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Canine Socialisation

It was suggested that during the early development of a puppy there is a period when social contacts exert a maximum effect on social development.  This phase was termed the ‘critical period of socialisation’, which is a SPECIAL TIME IN YOUR PUPPIES LIFE WHEN A SMALL AMOUNT OF EXPERIENCE WILL PRODUCE A GREAT EFFECT ON LATER BEHAVIOUR.

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At the beginning of the socialisation period (at 3 weeks of age) puppies show strong approach behaviour to anything new in their environment.  They will persistently investigate new things and confidently approach and follow virtually anything that moves.  However, by the time the pups are five weeks old, there is an increasing tendency to avoid new objects and unfamiliar situations.  An experiment was performed where puppies were raised in a field with limited contact for the first three months of life.  At the ages of three, seven and fourteen weeks the puppies were placed in a room with a human observer, ten minutes a day for a week.  When they were three weeks of age, the puppies approached the observer immediately, but when seven weeks old the pups took two days before they made a single social approach.  The fourteen-week puppies were wild and unapproachable and never came close to the observer!!


To reach his genetic potential, the puppy must stay in the nest with his mother and littermates through this time.  During this period he will practice body postures, facial expressions and vocalisations, and learn their effects on his siblings, mother and any other dogs he comes into contact with.  For example, during play when a fight might begin, the puppy learns that submissive body posture has the effect of turning off the aggression of this littermate.  DURING THIS CRITICAL PERIOD, THE PUPPY LEARNS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS IN HIS LIFE - TO ACCEPT DISCIPLINE. 
He learns this from his mother who, through discipline, teaches the puppies not to bite so hard, or during the weaning process, to leave her alone.  When the puppy has committed a mistake, perhaps something as simple as coming too close to the mother when she doesn’t want to be bothered, she will give him a warning - a meaningful look, often accompanied by an almost imperceptible wrinkle of the nose or twitch of the lip.  If the puppy has not yet learned the meaning of the look, or is determined to pester mum, he will push his luck.  At that point she will give him a noisy scolding, accompanied by a nip on the nose.  The scolding consists of a growly snarl, and the nip is rarely hard enough to hurt, much less draw blood.  But the lesson is well learned.  The chastised puppy quickly rolls over onto his back, screaming “I’ve been killed!”  Mum immediately stops the discipline and assumes a benevolent expression.  The puppy learns several lessons; he learns to respect the facial expression that forewarned the discipline; he learns he CAN and WILL be disciplined in his life; he learns to assume a submissive position, which will stop the scolding.

Puppies that are removed from the nest too early and are not socialised properly tend to be nervous and to bark and bite, and often cannot accept discipline.  They are frequently aggressive with other dogs and sometimes humans!


The best time to bring a puppy into its new home is during the Human Socialisation Period.  It is also the best time to introduce him/her to those things that will play an important role in his future life.  For example, if he/she has not already been exposed to animals/vacuum cleaner noises/travelling in cars etc. - it is at this age that he/she should meet them in a positive, non-threatening manner.
At seven weeks of age, his/her capacity of concentration is not yet adult, and his/her attention span is short.  But he/she can learn.  Not only can a young puppy learn, he/she will learn whether we teach him/her or not. LEARNING AT THIS STAGE IS PERMANENT.  This is the age when the most rapid learning occurs - and everything he/she experiences makes a greater impression on him/her now than it ever will again.


It is at this age that the puppy begins testing to see who is going to be pack leader.  Dogs play by the rules, if they are spelled out clearly.  One of these rules is that there is only one top dog, one pack leader.  If there is no person in the household who is willing to assume this responsibility, then the dog will take over.  Obedience classes teach the owner to be the pack leader.

© Forrest Hill Vets (2000) Ltd