How breeders can help produce happier, more confident, less aggressive pet dogs, through an early intervention programme. How puppy buyers can choose the best pet dogs, with a little research and by asking the right questions.
I’m a passionate advocate of puppy socialisation and have written extensively on the topic (www.www.muttamorphosis.co.uk/dog-blog & http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/sue-mccabe). In 2010, I took the opportunity to design and implement an ‘in-litter’ programme of socialisation for a friend and small scale breeder of Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. I took into account past and current research, as well as personal experience working professionally with dogs from both reputable and questionable sources. The programme was designed to safely expose puppies to as many ‘life simulations’ as possible from 3-8 weeks of age. After bringing puppy home at 8 weeks, most owners are inexperienced and time limited (due to the vaccination status of their puppy), when they begin the socialisation process.
Therefore, when it comes to socialisation, the more effort a breeder can put in, the better ahead puppies will be when they leave for their new homes. If searching for your new puppy, the information below, and in the accompanying video, should help you make more informed choices when deciding on a breeder, based on efforts they are making to help rear well adjusted, happy and mentally healthy pet dog.
While good breeders understandably put plenty of effort into the physical health of their dogs, it seems somewhat surprising to me that more time and energy isn’t put into the mental health of puppies being bred. After all, good breeders want their dogs to enjoy long and happy lives, remaining long term in the homes they are originally sold to. It has long since been known that home reared dogs are better adjusted to the life of a pet dog, than those reared in kennels. This is because of early exposure to domestic sights/sounds/smells and activities. Taken further, a deliberate programme of ‘in litter socialisation’, which takes place with the security of an expert breeder and dam present, should hold pet dogs in great standing, for the transition to their new lives and the high expectations their humans families will have for them.
The accompanying video was made using the help of a litter of 4 week old Chesapeake Bay Retrievers who were just beginning their conscious exploration of the world around them. The video explains the steps breeders can take to boost their puppies confidence, enhance their socialisation skills and get ahead with habituation, before they move on to their new homes. It also prompts potential puppy buyers on what they should look for, if they want to get a puppy from an optimum ‘pet dog’ rearing environment, where breeders have taken steps to help produce healthy, happier pet dogs.
The steps outlined are designed to mitigate challenges new owners often face with their dogs, to reduce the risk of aggression and resource guarding, separation anxiety and neophobia. Such a programme should generally result in a puppy whose outlook on life is happier, more confident and accepting, qualities which everyone, breeders and owner alike would be proud to attain. It is outlined below why each exercise is relevant to the puppy’s social learning and development based on past/current research and thinking.
House Training-starting as they mean to go on.
From the age of approximately 3 weeks, puppies lose their elimination reflex. They begin to rely less on the dam to help them eliminate, choosing rather to leave their bedding area to toilet. Breeders can take full advantage of this by giving pups access to an area outside the whelping box. From approximately 4 weeks onwards, they can take toilet training further and aid new owners by having easy access to outdoors, where puppies can be encouraged to go after they wake up, after feeding and regularly during the day. House training is simply about habit. The more times a dog successfully eliminates outdoors versus indoors has a huge bearing on how quickly they are house trained when they go their new homes. Breeders can contribute significantly to this process while puppies are still within the litter. Since puppies form a substrate preference at an early stage, breeders can further aid new owners by providing both solid (gravel or concrete) surfaces and grass surfaces on which to eliminate so that whichever option is available in their new home, each puppy has already become accustomed to that surface.
Sound desensitisation-including specific noises which traditionally cause anxiety.
The experiences of a home reared litter, in terms of day to day exposure to sights, sounds, smells and activities of a busy household has long since been understood. Raising a litter in a busy household with early exposure to family arguments, children crying, raised voices and typical adult/child interaction is a bonus for puppies, who are expected to live as family pets when they are sold on by breeders. However, certain sounds, especially if those sounds are heard in high concentration at Halloween, at a sensitive stage of the development (such as the secondary fear period 7-14 months), can have a lifelong detrimental effect on the dog’s mental health. Early exposure to thunder, gunshot and fireworks, so that the puppy is comfortable with these noises, will mean less stress on the dog and less worry for the owner. Playing desensitisation cd’s such as Sounds Scary and Sounds Sociable, played at a medium volume as the puppies mature and explore the world around them, is easily done. The results of such a simple exercise however, should far out weight the effort, resulting in adult dogs who are the less likely to become seasonally anxious or gun shy and owners less likely to have to live with the stress of a noise phobic dog.
Enriched Environment Provision-gentle exposure to all things new.
