Updated November 29, 2020
True or false: early social exposure in a puppy reduces aggression to other dogs later in life. Easy, right?
After all, that’s why vets (like us) push early finish vaccination programs and puppy preschool classes. Get that puppy out socialising in the ‘sensitive period’ before 16 weeks and they’ll get to enjoy the company of other dogs FOR LIFE.
Well not so fast. A recent Australian study has shown the exact opposite. I’m not even that surprised; I’ve been warning puppy owners about this for years.
783 Australians with young dogs were asked whether their dogs showed aggression towards unfamiliar dogs, and how much social exposure they received as puppies. They found that the earlier the puppies began public social exposure, the more likely they were to be aggressive to unfamiliar dogs.
Right & Wrong Socialisation
The trick is to realise that there is both good and bad socialisation.
- Good early socialisation makes puppies less fearful, less aggressive and more social.
- Bad socialisation increases fear, stress and anxiety. These lead to aggression.
I think most interactions in the city are the bad sort. To find the good ones, let’s look at which puppies do better than others.
How Puppies Socialise Naturally
Where do you think I see the most naturally social dogs coming from? It’s dogs who stay back with their litter at the breeder. This answer may surprise you until you remember how wolves live in the wild.
We now know that wolf packs aren’t about battles for dominance; they are united groups of brothers, sisters, aunties, mums and dads who have a common interest in each other’s survival. The closest our domestic dogs get to this is the extended families found where dogs breed.
In fact it’s been shown that staying longer with the litter in a home environment is associated with improved positive social behaviours, and fewer behavioural problems as adults.
There’s a down side of course too. Staying at home means a puppy won’t habituate to all the other normal parts of life such as children, other pets, cars etc. Whereas in contrast, going out for early social learning puts young puppies at risk of parvovirus infection. What to do?
The Best Way To Socialise
Answer: copy what wolves do, except only on private property until the puppies are fully vaccinated. Socialisation should be with:
- Small groups
- Known dogs with good behaviour
- Anticipation and avoidance of problems
You almost have to be a ‘helicopter parent’ to a young pup. But as Susanne says, don’t intervene to the point that you inhibit your own dog’s ability to think and interact. Keep them safe but don’t stop the learning.
We think the reason early socialisation is making some puppies worse is that it’s being done all wrong:
- Dogs showing aggression on leash during walks
- Dogs barking or growling behind fences
- Pups poorly supervised with friends’ dogs or children
- Using dog parks and free play too early
- Puppy classes where only the most boisterous pup is having fun
A poorly run class, which delivers suboptimal advice to dog owners, is not going to be beneficial in enhancing the human–canine bond and may result in behavioral problems during puppy development. Howell et al. 2015
What then is the benefit of doing puppy preschool? Attending puppy preschool classes increases the chance of having a more social dog with fewer behavioural problems. But there’s a lot more to a good class…
What Puppy Preschool Is For
- Knowledge of dog behaviour
- Dog-owner communication
- Learning theory
- Training tips
- Behaviour modification
Part of the reason for doing all this good work is to be prepared for the day it all goes wrong.
Stories like this happen to many young dogs, including mine. Gordon was going for a walk when he met a strange dog. In an instant, before anyone could react, he was bitten on the face.
I saw Gordon just afterwards, and it was clear he had a serious facial injury. His jaw was broken in two places. Not only did he need the infection and pain controlled, but I knew that only a specialist vet surgeon could restore his jaw to normal function.
He underwent a complex surgery and lots of aftercare to get to where he is now: back to normal.
The warning is what you expect: you can’t trust unknown dogs or their owners and the consequences can be terrible. Be careful.
What Happened Next
There’s good news too. By the time it happened, Gordon had so much positive experience with dogs that he’s been just the same since. His love of other dogs barely changed.
Gordon attended our puppy classes run by Susanne, and had a great time. Not only that but his owners continued to socialise him afterwards following her advice. By doing this they gave Gordon a huge wealth of experience to help put one bad experience in its proper perspective.
He’s just what we want a dog to be: happy and resilient.
Photo credit – instagram @gordonthesheltie (he’s one clever pup)…
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
Howell, T. J., King, T., & Bennett, P. C. (2015). Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine: Research & Reports, 6.
Wormald, D., Lawrence, A. J., Carter, G., & Fisher, A. D. (2016). Analysis of correlations between early social exposure and reported aggression in the dog. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 15, 31-36.