Euthanasia, surrender, and re-homing of dogs during the first three years of life is largely driven by behavioural problems, lack of bonding, and poor compatibility of the dog with the home.
There are certain distinct and critical periods in the social development of puppies. The variety and nature of experiences that a puppy encounters during these sensitive periods can have a significant influence on their social behaviour, human relationships, and suitability as a pet after they mature.
As a breeder, you have the vital role of introducing these first experiences and coaching your puppy buyers to continue appropriate socialization through the development period.
The development periods are:
The Primary Period
Occurring during the first three weeks of life, this is when pups gradually gain awareness of their surroundings as their senses wake up. Pups begin this period depending on their senses of touch and smell and gain the ability to see and hear as the first three weeks progress. Gentle touch, and calm, positive human interactions during this period positively influence behaviour and human bonding later in life.
The Socialization Period
This period extends approximately between three weeks and three months of age. Therefore, the second half of the socialization period often occurs in pet homes. During this phase, pups learn to interact with littermates, develop fear responses, and start to learn which stimuli represent danger, and which do not. Towards the end of the period, well socialized pups will start to display some confidence when exploring their world and meeting more people and animals. Positive and calm introductions to a variety of sounds, sights, smells, textures, and environments during this time are vital for building confidence.
The Enrichment Period
From about three months to 6-8 months of age, repeated encounters of good experiences in a variety of environments will reinforce confidence, calmness, and family bonding. These experiences reduce anxiety and aggression and improve a dog’s ability to interact positively with humans. Effects have been shown to last into the adult years.
Do’s and Don’ts for Getting Off On the Right Paw
- DO provide regular, gentle handling of pups during the primary period. Ensure a calm environment, and try to use experienced handlers of various ages, genders, and appearances.
- DO provide calm, controlled experiences during the socialization period with a variety of people, animals and environments. Expose puppies to different sounds, smells and situations, tailored to their future home environment.
- DO make sure puppies get regular exposure to the indoor home environment, especially if you have a separate kennel or barn building.
- DO make sure the intensities of these stimuli do not overwhelm the dogs or elicit a fear response.
- DO emphasize to new owners that controlled experiences of new situations should continue beyond adoption.
- DO educate new owners about what fear responses look like in your puppies. Urge them to seek variety but avoid overstimulation.
- DON’T delay socialization activities until after vaccination series are complete. Behavioural issues provide a greater threat to a dog’s life than infectious diseases.
- DON’T succumb to pressure to place puppies in homes prior to 8-12 weeks of age.
Howell TJ, King T, Bennett PC. Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Vet Med (Auckl). 2015;6:143-153. Published 2015 Apr 29. doi:10.2147/VMRR.S62081
AVSAB. 2008. Position Statements - The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. [online] Available at: <https://avsab.org/resources/position-statements/> [Accessed 7 June 2022].