I hate socialisation. Well, not socialisation, but “socialisation”. You know, puppy “socialisation”; that thing where you take your pup to three “puppy socialisation classes” on consecutive Tuesdays in the village hall when they are twelve weeks old, unless the last one coincides with a specially gripping episode of your favourite soap, when you can officially give it a miss – after all, you’ve paid for the course so it’s your choice to go or not. And that’s it done and dusted – your dog’s been “socialised”.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate puppy classes (I used to run them myself). You can learn some interesting stuff at puppy classes, so I’d urge anyone to seek out a good one, but avoid puppy “parties” like the plague. Teenagers “party”; stags and hens “party”; puppies learn.
Anyway, regardless of how good your puppy class is, it doesn’t “socialise” your pup. In the first place, it is way too late. Much of the damage that can be be done to your pup’s development has already occurred by puppy class time.
The other method of “socialisation” is to fire stimuli at pups like a machine gun. There are lists. You have to show your pup certain stimuli in rapid succession: “Quick, it’s week eight, we have to find a baby-buggy, a horse, a man with a beard, a brolly, a cat and a balloon with mickey-mouse ears, or little Jasper will grow up maladjusted!” The stimuli are then presented to the pup, who must think they are on the weirdest version of the Generation Game ever. On the conveyor belt this week…!
And another thing, when’s the “socialisation period”? Is it three to fourteen weeks? Five to sixteen? Three to sixteen? Up to the onset of the “fear response”? Depends who you listen to. But in truth, whichever one you choose, knowing the dates won’t help your pup.
Do you know where the whole “socialisation period” thing comes from? Exclusion studies. Studies way back where pups were isolated from people – and I mean totally isolated, they had absolutely no contact with humans at all – and then they were brought out at different times to see if they would approach a person. The theory was also that there was no point in doing anything earlier than three weeks as myelination hadn’t occurred by then (nerves get a coating of myelin that speeds up the transmission of information) so they couldn’t benefit from it. Bring a pup out of a box at four weeks old and see if it approaches the passive person sitting on a chair. It does? Yep, still in the “socialisation period” then. Five weeks? Six? Seven? By ten, eleven and twelve weeks some of the pups are freaking out and not approaching the person – they must be outside the “socialisation period”.
Add up all the results, divide by the number of pups, multiply by the number of people and the square root of the chair legs, take away the number you first thought of and bingo! You have a figure for the end of the socialisation period (I’m fairly sure that’s how science works).
Others noticed that the socialisation period was characterised by the pups being frightened to approach the people and decided that it was the fear that caused the socialisation period to end. The thinking is that there is a time that the pup can start being afraid, and when that time begins, the socialisation period ends – the “onset of the fear response”.
But let’s think of it another way. Firstly let’s think about the start. Can pups really not experience any input before three weeks that can affect their development? I think not.
There are stacks of studies in many species that show that stressed mothers have offspring that are less able to deal with stress when they grow up – and that’s before they are born! Yes, “socialisation” begins before birth, in the hormonal soup of their mum’s placenta.
And immediately afterwards too. Rat studies show that good mothers, that is mothers that are more attentive and groom their pups more, bring them up to be better able to deal with stressful situations – and they are better at problem solving than adults who started off life with poor mums. (Do you think that might apply to humans too? – I often wondered why my mum spent so much time brushing entanglements out of my hair).
And what is she teaching them at this impressionable age? Is she teaching them that people are not to be feared, or does she bark like a banshee when people come to the door? If she “defends” them from visitors, what do you think they are learning?
Good “socialisation” needs good mums, well-balanced, friendly, unstressed mums.
So what about myelination? Is it part of a factory process where one day there is none and the next they are kitted out ready to roll? No, it phases in, getting stronger from a weak start. Pups’ sense of smell and touch are active from birth (and probably before) – they soon find and establish a preference for a nipple, and the other senses gradually get stronger. Don’t bother before three weeks? You’re missing vital opportunities to “socialise” your pup first to touch and smells and later to gradually familiarise them to the full human experience.
Gradually phasing in the human experience can only be good. The fuzzy outlines and dull noises become normal before sharpening up later. The same applies to lots of other household experiences too – like the clatter of the pan-lids in the kitchen. At six weeks they can recognise the crash as being the same faint noise that did them no harm at three weeks old.
Experiencing no harm is what we all aim for – the elementary need to keep safe – and pups are no different. At the most basic level real-world stimuli are either safe or unsafe. Anyone who experiences a brand new stimulus for the very first time has to quickly work out if is harmful or not. The more experienced we become the easier it is because we have lots of reference points – we do a quick memory scan to see if it is like anything else that we do know about. Ask an eight-year-old to pick up a cut-throat razor and they’ll pick it up by the handle, even though they’ve never seen a cut-throat razor before, because it looks like a knife and knife blades are sharp – and unsafe (although just to be on the safe side, please do not try this at home – there are some eight-year-olds that like to experiment).
