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Managing The Gap

Today I'd like to talk about 'THE GAP'.

I'm not talking about the gap between the train and the platform, not even the gap between the doctors consult fee and the medi-care rebate. I'm talking about that all-important time frame between purchasing your puppy and attending Puppy Pre-School.

Science and many years of studying dogs has taught us that the socialisation period of a puppy is between the ages of 3 to 12 weeks of age. This is the sensitive period of development where puppies are in the 'making of their mind', so to speak, they are at their most vulnerable developmental phase where important positive experiences influence the way they develop mentally.

A fear response switches on around the five-week mark, and so puppies naturally become more cautious about new experiences and this then peaks about 7 weeks. In fact this is why it is really important that all experiences your puppy encounters are positive. As you can imagine, if you were going through a fear development phase yourself and something really upset you, it could scar you for life. Bare in mind that most people take their puppies into their home around 8 weeks and that fear response has already switched on.

During the socialisation period, the dog is developing his emotional centers in the brain (Fox 1978), therefore it is important that breeders raise these puppies in an enriched environment that will assist them to reach their full potential and mental growth through sufficient stimulation. Unfortunately, we know that this does not often occur and so the puppies have already lost out on several weeks of exposure. The lack of socialisation will have a marked detrimental effect on natural behaviour

Our job as trainers, behaviourists and owners is to assist these puppies with this development and to ensure that we maximise this opportunity to our advantage. We encourage owners to attend puppy school, to expose their puppies to new environments and situations on a daily basis. Pairing all experiences with something positive, providing them with puzzles to develop their problem solving abilities and to help them become more adaptable as they grow. This is the basis of our puppy training program and should be the main aim for all puppy schools. We like them to attend puppy class as soon as possible because this is our one opportunity to mould, evolve, develop and educate them, not to mention assess their temperament and identify any behaviours that may present as a problem as the puppy matures. All this and more before the socialisation window closes around 12 weeks of age.

So, my question is, WHY are we STILL not seeing a lot of these puppies until they are 12 weeks and older? What happened to those 4 weeks in between? Over the last 12 months here at PATS, 78 puppies were 11 weeks, 12 weeks and over. In our opinion this ratio if far too high. When we then ask owners how long they have had their puppy, we need not ask any thing else. Usually by the time owners call us, there is a realisation that they should have done so earlier and they feel guilty for not contacting us sooner.

The most common explanation as to why they didn't call us sooner is that 'my vet informed me that I had to wait until the completion of my puppy's vaccination course'. You'll be surprised to learn that this information isn't correct.

That's not good advice and it might be that your local vet isn't up to speed with the latest advice on puppy developmental periods and socialisation verses vaccinations.

A late start to this essential part of their development phase can cause;

  • a puppy to become a slow or poor learner.

  • a puppy who becomes anti-social towards either dogs or people.

  • a dog who develops unnatural social attachments towards his owner of for a location.

  • a dog who becomes sensitive to noise and may develop noise phobias later.

  • a dog who can't be appropriately handled.

All the above and not to mention;

1) additional training/behaviour costs

2) a dog who you can't walk due to aggressive tendencies

3) fines from Ranger Services

4) a dog that can't be left at home due to separation issues

5) extensive veterinary costs as a sedation is often required for basic husbandry procedures.

6) your dog may even be re-homed or surrendered as he is unmanageable.

So, why is this??

Well, by the time we see these puppies we are now dealing with several additional factors;

1 - They have had four weeks of not only missing out on exposure and guided training, they have also been developing and in some cases consolidating unwanted behaviours at home.

2 - They are entering and developing different motor patterns and so their overall behaviour is different to the younger puppies.

3 - Their unwanted behaviours have been well practiced therefore are more difficult for owners to change.

4 - Often they are less confident as well as less adaptable.

5 - These puppies do not always come out the other side without some kind of behavior issue. i.e fear based responses which then leads to aggression.

6 - Owners of course have become less tolerant themselves and possibly built in some of their own habits making change even more difficult.

7. Some owners would have implemented punishment-based training methods of some kind.

I'd like to see a change in this. I think every puppy owner is entitled to at least a choice. Veterinary Surgeons have a responsibility to understand the implications of total isolation for a developing puppy and be more flexible in their approach to medicine. Breeders hold an enormous responsibility in ensuring these puppies are not only started off with great introductions to as many and varied situations as possible but to house them to the correct new care giver in order to kick start their new life to become a well adjusted and confident dog.

Let's make it public knowledge. All puppies require, not only adequate socialisation, it should be conducted during the correct age time frames, conducted in a positive manner and continued throughout the dog's life stages.


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