Detailed research on neophobia-the fear of the new-takes place in somewhat ethically questionable circumstances but has a huge bearing on our understanding of puppy development (Scott & Fuller, 1965, Fox, 1975, Corben,1993). Puppies between 3 and 12 weeks have an innate ‘bounce back’ ability. This means the survival instinct which causes them to startle at the introduction of a novel object, is very quickly replaced with natural curiosity and a desire to investigate the object in question. The more novel things/people/situations/sounds a puppy experiences during the critical socialisation period, the more likely they are to cope calmly and without significant excitement, to new and exciting things later in life. Research by Corben (1993) showed that stimulus deprived dogs had energy levels six times higher than the average dog. Motor hyper-excitement is a trait not highly sought after by pet dog owners.
As well as the physical benefits of active investigation of an enriched environment (coordination/balance/muscular development), the psychological and social benefits are overwhelming. An enriched environment provided by breeders should not only introduce puppies to different objects to investigate, they can actively encourage investigation of the novel, by introducing new stimuli each day, as the puppy develops. This includes things to climb on, climb over, pick up, carry, taste, difference surfaces to walk over (carpet, concrete, grass, sand, tiles, linoleum, soil).
Settling quickly and easily into their new home, accepting calmly and without undue stress or vocalisation newly introduced situations. These would be characteristics which new owners would clearly perceive as highly advantageous. Breeders can, through early intervention, ensure the puppies they produce are ‘super-dogs’ in terms of their acceptance of family life and all that may entail.
Video stimulus-TV is good for you!
A study in 2010 exposed puppies ages 3-5 weeks to random videos recordings for a minimum of 30 mins a day for 14 days (Jolanda J.T.M. Pluijmakers, David L. Appleby, John W.S. Bradshaw 2010). It was clear that even this early in life, puppies responded to the video images. In addition, subsequent tests of these puppies versus a control, unexposed group, showed that those exposed visited novel objects considerably less frequently than unexposed puppies. Finally, when tested at 7-8 weeks, unexposed puppies were significantly more fearful than those who had been exposed to the video images. It was concluded from this study that early exposure to visual images, while still within the litter can help to reduce neophobia. Additionally, it can significantly aid coping strategies to novel stimulus later in life and could also produce pet dogs more suited to family life and all that it may throw at them. This should not mean that video or TV is used as a substitute for company, interaction or day to day environmental stimulus (washing machines, meal times, family discussions/arguments/arrivals of visitors etc). However, breeders could add to their normal household activities by using artificial visual stimulus to further enrich puppy’s environment and help reduce fearful reactions, stress and anxiety later in life.
Handling-to enhance early neurological stimulation.
Much research has been done on early handling of puppies and how the introduction of mild stress (through substrate temperature changes), can help to create dogs who cope better with challenges later in life (for more details of ENS and the Bio Sensor Programme in pups see Battaglia 2009). While it helps to formalize exercises so that breeders have a ‘script’ to follow, any early handling will help puppy’s brains to switch on, enhancing neurological connections which help with learning and coping skills in later life. Through early neurological stimulation, dogs should be easier to train, have better focus on tasks and generally be more biddable and compatible in a pet dog environment. Dogs who have been carefully and methodically handled (ears, eyes mouth, feet, tail, belly, nail trim) during the crucial 4-8 week period by breeders, are also more able to deal with stress, cope with change and handle new experiences with greater ease.
Handling-to encourage positive human contact, acceptance of restraint, necessary grooming & examination.
Pet dogs are expected to be prodded and poked by amateurs (their new human family), not professional dog handlers or trainers who can read canine body language signals. The family pet is required to tolerate much that could be considered unnatural or threatening (hugging, cuddling, restraint etc). Puppies raised with careful daily handling by a wide varied of people, under close supervision of the breeder, have significantly reduced risk of becoming aggressive. Such dogs are less likely to bite household members or visitors. They will find trips to the groomers and vets less stressful. The more a puppy gets used to restraint, cuddles, human breath, kisses, faces close by, feet, ears, tail, mouth and body being handled, the better they will cope with the demands of being a pet dog. Breeders can encourage and guide visitors so that each puppy in the litter is carefully handled as much as possible during the critical socialisation period, without ever allowing the puppies to become overwhelmed or stressed by the interaction.
Positive social contact-with multiple people.
The more positive social experiences a puppy has, the better pet dog they will become. A puppy’s natural disposition towards humans should be happy, friendly and curious. Essentially, humans should elicit a waggy tail and a curious welcome. Home reared puppies will enjoy the company of the family in which they were raised, but it takes more effort by the breeder to ensure they also enjoy the company of other people, regardless of gender/age/race. Dr. Ian Dunbar (2001) calls this the ‘hundred person rule’. Puppies need to have experienced at least 100 new people of varying ages/races/genders before the age of 12 weeks. The pressure is on. With limited time, given the vaccination status of most newly sold puppies, it’s important to expose the litter to as many new people as possible, before they leave the breeder.
The introduction of toys-all shapes, textures and types, in multiple quantities.