Our blank slate pup, starting from the safety of mum’s womb, begins to experience the world with very few reference points. They just don’t know if something is safe or not because they don’t know much at all. But they quickly start to learn from how things turn out.
The loud crashing noise from the dropped pan lid heard for the first time at eight weeks old is VERY scary and therefore unsafe – run and hide! And that sets the bar for future loud noises. Pretty soon loud noises are all scary and to be hidden from.
This applies to every new stimulus. First experience of toddlers? If it is a good one, the pup will expect the next one to be safe too and approach it accordingly. If it is a bad one, “toddlers” will be considered unsafe and to be avoided… or repelled…
This is how attitudes to individual stimuli develop, but general attitude development is also going on in the background. Our pup is learning to expect some stimuli to be scary. Now here’s the thing – the more things that have been scary, the more things you expect to be scary, which starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And we’re building this in our pup’s brain from day zero.
“Socialisation” is about your pup learning what is safe and what is unsafe in the environment – including the dogs and people that it is yet to experience. And we do that by fitting it into that environment as early as possible – preferably before they are born – and then continuing it.
“Onset of fear response”? All pups are capable of being afraid of something; it just depends upon the intensity of the stimulus. Provide enough pain for a new-born pup and they will associate it with something. Granted, their input mechanisms are somewhat restricted but they’ll associate it with whatever they are capable of, whether that’s a touch or a smell. And I agree that the tendency to be suspicious about novel objects might increase as the dog gets older, but that’s a product of the “socialisation” process not a marker for the end of it.
Think about it. Our first pup experiences lots of variety – starting in the womb – none of which is ever unsafe. Everything the pup sees, hears, touches, tastes and smells is nice (this is a seriously lucky pup, but not a real one, just an example). It has nothing to fear and so long as things turn out fine, it will continue to have nothing to fear. It will have a brain that is wiring to expect that nothing will harm it – it expects everything it meets to be safe. This is a confident pup that expects good outcomes and all its body language says that it is happy and pleased to see everyone and everything it meets, expecting the world to be great.
Our second pup isn’t so lucky. This pup has no experiences other than a darkened room until it is six weeks old, when it is taken from its mother and handed into a family. A normal average family that makes noises, kicks-off frequently, has a loud telly and lives by a main road, has small children that pick it up and dress it in doll’s clothes, has an older dog that rebuffs its approaches with nips. This pup is experiencing a great deal that isn’t safe. In fact by seven weeks it has had so many scary experiences that it is treating everything it hasn’t seen before with huge suspicion – after all, bad things happen a lot, so it should expect the next thing to be bad, just in case. This is an nervous pup whose body language says it is worried, scared of meeting new people, dogs and other things, expecting it all to go wrong at any minute.
Which one has the earlier “onset of fear response”? How is each going to react when their new puppy owner starts their “socialisation”? How is each going to respond to seeing the things on the Generation Game conveyor belt? How is each going to react in “puppy socialisation class”?
I hate puppy “socialisation” because it gives owners the wrong idea about what pups need to grow up into well-balanced pets. It ignores breeding and early development. It encourages the idea that owners can “fix” puppy-farmed dogs, or those imported as tiny mites from Eastern Europe, with love and three visits to the village hall. It encourages misguided, greedy or simply uncaring humans to keep breeding and importing these hapless dogs, and people to keep buying them. It encourages people to think that breeding dogs is so simple that anyone can do it and make a few quid (except if it is a “Jacka-spanner-doodle-cocker-dor-tzu”, when you make a few grand). It encourages a population of dogs that is spiralling out of control, with all the welfare, aggression and other behaviour issues aligned to it.
So, what do we do? Well, re-think “socialisation” for a start. What a pet owner wants is a pet dog that fits into their lifestyle. That means getting one from a mum that is already accustomed to their type of lifestyle and has mated with a dad who is happy to live in their style of life too. Don’t get a dog from a puppy farm, or any kind of farm (unless you want a dog that lives on a farm), or from a bloke that meets you at a motorway service station, or from anywhere that isn’t your lifestyle.
We are a nation of animal lovers, and we love our dogs. The first step in loving your dog should be to make sure that pups are able to live happily with you and with everyone else – not by “socialising” them at three (maybe two if you are busy) puppy classes, but by adopting pups from the right places. Let’s put the purveyors of hapless dogs out of business.
Then you can go to your puppy socialisation classes to learn that little bit extra.