All animals (including dogs and humans) have, at the start of their lives, a uniquely ‘sensitive developmental period’. During this time they encounter the world for the first time – and learn to accept what they find.
In puppies, the ‘sensitive developmental period’ lasts until about 14 weeks of age. Anything a puppy experiences during that time will become part of its natural order of things. After that age, unfamiliar objects and experiences can cause a fearful response and could ultimately lead to aggression.
It is important, therefore, that the owner introduces their puppy to as much of the world as possible, as early as possible. Learning to interact normally with adults, children, other dogs and pets is called puppy or dog socialisation. The experience of household noises, appliances, cars, the countryside and city – becoming accustomed to a wide range of habitats and environments – is called habituation.
The vast majority of these behavioural problems are brought about by poor socialisation. For example, if a puppy has never met a postman, or a child and encounters one for the first time later in life, it can become extremely fearful. A natural response of a fearful dog, if it has no other means of escape, is aggression.
Proper habituation helps prevent similar problems. Imagine trying to take a dog, who has never encountered a car, on a journey – the poor animal will be sick with fear, and may become aggressive. If a puppy has not been accustomed to separation from its owner during the ‘sensitive developmental period’ it may bark, whine, lose toilet control or be destructive whenever it is left alone in later life.
Both socialisation and habituation are relatively easy to achieve, but the process does require a little thought and effort from the new owner.
Over-stimulation of the very young dog can be counter-productive and could teach a puppy to be frightened of something for the rest of its life. A phased programme of socialisation and habituation is needed, with the stimuli gradually increasing in strength.