14 March 2018

Puppy Socialization Practices - And How They Are Lacking

Almost a third of puppies are missing out on important socialization during the sensitive period.

Two puppies having fun at the beach - but almost a third of puppies miss out on important socialization during the sensitive period


A survey of puppy owners by Dr. Janet Cutler et al (University of Guelph) finds that a sizeable number of puppies are not receiving enough socialization.

Puppies have a sensitive period for socialization from 3 weeks until about 12-14 weeks. During this time, they should have lots of positive socialization experiences with other people and dogs and habituate to the kinds of environmental stimuli they will encounter as adult dogs. Without these positive experiences, they are less likely to be friendly, confident dogs.

The scientists recruited people with a puppy less than 20 weeks old. Then, when the puppy turned exactly 20 weeks, they sent an email with a link to the survey.

Almost a third of puppies were not receiving many socialization experiences, which in this study was defined as up to 10 people and 5 dogs or less per 2 week period. Lack of socialization can lead to behaviour problems such as fear and aggression, which in turn can lead to dogs being re-homed or euthanized.
The results show that half of puppy owners (49%) took their puppy to puppy class. There were differences between the people who had been to puppy class and those who hadn’t. If people had been to puppy class:

  • They exposed the puppy to more people between the ages of 10 and 20 weeks of age
  • They exposed the puppy to more dogs outside the home between the ages of 14 and 20 weeks
  • They were more likely to expose the puppy to more stimuli, including large trucks, sirens, children, people coming to the door (but there was no difference for walking on leash or going to the dog park)
  • They were more likely to reward good behaviour (93% compared to 86% of those who did not attend), use redirection, and ignore bad behaviour
  • They were less likely to use verbal corrections (82% compared to 96%)
  • They were less likely to use positive punishment, including holding the puppy on its back (21% compared to 96%) 

Of course these figures do not show causality, as although people will hopefully have learned from attending the class, at the same time certain kinds of people might be more likely to attend puppy class in the first place. The increase in exposure to stimuli could in part be due to the puppy class, as by definition there were other people and puppies there (although not enough to meet socialization needs). People were more likely to attend puppy class if they had done more research on puppies, had a higher household income, lived in a suburban rather than rural area, and did not have children.

Only 70% of the puppy classes included opportunities for puppies to play together. This is a shame because puppies learn important skills through play. The least common activities were gradual exposure to noises, trading one item for another, and teaching the puppy to go to a mat (as well as a category called 'other'), of which happened in less than half of the classes. Other research shows that up to half of adult dogs are afraid of loud noises, and gradual exposure during the sensitive period can help to prevent these fears.

Sit, down, and coming when called were the most popular commands, being taught in over 80% of classes. Body handling was taught in just over half of the classes. It would be better if more classes taught this, as body handling exercises at this age can help puppies learn to accept veterinary examinations without being afraid.

Owners who used punishment were more likely to say their puppy was fearful. 4% of owners said they would force the puppy to face its fears, something which risks making the fear even worse. Puppies who had attended class were less likely to be afraid of noises such as the vacuum cleaner.

There were 296 participants. It was a convenience sample so they are not representative of the general population (if anything, they are likely to be more educated about dogs, given they were recruited via a mix of email and online sites including some related to professional organizations and humane societies).

The authors say it would be nice to have research on how much socialization is needed, in order to give dog owners clearer advice. A recent study with Guide Dog puppies suggests more socialization is better.

But the most important finding from this study, in my view, is that a sizeable minority of puppies are not getting enough socialization. The authors refer to the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour position statement on puppy socialization, which says that socialization should begin before the final vaccines are given. Only 51-65% of vets discuss behaviour with new puppy and kitten owners, but this would be a good time to educate people about socialization and training.

The scientists write,
“Owners who attended classes with their puppies provided those puppies with more socialization opportunities than owners who did not attend and also indicated more favorable responses to managing signs of fear in their puppies and to disciplining them. This highlights the need for veterinarians and other animal care professionals to educate puppy owners about the importance of early puppy socialization, socialization classes, and positive reinforcement–based training and assist puppy owners in accessing reliable resources for this information.”
These results show that, although many people are getting a lot of things right, there is still room for improvement when it comes to socialization and training of puppies.

If you are looking for a puppy class, make sure that you find a good dog trainer who will only use reward-based training methods. (See here for more information on the risks of using punishment).

