What is Socialisation Anyway?

Posted Wednesday, 21 September 2016

It might not be what you thought!

This may sound like a strange question. If you have worked with, or been owned by dogs for many years, I am sure you may be tempted to skip past this article, but please do read on.

Most people think socialisation means they should take their puppy to a dog park and let it run around with all the other dogs. Some puppy trainers think it means they should let off all the puppies together and let them sort themselves out. Some people think if they don’t socialise their puppy enough with other dogs before 16 weeks their puppy will never be social with other dogs so engage in intensive “socialisation” sessions. Some people think that if their puppy lives with other dogs this is sufficient socialisation. NONE OF THIS IS TRUE!

It might come as a surprise that It is exactly this kind of socialisation history that invariably accompanies dogs which I see displaying inter-dog aggression. It is surprising to see how many of these dogs attended puppy parties because owners were trying to prevent the risk their dog would become aggressive towards other dogs. So, why is it that they become aggressive towards other dogs even though they attended puppy parties?

Firstly, it appears that there is a trend for pet shops to run puppy parties. Mostly, the people running these are not dog trainers, nor do they have any knowledge about socialisation. There is no age limit and puppies are allowed to charge about at will. Sometimes a group of puppies are penned into a ridiculously small space with no means of escape. This can lead to very confident dogs learning to become bullies, whilst the timid ones learn to be afraid of dogs because they get chased, rolled over and/or pinned/humped. This IS socialisation, but it is poor socialisation and leads to seriousl behaviour problems later. The process of socialising puppies needs to be structured.

What should early puppy socialisation achieve?

  • Puppies should learn they can be safe with other dogs and people and this is true everywhere.
  • Puppies should learn they can be calm whilst in the presence of other dogs and people.
  • Puppies should learn to pay their owners attention even if they are with other dogs.
  • Puppies should learn that they have a safe place to go if they feel overwhelmed and that their owner will rescue them.
  • Puppies should learn which behaviours are appropriate or inappropriate through education by the owner with the guidance of a qualified dog trainer/behaviourist.
  • Puppies should learn that being examined by their owners is safe and enjoyable.
  • Puppies should learn that being restrained is safe and enjoyable.
  • Puppies should learn that being groomed is safe and enjoyable.

At Paws in Hand, we have been running our own puppy parties for the last five years or so and this decision was taken after I discovered many of the dog aggressive dogs I was seeing had attended puppy parties in which they either felt overwhelmed or learned to bully others. Since running these puppy parties, only one of our puppies, so far, went on to become aggressive and this was because he had severe epilepsy, which sadly ended his life.

So why do I think that uncontrolled puppy parties/dog park socialisation results in inter dog aggression? Because puppies are not BORN with social skills (any more than humans are). These skills need to be taught, learned and refined. We all like winning. If the bully dog learns he can control other puppies from such an early age, he can get a taste for it, but when he meets a dog that objects to this, fights can break out. Also, bullyish behaviour is often symptomatic of fear; the bullying is about making themselves feel safe because they can control other puppies. With these puppies we should be gently exposing them to other puppies in a manner in which they feel safe and are not so close they feel the need, or are able to control the other puppies.

The fearful puppy that has to socialise at the dog park or in an uncontrolled puppy party learns early on that he feels scared when he sees other dogs and this becomes a Pavlovian (conditioned) response.  Each time he sees a dog, he becomes fearful. Most puppies are avoidant of scary things, but as they mature, other tools become available to the adult dog, including the use of aggression. I often hear from owners that they cannot understand this sudden aggression as, beforehand, the dog was always “submissive”. Submission is a response to fear of harm and is intended to diffuse this perceived threat. In this image, the puppy on the left is actually quite nervous (see whites of eyes, body tension, back half retreating, front half approaching. The tail position is high, which shows a bold disposition). This pup has the potential to attempt to overpower the puppy on the right who is very nervous (tail tucked, frozen, not approaching). The puppy on the right is more avoidant. Although the leads are taut here (which is not ideal as this does increase stress/frustration), if they were not on lead, the puppy on the left would quickly have overpowered the puppy on the right. This could potentially have enabled the puppy on the left to learn that overpowering the less confident dog made her feel more confident. The puppy on the right would have been very frightened, which would have reduced her confidence. This is why our puppies are on leads as it enables us to prevent these things from happening and it's easier for owners to manage the situation as they can remove their puppy from a situation quickly. 

The way forward?

In fact, effective puppy socialisation requires a great deal of skill. It is the most highly qualified and experienced trainers/behaviourists that should be running puppy parties, not those who have no or little experience or knowledge. The instructor should have the skills to assess each puppy for his temperament, how much social exposure he can cope with, and what kind of social exposure he can cope with at that time. So, the timid puppy for example, would not need to actually engage in “physical” socialisation, but perhaps watch from a safe place so that he can start socially referencing from a place of safely. Nothing bad happens, so next time the pup has greater confidence.

Sadly, in our modern age, many new dog trainers start out without any experience or qualifications believing they should start with puppies because they are easier to train. In truth, however, puppy training needs to be handled by the most experienced dog trainers, or even behaviourists as this is where we help define their futures. Yes, they are easier to train, BUT, at this age, we need to be aware of their emotional development even more than training tasks. An inability to be able to read a puppy (in terms of resilience and ability to cope and adapt as well as be able to interpret their body language) can lead to long term emotional damage for the puppy. This is why we run our puppy parties on lead and it is why I, personally (as a qualified dog behaviourist), run all our puppy parties. This helps in several ways: it enables us to ensure no puppy has a bad experience whilst also teaching puppies early lessons in coping with frustration. Learning about leash restriction is important as often dogs have to meet each other on lead and it teaches puppies they can’t just go to other dogs at will. This is very important as not all dogs can be safely approached. We educate owners how to read their puppy’s body language and how to let their puppies learn that calm behaviour ensures they can greet, and that the owner is more important than anything else in the room. We also teach owners how to ensure their puppy can be handled for vet visits. Many vets referring to us are grateful for the amount of effort we put in with our clients to ensure that as adults dogs don’t bite vets whilst being examined.
In summary, socialisation and habituation (AKA social referencing) is about many things. It is about learning when to approach and when not to approach. It is about learning how to keep safe. It is about learning that handling/grooming is safe and enjoyable. It is about learning that the world is safe so that pups can grow into confident adults with more emotional resilience to be able to cope with the knocks that occur from time to time. Good quality social exposure in puppy parties means well-adjusted adults.