When a reader asks how to fix a problem with a dog that barks, growls, or in any way threatens people or dogs, or is aggressive toward dogs for no apparent reason, or simply “doesn’t get along” with other dogs, my first two questions usually are: How old was the pup when you brought it home, and what do you know about how the breeder reared the pup? Depending on how these questions are answered, many more questions will be asked dealing specifically with the first 12 weeks of the pup’s life.
The time in a pup’s life from three weeks of age to 12 weeks (some will extend that to 14 weeks) is referred to as the “socialization period.” This time period was initially called the “critical period” by John Paul Scott and John Fuller in their monumental study of dog social behavior and genetics of behavior more than 60 years ago. The word “critical” was used to emphasize how essential this period is for a pup to learn everything it needs for all its future social behavior as a dog that needs to live in both a dog’s and a human’s world.
Later, the term “sensitive” replaced the word “critical,” because further research revealed that at least some of the necessary social skills could be learned later in a dog’s life. However, the older the dog, the more difficult it becomes to teach the needed social skills. The important thing to remember is that the period of socialization is finite. The window closes at 12 or 14 weeks, and it cannot be reopened. What is missed in this timeframe is gone forever. Some things can be taught to the pup with great difficulty at a later time, but the pup will never be a completely behaviorally sound dog.
A Young Brain is Like a Sponge
We can compare learning in puppies to learning in children, in that both young children up to six or eight years old and puppies up to 12 to 14 weeks old are veritable sponges, soaking up new things at the fastest rate they ever will in their entire lifetime. Learning can and does go on through both adult dogs and people, but the rate drops off dramatically, and learning requires much more effort.
As an example, a young child hearing two or more languages will quickly become multilingual. An adult can learn a second language and be grammatically correct, and even adopt a semblance of the correct accent. It will require a lot of work and practice, however, and will never sound as native as having learned it as a child. The child will have the more correct intonation, idioms, and accent compared to a person who has learned it as an adult. Also, a person who has learned two or more languages as a child will be able to learn a new language quicker, easier, and more correctly because the early exposure has predisposed the child to learn a new language. The child has learned how to learn. So it is with dogs.
A pup with proper socialization and exposure that was given a chance to learn adult things in a juvenile way, will be far easier to train to do a new chore, such as retrieving, when nine months old, and it will learn new things faster and easier than a pup that has never learned how to learn during its first 12 to 14 weeks. The young brain of a dog or of a child is flexible and malleable; the older brain loses flexibility, and although learning is still possible, it is more difficult.
The Socialization Period
What goes wrong with a dog’s social behavior (deportment) if it is deprived of proper socialization? A study at the Center for Animal and Public Policy at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found that dogs with dysfunctional backgrounds and improper socialization were 580 times more likely to end up with fear aggression toward strangers when compared to dogs with proper socialization. Certainly, some dogs reared in a barn behind a stack of hay bales turn out fine, but the far greater number end up in a pound or shelter, and never see their second birthday. Nearly half the pups born in the United States end up this way, with more than two-thirds of them being euthanized.
The optimum age for taking a pup from its litter is 10 weeks; absolute minimum age is eight weeks, and NEVER younger. That means up to 83 percent, or 10 weeks, of the total socialization period is in the hands of the breeder. The breeder must ensure the pups get exposure to people of all shapes, sizes, configurations, dress, and noise levels. They need to have all the environmental challenges and puzzles to solve, and barriers to get over or around. They especially need all the social interactions with siblings. They need to learn how to limit a fight or initiate one, how to stalk, share food and space, and just good stuff. They need to learn the whole dog-communication system—the language. And if at all possible, they should have visits by prospective buyers by early in the sixth week, before the onset of the fear response. The remaining two to four weeks of the socialization period is in the new owner’s court.
The new owner is responsible for exposing the pup to real-world things like houses, family members and pets, car rides, getting used to a crate, noisy neighbors, etc. It entails exposure to water and stairs and slippery floors. It is learning boundaries, both physical and behavioral. It is meeting new dogs of all looks and colors. If the pup had a proper first 10 weeks, the gradual introduction to new things will not be a problem. The pup has been prepared, and now only needs to generalize a bit. But because the pup has learned how to learn, and thereby learned how to generalize, the transition will be smooth. However, care must still be taken so as not to try any so-called “flooding.” Do not toss the pup into the deep end of the pool to see if it will swim. Do not take the pup to the off-leash dog park where 40 uncontrolled dogs are romping about. It will frighten any pup to have that much thrown at it no matter how well prepared during its first 10 weeks. The key words are “gradually” and “moderation.” It will give your pup a better shot at being perfect.
Granted, the socialization period, although extremely important, is not the only game going. Genetics plays an important role. Puppy nutrition and health care are also very important. If one or some or all of these are neglected, the pup stands a good chance of becoming a statistic for humane societies.