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Reference
Cutler, J. H., Coe, J. B., & Niel, L. (2017). Puppy socialization practices of a sample of dog owners from across Canada and the United States. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 251(12), 1415-1423. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.251.12.1415

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8 comments:

  1. I found that with my dogs, those who had been to 'puppy classes' had MORE problems with dog-dog aggression. I am really not a fan of taking a young pups once a week to meet other puppies for an hour. I did ask on a Yahoo group about this -- those who gave puppy classes said they were important and prevented later problems -- those who took their puppies to classes agreed with me, that they created more problems than they solved
    Puppies are much better socialised in informal meetings with a few known dogs or even other animals

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    1. What you are describing sounds more like a "Puppy Socialization" hour, than an organized class. Most folks stopping into to things like that are not "dog savvy" the same mentality you get a dog parks. Humans gathering to socialize ignoring their dog. The puppy classes I know about are structured with small breaks in between lessons. Puppies have very short attentions spans and "teaching" for more than 10-15mins without a break is counter productive.That's where the organized play comes in, puppies matched in size and personality are allowed to frolic. Example a very energetic cocker could be matched into a group that has a lab because he would be too rough with smaller dogs that might be shy. It's all about matching the correct dogs into groups. Getting rolled by another dog,getting up and keep playing is a good learning experience. Having another dog give off signals saying "I've had enough, leave me alone" is a Very important thing to learn.Dogs that are isolated do not learn this language.

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    2. you may be in the wrong class. An experienced instructor, who has good knowledge of behavior, using a reward based program, will help you gain a lot of information to help you and your dog be comfortable in many situations. Meeting other puppies is not a class. It is often a poorly thought out, stressful situation for all. That sound more like playgroup, not a class.

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  2. I think that the suggestion that people who take their pups to 'puppy class" are likely to be more sensitive to a puppy's needs. In other words -- person, not class.

    Pups need their siblings and parents, not strange dogs. But even then the pup we acquired at 6 weeks who never went to puppy class had NO social problems. His replacement (same breed) acquired at the same age and who I took to 'puppy class' remained fearful and reactive towards unknown dogs all his life :-(

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    Replies
    1. Wow,someone let you take a 6week old pup? What you said is very true, litter and mom interaction is Very important and the breeders I know try and keep their pups for 10wks, 8wks is the very minimum. The 6 to 8 week time period is a Huge development time where they really get their legs under them, they do a lot of rough play at this age.

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  3. Maybe some of the problems people are encountering have to do with which puppy class people are taking their puppies to. There are good puppy classes and really bad ones too. When puppies are getting bullied by other puppies, that's not a good experience.

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  4. Socialization is not the same as socializing. A puppy free-for-all class is often not well moderated. Shy, fearful puppies are often bullied by bold puppies and learn to become defensive. My puppy socialization class is a combo of true socialization (positive introductions to sounds, surfaces, objects, obstacles and people (that the puppy CHOOSES to approach). We don't force puppies to do anything they aren't comfortable with. Besides an intro do obedience cues like sit and down, I do more important things that I call Life Skills. Things like the ability to self-calm and relax on a mat, checking in with the owner, collar grabs and body handling, impulse control exercises. And any off leash play is moderated by me and pups are matched by play style. Those puppies that are not interested in interacting are not part of the play group. We simply cannot force fun. I spend a great deal of time working 1:1 with each owner and teaching the whole class how to translate body language so they know what's happening. I've had so many students tell me their other dog or friends' dogs were damaged by puppy socials. People need to ask questions and truly understand what is going on in a class and don't assume the instructor is knowledgable. Sadly many puppy classes are run by beginner trainers or inexperienced staffers, thinking they are puppies so it's not important but it actually demands a highly experienced instructor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree there are good and bad social interactions. I also know that after seeing and teaching hundreds of puppies and dogs (over the past 12 years) that the ones who come to puppy class early enough are much better off than the ones who don’t. They are overall confident, friendly and emotionally stable. We have structured puppy playtime where puppies learn valuable social and play skills. As Anonymous mentioned, they had a fearful puppy and some yahoo replies, but this is not the norm).

      Parents and siblings are not true socializing. They are just housemates on home turf. Meeting friendly canine strangers outside the comforts of home is key!

      I’m also sad to hear when people sell/adopt puppies under 8 weeks. That’s losing out on many social cues from mom and siblings. It has nothing to do with being weaned.

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