The function of introducing objects as a means of developing a healthy curiousity has already been outlined. However adding toys to the litter has additional benefits. The first is that it encourages interaction with things other than dogs. Puppy play teaches important rules of canine social engagement and is vital for lessons in dog/dog communication and bite inhibition. However an absence of toys can mean puppies focus obsessively on each other. This dog obsession can causes untold hassle for new puppy owners including dog/dog reactivity/leash frustration/lack of concentration & recall issues. Additionally, encouraging puppies with people and toys enhances the dog/human bond and leads to early positive association between people and play. It helps teach bite inhibition and cooperation. If breeders can create a link between humans and play from an early age, and interaction is used to teach positive rules of engagement and manners (wait/fetch/drop/leave it/take it), then later training should prove so much easier.
Multiple feeding vessels as a means of discouraging resource guarding.
Anyone who has watched a litter of young puppies being weaned, knows how messy and competitive the process can get. It is totally natural for healthy competition to exist between puppies in a litter. However, more often than not, offering one or two bowls for puppies to crowd around becomes an early lesson in food aggression. Food aggression & resource guarding remains one of the most common problems I deal with professionally. Any help a breeder can offer new owners to avoid the seeds of aggression being sown, should be encouraged.
With single or double bowl weaning, the learning curve is as follows; growl to keep others away, aggression is successful and therefore likely to be repeated; or, grab and run with your mouthful to keep others away-low level resource guarding. The simple act of providing a food bowl for each puppy, plus an additional food bowl for each puppy in the litter, reduces competition and the possibility of resource guarding later in life. Puppies can go on to their new homes believing that there is no competition for food and therefore no need to show aggression around food. In addition, breeders adding food to bowls scattered around the feeding area, while puppies are eating, teaches puppies that food appears, not disappears, when people approach.
Short, regular car journeys to avoid travel sickness/transport stress.
It should come as no surprise that puppies who have their first experience with car travel on the journey from the breeders to their new home, often suffer vehicle related stress or car sickness for some, if not all of their lives. Add to this the fact that most owners next expose their puppies to a car journey to visit the vet, for their initial vaccination or check up. Such a common problem is created by owners, without even realizing it. Breeders can take advantage of the time they have with the litter, and help new owners avoid this ever common problem through early, positive exposure to car travel. Starting as early as 4 weeks, puppies can sit on a human knee-most beneficially next to a litter mate-while the engine is running. Over the next 4 weeks and before the transition to their new home, breeders should gradually build exposure to longer car journeys, ensuring puppies are securely crated to avoid excessive movement and stress. This removes any likelihood that the journey home with their new owners should have a negative impact on the puppy or new family’s life.
Alone time/crates are good-self control and settle alone, life skills for family life.
One of the most difficult changes for a puppy to adapt to when arriving at their new home, is being alone. Without realising it, owners exacerbate the problem by directly responding to their puppy’s distress and vocalisation by reinforcing behaviour they ultimately want to eliminate (DeHasse, 2001). The puppy cries, the owner responds, the cycle has started and soon, puppy cannot spend any time alone because of noise levels and stress. With the worry of neighbours complaining, owners often even decamp to the sofa overnight. On a more serious note, separation anxiety is one of the most serious & difficult behavior challenges to deal with, so early alone-training is crucial for the mental health of both pet dog and owner.
Breeders can teach the vital life skills of settling alone, to puppies still within the safely of the litter. This can begin from 4 weeks, using a dog gate to slowly isolate one puppy from the rest of the litter, while still allowing visual contact. Once the puppies have become accustomed to being physically separated from their siblings and dam but can still see them, the dog gate should be replaced with a solid door, so no visual contact is allowed. In addition, early crate training can begin at this point in the same way. Gradual exposure to alone time not only creates pups who settle easier in their new homes, but also encourages levels of self control vital for family life. Puppies are born egotists and it’s crucial for them to learn that sometimes, regardless of what is going on, they can’t be involved. The optimum time and place for them to learn this is between 4-8 weeks, at the breeders home.
It is understandable that good breeders pay close attention to the physical health of the litters they produce, through intensive medical screening and testing. With prior research and studies available to us, it should be just as important to focus on the mental health of dogs being sold as family pets. Breeding from parent dogs whose temperament is sound, is the first step in this process as genetics hold the blueprint for good breeding stock. However the nature versus nurture argument is not so vague as it used to be. What happens to a puppy in the first three months of its life, has a direct influence on its ability to succeed as a family pet. The socialisation period begins well in advance of being sold to a new family & can be severely stunted due to vaccination status. Therefore breeders must begin to take active responsibility for in-litter socialisation as outlined in this video. Through a programme of environmental enrichment, handling, and positive social interaction, puppies can move on to their new homes superior in their ability to learn & focus. Through in-litter socialisation, they should adapt easier to their new lives with the family and be more likely to stay in their new homes in the long term. Early inoculations are vital to protect a dog against disease. Socialisation is vital to vaccinate a puppy against life’s challenges. Breeders are in a unique position to be at the forefront of this process.
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Gwen Bailey Socialising a Litter