Were you aware of the fact that only 15% -20% of our dogs’ behavior is genetic? More than 80% is affected by the impact of socialization – that is, stimuli which were presented to the puppies in a critical period of development (up to about 12-18 weeks of age).
From the first day of birth, an amazing process takes place in the brain – the formation of connections between brain cells. Never before and never again these connections will be formed with such a speed.
Too much of stimulus, (or lack of them) will affect the future life of your dog as an adult.
Weather he/she will be fearful, aggressive, have different types of phobias, OR weather he/she will be sustainable, self-confident – depends from the events that take place during the critical period of development.
Therefore, we pay a major concern for what, and how do we do with the puppies in the certain periods of their lives. In various stages of development puppies are sensitive to different stimuli. When they come into the world the only functioning senses are: thermal, touch, smell. There is no point in tuning them to auditory and visual stimuli (their eyes and ears are closed). However in that first period, we can already work for their development.
PRENATAL PERIOD (from conception-to the birth)
During this period pups are still in the uterus, however somewhat in 45-th day of pregnancy they are already sensitive to touch. Our gentle touch of bitch’s belly (if she likes it of course) is very important for the proper development of puppies in the womb. In the 3rd trimester of pregnancy stress suffered by the bitch has a negative effect on the unborn puppies. We should never take bitches in places where there is a high probability that she will not feel comfortable. During this period, it is essential to support her with secure place and plenty, plenty of endorphins, that are released under the influence of experiencing pleasurable sensations. Those affect directly developing fetuses.
When our females are pregnant we do not introduce any changes in the environment, everything stays the same. We do not have exciting family meetings. We make sure the environment is peaceful, we do lots of sniffing walks. We do not show our females to friends to celebrate growing belly. We do not practice an ultrasound to confirm the number of puppies (unless there would be a danger of their healthy growing), or satisfy our curiosity. Even few minutes the stress connected to shaving tummy, applying cold gel can affect developing fetuses. We are patiently waiting …. until the right time comes.
NEONATAL PHASE (from birth to about two weeks of age (an eye-opening moment))
Puppies are born with eyes and ears closed. Studies have shown, however, that despite of such immaturity and associated restrictions puppies are extremely sensitive to thermal stimuli and tactile motion. Therefore, in this stage of life we can already work on Early Neurological Stimulation. What is it?
ENS is a set of five exercises (puppy with head up, head down, puppy on his back, tickling feet, , puppy on a cold towel). All exercises can be done at max 5 seconds each.
Because the risk of over-stimulating puppies is high I recommend first time breeders to practice on a toy first. Stimulation seems easy but from my observation in inexperienced hands time of each exercise extends too much. Too many stimulus during this period will affect further development of puppies in a negative way. It is easy to cross the thin line of five seconds hence I recommend doing the exercises for three seconds each.
Properly done Early Neurological Stimulation brings the following benefits:
1. Improves heart vessels’ functions
2. Strengthens the cardiovascular system
3. Strengthens glands producing adrenaline
4. Improves resistance to stress
5. Improves resistance to diseases.
As zoopsychologist (animal psychologist)I help Polish breeders to socialize their litters, and I carry out temperament tests of puppies. I base not only on the results of studies and experiments carried out by specialized organizations, but also my own observations of litters socialized in polish kennels. My conclusion is that well-conducted neurological stimulation brings far-reaching benefits for the development of the nervous system of puppies. Puppies that were subject of the stimulus are more active and exploring than those that were not subjected to stimulation. The desire to explore is directly related to the fact that puppies experience a lot. While gaining experience creatures create strong pictures of their future “I”.
What if the “not” early neurological stimulation? In case of inexperienced breeders I recommend handing, gently stroking (positive touch) during daily activities such as weighing. Puppies already in this stage of life must undergo stimulation. Widely so I encourage you to tactile stimulation, but you have to remember that you must not overdo it. Over-stimulation can bring the opposite effect to the one desired.
During this period, puppies excretory processes are governed mainly by the mother. She licks their bellies to stimulate bowel movements – this future position “on back” is one of the strongest calming signals and submissive posture.
TRANSITION PHASE (from two weeks to go about 21 days – the moment of opening the ears)
During this period, eyes open. Wecan slowly introduce visual stimuli.
