I’ve been working with dogs long enough to remember when the advice was ‘socialise, socialise, socialise’. I’ve been aware of the anxiety caused by the pandemic, and what this means for socialising young or rescued dogs.
Back in the day socialisation meant:
Introduce the puppy to as many strangers as possible - one book I have from the 1980s, recommends a 100 folk in 4 weeks!
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.
Get your pup into a class where they can romp off lead with other pups. In modern times the puppy party has been replaced by the day care facility.
Although this advice was well intentioned to prevent behaviour problems, many years of teaching classes of dogs labelled reactive or aggressive has shown me why this often doesn’t work and risks negatively impacting a dog’s whole life, as well as the life of the family.
One common anxiety is that the current restriction on group puppy classes means that your dog won’t know how to play with other dogs. This is a myth. If your pup was raised in a healthy litter that had plenty of space to play, then they have already developed lots of social play skills and these won’t be lost. It is good for dogs to have one or two doggy friends who know how to play safely, and one or two play sessions of 10 – 20 mins a week will suffice. Social distancing and other restrictions could produce a generation of less reactive dogs. This type and quantity of social interaction will allow their brains to develop at a much more natural pace. However, there has been an increase in the number of dogs in many areas, with owners reporting crowded city parks, busy streets and increased encounters with off lead dogs. Finding a quiet walking spot in an urban area has become a challenge, and new owners are needing some extra guidance on walking together with their dogs.
Novel events, including meeting new dogs and people, experiences or other stimuli should evoke a mild fearful response, this is normal. You will see your dog:
Stop - they may sit or remain standing
Move their ears
Lift their chin
Close their mouth
These behaviours allow your dog to assess.
It is a common mistake to attribute stopping behaviour to dominance, defiance or stubbornness and drag your dog into a situation where they may feel overwhelmed.
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’. Building up their confidence allows for the learning of skills that will transfer to new situations in the future.
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. Use a lead to keep your pup safe, it is not acceptable to let your pup run up to unknown dogs and people or chase wildlife.
When your puppy is in that safe space, nothing or nobody 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 whether to:
Stay still and assess (uncertain)
Move away to safety (beware 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. This stopping behaviour is an innate survival behaviour, changing direction or moving away could save your life. Whilst assessing your young dog is constantly learning, stay still and quiet and 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’.
Move towards – this is where you come in. Is your dog moving towards something that will be part of their future, or something that may cause issues if not properly managed? Moving forwards should be accompanied by appropriate emotions. Your dog will curious, taking a few steps and then stopping, air scenting. It is time to move your dog away if they are barking, whining, on two back legs, running, chasing, these are signs of high arousal and unsafe, encourage observation from a distance instead.
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.
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 have to do this for themselves, they are often left with no choice but to growl or bite.
With Sensitive Exposure we combine the techniques of Walking Together, learning how to walk with your dog on lead and off, guiding them through their new world. Contact me to find out more.