Updated: Nov 18, 2020
When it comes to deciding which activities and learning are most important for young dogs, socialisation is rarely on my list. For the past twelve years I have used the term familiarisation, and have developed a protocol called Sensitive Exposure, because I feel this a more accurate representation of what we need to do, to prevent future behaviour problems.
I’ve been working with dogs long enough to remember when the advice was ‘socialise, socialise, socialise’. There were three areas of focus:
Introduce the puppy to as many strangers as possible - one book I have, recommends a 100 folk in 4 weeks, I’m not sure I know that many people!
Make sure your puppy is hugged, handled, and restrained by as many people as possible, especially children. Ask them to touch your dog on their muzzle, paws, tail, collar and rear end.
Take your pup into as many new situations as possible, expose them to heavy traffic, public transport, busy shops, other pets, strange dogs and the local park.
Although this advice was well intentioned at the time, many years of teaching classes of dogs labelled reactive or aggressive has shown me why this doesn’t work for the sensitive dog and how it can impact their whole life, as well as the life of the family.
Novel events are a part of a dog's life including meeting other dogs, unknown people, novelty objects or new environments and these should evoke a mild fearful response, this is an innate survival response. Moving away or changing direction could save a dog's life.
You will see your dog:
Move their ears
Lift their chin
Close their mouth
These behaviours allow your dog to assess. It is a mistake to attribute this stopping behaviour to dominance, defiance or stubbornness and drag your dog into a situation where they may feel overwhelmed.
Another concern is that if our young dog does not meet lots and lots of dogs, preferably off lead in the first 6 months of life, then they will end up ‘reactive’ or aggressive. In my experience the majority of pups arrive in our home already skilled at canine communication, following their time in the litter, the only time to be concerned that this skill may be under-developed is if the pup was a single, the litter lived in a restricted environment e.g. puppy farm, or your pup is orphaned. If this is the case, then some very slow and careful introductions to socially skilled dogs can be carried out.
The Sensitive Exposure Protocol
Sensitive Exposure is a protocol that ensures the puppy has time to assess, observe and become familiar with the world that will be their future. In my experience there is no need to introduce a puppy to stimuli ‘just in case’. Taking time to build up a youngster's confidence allows for the learning of transferrable skills. I have seen dogs from a quiet country background cope very confidently with a busy international dog show in a building.
How to begin:
Consider your pups world and the things they will need to encounter regularly e.g. behaviour of children, travelling by train, traffic, vets, sounds, groomer, visiting adults, cats. Make a list.
Ensure your puppy has a safe haven for each introduction – your arms (never be afraid to pick your pup up), lap, behind your legs, a crate, under your chair.
When your puppy is in that safe space, nothing or no one should be allowed to come into that space, this includes your children, other pups or other pets. Your dog should never be put in a position where they feel they have no escape.
Once your dog has noticed a change in the environment, they will begin to make decisions as to whether to:
Stay still and assess (uncertain)
Move away to safety (if they are off lead they may bolt)
Move towards it to investigate or interact
Look at you for more information
Depending on their choice, you will either support their decision and go with them or protect them – move them away or prevent further forward movement.
Stay Still and Assess – if it is safe to do so you will support your dog by stopping with them. Like us dogs need to be still to assess effectively. Whilst assessing, your young dog is constantly learning, if it is safe to do so, stay still and quiet to let them continue.
Move away to safety – support this decision by ensuring that whatever they feel concerned about is not allowed to follow them into their safe space. This includes objects, such as an umbrella, professionals such as the well-meaning veterinary receptionist, and other people who ‘love dogs’. You may need to practice a simple ‘not just now’ response. You and your puppy will live together for many years, you want a dog that trusts you to protect them. When dogs feel they have no choice but to protect themselves, they are often left with no choice, but to growl or bite.
Move towards – this is where you come in. Is your dog moving towards something that will be part of their future, then allow them to continue if it is safe to do so. But, ask yourself if you really want an adult dog that runs up to strangers, chases those joggers/horses/ducks/children – if not encourage observation from a safe distance. One clue that you are not far enough away is that your dog will bark.
Look at you for information – make sure you give good information. If you are on your phone, or chatting to a companion you will miss these opportunities to bond with your pup. If you are imploring an anxious dog to say ‘hello’ to the nice lady/dog/child, then your dog may lose trust in you, affecting your future connection. Following the Covid 19 restrictions, many young dogs have had less opportunities to become familiar with stimuli that will be part of their future, it is never too late to follow the Sensitive Exposure protocol, it is equally effective for all dogs.
During Covid 19 restrictions classes and face to face consultations are suspended. Video consultations and email advice are available. For more information on dog training visit www.doglearningcentre.co.uk
For more information on your dog's health and wellbeing visit www.vetcreche.com