A guide to these important areas of puppy development and conditioning by our resident dog expert Karen Boyce, owner of Beastly Thoughts Professional Dog Services.
Our puppies and young dogs are missing out on some critical learning while in lockdown. The early sensitive period runs to 13 weeks and puppies need to be exposed gently to all the sights and sounds that you think their world will include. If you have an older pup or rescue dog, however, you still need to take care when exposing them to new things. Owners have difficulty in that area even without social distancing rules in place.
So, what are socialisation and habituation?
- In simple terms, socialisation means the learning process that a puppy must undergo to learn key life skills.
- Habituation is learning to ignore stimuli that have no consequence.
To explain socialisation a little more, it ensures that the animal is happy and confident in its environment and can communicate effectively within its social group. We ask a considerable amount from our dogs as not only do they need to be fluent in “dog”, but they also need to understand humans and the human world. They need to be social with dogs and people and, very often, other animals.
As far as habituation goes, for our puppies to share our busy, noisy lives, they must learn to ignore stimuli that have no effects for them, that is, all those things you require them to live with or expect to bump into! Everyday sights, sounds and smells such as hoovers, washing machines, cyclists, the feeling of being in a car, seeing prams, etc. Your list may also include animals they may be exposed to but does not require them to interact with.
So, what’s to be done?
- Take things slowly.
- Create new positive memories.
- Reinforce good memories and ensure they stay positive.
- Avoid negative experiences, ie remove immediately.
- Counter condition negative experiences (that’s turning a negative into a positive – think of a child knowing it will get a comic for going to the dentist).
- Paws up and paws down – carry your pup around if you can’t put them on the floor yet. A large puppy can go out in the car to see lots of things from a distance. Once they are allowed down, it is “out, out, out!”.
Exposure to different people and dogs is probably the most challenging side of socialisation and habituation at the moment, but also the most critical.
So, for people:
- Dress up! Use a wig, glasses, hats, etc.
- Be inventive.
- Raid the cupboards for walking sticks, crutches, etc.
- Push wheeled items around in front of your pup, eg pushchairs, bikes, etc.
- Take new clothes/items on and off.
- Drag out all the different seasonal stuff: Christmas decorations, etc.
- Go out and get in the car and let the pup watch with the door open.
- Sit out in places and let the pup see.
- Chat to your neighbours and friends at a distance with the pup at your side. Encourage calmness.
And for dogs:
- Take the pup or dog to watch dogs coming and going.
- Expose the pup to a variety of dogs, eg different breeds, sizes, walking on lead, running loose, in gardens.
- Teach the dog to accept people and walk calmly past.
- “Shall I let my pup off the lead?” It might not be allowed and some people might not like it – assess carefully.
- Utilise the television! Sights make memories.