Up to 16 days of age, early neurological stimulation is still continued. We do not introduce other stimuli at once. After 16 days of age when the stimulation is completed in our Australian Labradoodle kennel we introduce another kind of touch – massage (in particular Shantal massage). My experience has shown that puppies focused on the kind of touch, approach stressful situations in more relaxed way. The body is tense due to muscle tension in stressful situations. Relaxed muscles means relaxed body. As zoopsychologist in the therapy of fearful dogs (or the one with phobias) I use massage as additional therapy. When you do this massage training is easier, because dog’s muscles are relaxed.
So why not take an advantage of it at such an early stage of life of young puppies?
“In the animal world, the first thing that bitch does when her youngs are born, is licking them from heads to toes. Her tongue provides an initial picture in the brain of puppy himself. In addition, if the litter couple puppies is born they constantly rub against each other, trying first steps, every millimeter of their bodies absorb further knowledge about what they are and how they function. This enhances the formation of their overall self-image ”
quoted Ruthy Alon
Here are photos and video with massage performed.
During each session we play the CD (puppies only hear sounds when they open the ears) with sounds of prenatal environment that relaxes puppies.
How does the massage work?
It soothes, relaxes muscles, builds positive relationship between the owner and his dog, puppy recognizes it as the first safe human touch. Massage has many other advantages, depending on which part of the body is massaged:
– Chest Massage: positive effect on the work of the lungs, stimulation of the heart, stimulates circulation, relaxes
– Abdominal massage: stimulates digestion, improves the operation of the large intestine
-Massage of fore limb: eliminates muscular tension, relaxes joints, stimulates circulation, relaxes
– Massage of hind limb: eliminates tension, loosens the joints, stimulates circulation, strengthens bones,
– Massage the spine + tail: to strengthen the back muscles, reduces tension in the neck, back and rump, relaxation
– Massage of muzzle + ears: releases tension, increases the blood circulation, reduces headaches, soothes, relaxes
During this period, we introduce smell stimuli as well – smells collected in bottles. Fragrances of animals, nature, objects, strange odors.
SOCIALIZATION PHASE (from 3 weeks of age to about 12 weeks)
It is my personal favorite. So much is happening during that period and there is so much you can write on the blank sheets of paper of the puppy’s brain.
During this period all of the stimuli (quantity and quality of them), that will be presented to the puppies will have an impact on their later life. Poor environment – lack of stimuli will affect puppies as well. We need to be aware of the fact that future temperament and behavioral issues lay in our hands – in the hands of breeder and the future owner.
Accordingly to some sources, socialization finishes at 12 weeks of age. However, long-term study of ethologists (e.g.Raymond Coppinger) confirm that this period may have different lengths – depending on the breed. In breeds such as German Shepherds socialization period is shorter than 12 weeks, while in breeds as Labradors – longer and it may extend even up to 18 weeks. Well, how do we know when this period is over then? Apparently it’s a lot easier than you might think.
Each dog goes thru four fear periods. Each of that periods lasts for about two weeks. During that time our dog begins to behave strangely. He could be afraid of things that he has never been afraid of ( such as shuffling chair). This is normal stage of development – appears and disappears on its own, if the fear is not reinforced by the owner. Periods of anxiety appear at: about 8 weeks, about 12-18 weeks, about eight months and about 13 months of age. When your puppy experiences second period of fear it means that the socialization period is over. From my experience, the Australian Labradoodle socialization period lasts until about 16 weeks of age.
During that period it is important that the dog learns to what species it belongs as well as the species with which he will share the future life.
It is very important that the puppy is introduced to a variety of situations that he may encounter in the future.
What are we doing in our Kennel when puppies enter socialization phase:
1. Puppies open ears and begin to react to different sounds. During this period, we introduce the first sounds. BUT! The first sounds they hear are the sounds of prenatal life. Something they have already heard! The sound of the amniotic fluid and mother’s heartbeat is being played on a specially designed CD. The first sounds they hear are already familiar to them. So we introduce them into our world peacefully – they have to associate our place with safe place.
Then we introduce other various sounds from the CD. These include: vacuum cleaner, trucks, helicopters, shots, barking dogs, clapping hands of people, hair-dryer, howling wolves, train, tram, crying babies, ambulance, police, fire brigade, washing machine, mixers, storm, fireworks… and much, much more. CD’s altogether include more than 200 sounds.
Of course it is only for the start as sounds on the CD will never replace a real stimulus object, which in addition to giving certain sounds, has a specific size and moves. With that we deal later on.
Note: The CD first has to be played very quietly, gradually turning the volume up otherwise the dog will be scared and that will develop into fear of noises.
