Puppies’ Sensitive Learning Stages

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by Lucinda Glenny, MSc. Animal Behaviour, HBSc. Psych., CPDT-KA, owner and lead trainer of Canine Campus (caninecampus.ca)

A variety of species have been studied to investigate the positive effects of early socialization and exposure to new stimuli and their impact on development. In dogs, this highly sensitive social learning stage has been found to fall between 7 and 14 weeks of age. As such, pups that remain in the breeder’s facility during this stage need to be actively socialized with other breeds of dogs and need to be taken to different places. This period also coincides with the age when many pups are moved to their new homes, and this raises the potential for behavioural issues if the new owners do not handle the situation appropriately.

What’s a new puppy owner to do? Classes and training with the breeder, a veterinarian or a professional and accredited dog trainer can help ease the transition.

Dogs have an inborn predisposition to a certain temperament, which can run the spectrum from a confident and pro-social attitude to one dominated by anxiety and neurosis. Research supports the concept that there is a strong inter-relation between temperament, environment, and learning stages that works to produce the mature animal. In the case of dogs, an anxious temperament may manifest itself in acts of aggression toward people or animals, which increases the risk of surrender.

Working with a young, developing puppy with gentle exposure to many different experiences during the period of 5 to 14 weeks of age has been shown to be an effective and pro-active method of preventing behavioural problems. Positive early experiences can have a protective effect on the adult animal. It is not possible to fully recreate this important effect after 16 weeks of age.

Research suggests that the early learning period is a crucial factor in the development of brain architecture, which provides for proper processing of novel stimuli and a reduction of stress behaviours. Without this exposure, the dog does not have the opportunity to build sufficient coping mechanisms, which can translate into fear or aggression in the adult animal. Animals that receive formal socialization classes during this stage have the opportunity to build a wide range of positive associations and thus are far more prepared to confidently handle real-world situations.

Since 2008, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has approved the outside socialization of pups as young as 10 days old, after having received their first set of shots and going to their new home. The maternal antibodies present and the effect of the first shots provide sufficient protection for experiences such as going out for a walk or going to puppy socialization classes in an accredited facility.

Research demonstrates that under-socialized dogs have difficulty accepting new experiences with confidence, with potentially long-term effects on their interpretation of everyday experiences such as meeting strangers, bikes, trucks, and other dogs.

Studies support the concept that participation in puppy socialization classes reduces a dog’s aggression and increases their chances of staying in the home. There is a great deal of scientific evidence that supports the idea that social exposure in sensitive stages minimizes unwanted behaviours, particularly anxiety. Introducing a heightened program of early socialization during the fear onset stage of 7–14 weeks of age has been shown to improve a dog’s interaction skills with both people and other dogs.

While formal training classes are generally deemed a positive experience, all classes are not based on the same learning principles or quality of instruction. Classes that are overcrowded or that use aversive techniques can have a negative effect on an animal’s perception of social arenas. Owners need to fully investigate local training facilities to determine their methods in advance. A well-versed owner can also provide their pet with the same level of exposure and positive training methods while not enrolling in a formal class.

Owners who’ve rescued an adult dog can still help their dog improve their confidence and willingness to explore their world by using the same principles that work so well with puppies. However, many rescue dogs are slower to accept new situations, as stress from change, previous learning experiences, and a potential lack of early exposure affects their current behaviour.

Keep in mind that, when exposing your dog to new experiences, you should break the experience down into small steps. As with puppies, you should also monitor your dog’s body language and respect the signals your dog is giving you during all interactions, never pushing them to continue in a situation that induces fear or stress. Anticipating that this may be a slow process for an adult dog and taking things one step at a time will reduce the stress for all involved.