access to anyone else, the dogs will become more scared of people when older leading to them taking several days to get used to any strangers. This is worse with dogs who have been totally isolated right up until they are over twenty weeks old whereby dogs will become very scared of people and isolation may actually stunt their learning.
So, if your dog is both fearful of strangers and isn’t learning well they may have been isolated and/or stressed when younger; something typical of puppy farmed or smuggled dogs who may also have been sold in pet stores.
The main time for socialisation is between three and twelve weeks. The earlier the better, as long as the puppies and their mothers don’t become too distressed.
Socialisation involves dogs not just learning to deal with new situations and people but also different environments such as being out in the garden, somewhere busy or just a different room in the house.
However important it is for puppies to socialise, it is also very important that they remain with their mothers until they are at least eight weeks old. Separating a puppy from their mum too early will likely cause behavioural problems. These puppies will learn little about interacting with other dogs so are more likely to become aggressive. Dogs separated early will have learnt little about sharing food so are more likely to become possessive over their food and toys. This can cause problems when you or another pet are trying to take objects and food away from your dog.
A lot of socialisation must take place in the time between a dog leaving their mother at approximately eight weeks old and the end of the critical socialisation period at twelve weeks. Coincidentally, this is when puppies tend to be vaccinated and often aren’t allowed on walks for the majority of this.
This could cause problems.
How do you get a dog used to different environments and other dogs if they aren’t allowed to go on walks?
Can They Even See Other People?
The main thing to prevent them catching diseases is to prevent them coming into access with objects that may be contaminated or unvaccinated dogs.
Puppies should be totally fine playing with healthy vaccinated dogs in clean environments or in enclosed areas outside. When out on walks the floor is potentially contaminated with rat urine (the way Leptospirosis is passed on) or urine and faeces from unvaccinated or ill dogs (which may be infected with Parvovirus). You are totally fine taking dogs out if you don’t allow them to go on the floor. This is not ideal with large puppies, but smaller breeds and younger pups would benefit from being carried outside. Carrying puppies outside allows them to become used to noisy traffic and the other unusual sounds and smells even tastes of the outdoors. They can even see other dogs from a distance.
When you get a new puppy often all your friends and family want to see them. This is a great chance to help get your puppy socialised. Invite them all around, though not all at once as this will overwhelm your puppy. Also, if they have vaccinated dogs then let them bring their dogs to socialise with your puppy; just don’t do this if they are unvaccinated or aggressive as this may cause further problems. What you don’t want is for your puppy to have a traumatic experience with another dog, animal or something else at this point in their life or this will likely set them back and potentially cause a fear or phobia. You could also take them around to your friend’s houses too; get them used to the different smells, sights and sounds of the outdoors as well as them possibly being exposed to other animals.
This is a perfect time to take them out in the car too so they can experience and get used to that early to reduce the risks of travel sickness and fear when older.
Sadly, a dog’s puppy vaccines fall into their critical period of socialisation.
Though this can help in terms of them getting used to a vet clinic, if they have a bad experience there they may become more fearful in the future compared to if they first went when older. Sometimes these injections can be quite sore, especially with small puppies, so when your puppy goes for their vaccinations make sure you reassure your puppy and give them plenty of treats. However, also allow them some space to explore; holding them tightly may make you feel more comfortable but won’t allow your dog to move the table.
Dogs also pick up on body language and will become concerned about why you’re holding them tightly when you otherwise wouldn’t and it’d cause them to start to worry. Yes, sometimes the vaccines are a bit sore but the best thing to do is to give your puppy and vet some space; sometimes holding your puppy tightly will tighten their skin so may make the injection more painful.
Try and distract them with toys/ treats/ objects when being injected and especially afterwards so they don’t see it as much of a bad experience.
In my experience too, some puppies don’t even make a fuss of their vaccinations at all. If their main memory as a puppy is their experience of the vets being a positive one, your dog is less likely to be vet-phobic in the future when this is harder to resolve.
Though the critical period for socialisation ends when a puppy reaches 12-15weeks old, their brain and social skills have still not fully matured.
In fact, the period where social skills mature doesn’t begin until they are around twelve to eighteen months. Their brain may not fully mature until, in many cases, they are two years old though this varies with their size and breed.
The time between the end of their socialisation period and their brain maturing is an opportunity for shaping their behaviour and is the best time to train them or iron out any developing problems.
If any big traumas or upsets happen within this period it is much more likely to have a greater impact than if they occur once their brain has fully matured so it is important your dog has really happy and positive experiences in this time.
Once the socialisation period has been missed, if your dog hasn’t spent much time around other dogs and is nervy they can improve. Introduce them slowly to quiet and friendly dogs in neutral spaces and let them casually interact. Any sort of introduction at this stage will take longer than if they were younger. Your dog may look for more reassurance if they interaction during the earlier critical period of socialisation but with time many dogs can adjust, it will just take more time, be less predictable and possibly more stressful.
A Quick Recap
The critical period for socialisation tends is when a puppy is between three and twelve weeks of age. Handling puppies prior to three weeks old may help them further down the line so long as they don’t become too stressed which may affect their ability to learn.
Any isolation any or prolonged confinement in or around the socialisation period may affect dogs for the rest of their life by creating phobias or aggression. Puppies should visit new places and people as much as possible during the socialisation period. Unvaccinated puppies can meet with healthy vaccinated dogs within clean enclosed spaces and can also be carried around outside.
Finally, a negative vet experience during the critical period for socialisation can cause long-lasting stress. But, equally, a positive one will reduce the likelihood of your puppy developing a fear of vets at a later stage. The risk to your puppy of not having their vaccinations when young is much greater than the potential for fear-related issues later in life.
Remember, there are things you and your vet can do to improve the chances of success.