2. Massage. We continue gentle massage of the whole body thru all socialization period while puppies are with us. See pictures and video above
3. In that particular period puppies should meet a lot of different people. Diversity is important. You have to keep in mind that dog does not generalize that all people belong to one specie – HUMAN. For them infants, children, teenagers, boys, girls, man, woman, old woman with a cane, a man with glasses, a man with a beard, a policeman, a postman, a priest – all representatives of different species. All these people should be introduced to the puppy during this period. Now, do you know why dogs bark at post officers?
See below how we introduce puppies to different people.
The same rule applies to the tone of voice. Dogs recognize high tones as an exciting, inviting voice while low tones as aggressive tones(which is why many dogs are afraid of male voices, or feel more submissive)
4. Different dogs and other animals. Puppies should be set to the contact with other adult dogs and puppies. Dogs in the kennel do not matter, because puppy treats them as a part of his flock. The most important is contact with other dogs. However – these dogs must be safe. The breeder must pay an attention and read the signals that both send – adult dog and puppy. Only this way puppy learns that other dogs are safe. Continuation of those safe meetings with the owner is very important. Contact must be safe and must not be interrupted at the time when the puppy does not yet feel confident. That would strengthen its uncertainty, which may lead to the fear of other dogs.
5. Various floors. In accordance with the principle of the golden twelve of Margaret Hughes –until the end of 12 weeks, dogs should stand on 12 different surfaces. We build trails, which are composed of a variety of substrates. Puppy needs to go through all of them. Of course on the way they will find nice treats. Apart from that we take them to different environment where they can explore different surfaces as well.
6. We start training our puppies at the age of 6 weeks. Sit, lie down, high five. Why do we do it for? Puppies already learn the rules of positive training, they learn that it is nice to work with people. When they go to the training with the new owners they already know the rules, so working with them is easier and more enjoyable. They are more focused on the leader. Puppies also practice agility trail. Everything we do is in the form of fun. Agility trail must be however done slowly with precision – not for the speed. Speed increases adrenaline, which needs up to one week to fall to an acceptable level. Not bringing it down will cause your dog to be hyperactive.
7. Puppies are placed in the presence of various strange stimuli with which they may encounter in the future. Bags, balloons, boxes, jars, bells, bicycles, examples, umbrellas, sunglasses, masks. They learn that in the future, they may encounter something strange and surprising.
8. Enriched environment – we spread various items in a variety of materials around the house. In these materials, we hide treats. The task for puppies is sniffing, searching and eating. Why do we do that? Puppies not only learn about presence of different subjects but sniffing calms them down. After 10 minutes of sniffing dog tired more than after hour of running, which raises the level of adrenaline.
9. Puppies learn how to solve problems. They enter into the box, on the box, how to get off the hill, go into the water? While solving the problems they learn self confidence
10. Puppies should experience different weather conditions, snow, rain and storm, they should go out at night
11. In the third week of life, for one week, once a day we do the membrane exercises. Thanks to them, puppies do not suffer from motion sickness and they do not have any problems with driving in a car. Breeders who do not perform these exercises should take puppies for rides in the car.
All of this should be done by the breeder and owner should follow the program with care until 16-18 weeks of age (of course, learning is a lifelong process however socialization phase is only one time in a lifetime).
Poor environment supplied by the breeder (at so-called cage kennels) will adversely affect the mental health of the dog. But not only. Also, inexperienced breeders wishing to protect their puppies from various noises and incentives will unconsciously work to their disadvantage. Sometimes (following the vet advise) people do not take their puppies outside until 12 weeks of age (because of immature immune system). However, such action will affect the psyche of a puppy as an already an adult dog.
We must ensure HABITUATION (slowly getting accustomed to the certain stimuli). We do not want to SENSITIZATION to occur (puppy getting sensitive to stimuli e.g. noise)
If we want HABITUATE the puppy to a stimuli, it is important to fulfill several conditions:
– Stimuli is presented first at the low level (low voice, now noise)
– Puppy must be allowed to move away from stimuli whenever he wants
– Contact with the stimulus needs to be repeated.
If those factors are not met sensitization takes place –puppy becomes sensitive to the certain stimuli and in the future he can be afraid of it. What’s more – generalization process can take place and all other similar stimuli can trigger an anxiety reactions.
Adequate knowledge about the critical period of development and common sense are the things necessary for the socialization of puppies. Each puppy is born as a clean, unwritten card. During the first weeks of life, intensive development of connections between brain cells takes place. What puppy will experience during the first weeks of his life WILL AFFECT HIS BEHAVIOUR IN THE FUTURE.
Zoopsychologist, Animal Behaviourist
First Australian Labradoodle Kennel in Poland