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Sensitive Learning Stages in Puppies

An excerpt from a full research study: Effects of Early Social Stimuli on Adult Temperament in Dogs (Canis familiaris)

There have been numerous studies on a variety of species investigating the positive affect of early socialization and exposure to novel stimuli, and their impact on development (Hebb, 2003; Hubrecht, 1995; Fox, 1971).  In dogs, this highly sensitive social learning stage has been found to fall between the ages of 7-14 weeks  (Battaglia, 2009).   Pups that remain in the breeder’s facility during this stage need to be actively socialized with other breeds of dogs and places.   This period also coincides with the age when many pups are moved to their new homes, raising the potential for behavioral issues if not handled appropriately.   Classes and educational materials delivered during this period from the breeder, Veterinarians and professionals can help ease this transition (Gazzano, 2008).

The predisposition to a particular temperament type in dogs is considered to be inborn, (Slabbert, 1999; Svartberg & Bjorn, 2002), which can run the spectrum from a confident and pro-social attitude to one predominated by anxiety and neurosis (Coren, 1999).   Research supports the concept that there is a strong inter-relation of disposition, environment and learning stages that work to produce the mature animal.  In the case of dogs, an anxious temperament may manifest itself in acts of aggression towards people or animals, which increases the risk of surrender.   Working with a young, developing puppy with gentle exposure to many different experiences in the period of 5- 14 weeks has been shown to be an effective and pro-active method to prevent behavioural problems.   Positive early experiences can have a protective effect on the adult animal.   It is not possible to fully recreate this important effect after 16 weeks of age.

Research completed by Fox (2010) suggests that the early learning period is a crucial factor in the development of brain architecture, which provides for proper processing of novel stimuli and a reduction of stress behaviours.  Without this exposure, the dog does not have the opportunity to build sufficient coping mechanisms, which can translate to fear or aggression in the adult animal.  Animals that receive formal socialization classes during this stage have the opportunity to build a wide range of positive associations (Seskel, 1997) and thus are far more prepared to confidently handle real world situations.

Since 2008, the AVSAB has approved of the outside socialization of young pups from as early as 10 days after receiving their first set of shots and going to their new home. The maternal antibodies present and the effect of the first shots provide sufficient protection for such experiences as going out for a walk, or going to puppy socialization classes in accredited facilities.   Research demonstrates that under-socialized animals experience difficulty in accepting novel stimuli with confidence, with potentially long-term effects on their interpretation of common world experiences, such as strangers, bikes, trucks and other dogs (McMillan, Duffy, Serpell, 2011; Battaglia, 2009).

Studies support the concept that through class participation, a reduction of aggression in dogs and increased retention in the home can be achieved (Casey, Loftus, Bolster, Richards & Blackwell, 2014; Duxbury, Jackson, Line & Anderson 2003).  There is a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the idea that social exposure in sensitive stages translates to minimized unwanted behavioural issues, particularly anxiety induced ones.  Introduction of a heightened program of early socialization during the fear onset stage of 7 – 14 weeks has been shown to promote improved interaction skills with both people and other dogs (Duxbury et al (2003).

While formal training classes are generally deemed a positive experience (Duxbury et al, 2003), all classes are not based on the same learning principles, or quality of instruction.  Classes that are overcrowded, or employ aversive techniques can potentially have a highly negative affect on an animal’s perception of social arenas.   Owners need to fully investigate local training facilities to determine their methods in advance.  A well-versed owner can also provide their pet the same level of exposure and positive training methods, while not enrolling in a formal class.

It is so important for breeders to start the exposure process while the pups are still with them, from as early as 3 weeks of age.  Information on gentle exposure should be provided new owners, in order to help with important transition period.  Reducing stress of the move can also be achieved through the use of Adaptil collars in the first month in the new home, and by sending home an item with the familiar scent of the litter.