What should you do with puppies? Socialise them. Expose them to loads when they’re young and they will be able to deal with whatever life throws their way later. That’s the generic advice.
But is that really true? Let’s look at another species for a moment – humans. If a child has never seen a dustbin lorry when young, will the child be afraid of one later in life? If the child never goes on a plane, can that child become a teenager who flies without an issue?
Children benefit from exposure to a range of experiences growing up. The same is true of puppies. But these days, I would prioritise developing a puppy’s self-esteem above socialisation any day.
Due to import rules, I couldn't collect my youngster Clyde from his breeders until he was 15 weeks old. Aren’t you worried he will miss key socialisation time? I was asked. Not really.
First of all, Clyde was raised by a fabulous breeder who was very aware of the experiences the puppies were having and was making sure they were blossoming. And secondly, I am just not a big believer anymore in all that socialisation-is-the-be-all-and-end-all jazz.
A previous dog of mine was well-socialised from a young age. She was exposed to lots of stimuli. But she grew up fearful of lots of things. These days, she is far less fearful. Is that because she has been gradually exposed to even more? No. It’s because I don’t place my focus on “fixing problems” anymore or “exposure”. Instead, my focus is on her being an overall happy and chilled dog.
To go back to people again, adults can develop an anxiety about being in public spaces even though they’ve happily been in public spaces when younger. Maybe they had a negative experience, or maybe it develops “out of the blue”. Is the only way to tackle that to gradually expose them to the public space while associating the exposure with something positive? That may play a part in helping them. But if their self-esteem is low and they are lacking in confidence, improvement is going to be a very tough call.
When I brought Clyde home with me, there was the odd thing he wasn’t really confident about. For example, he wasn’t sure about fast cars racing past him. I resisted the temptation to expose him to lots of them while pairing it with reinforcement to make sure I was “fixing this.” Learning from my previous experiences with dogs, I decided
a) Not to worry about or focus on it
b) To place my emphasis on making sure that overall he was slowly becoming increasingly confident and calm
c) To expose him to them occasionally later down the line in situations where he was chilled
So we kind of forgot about the car thing. We didn’t sweat about it. He’d only just come to England. He’d only just properly started to get to know me and the rest of his family. Imagine how daunting that must be! The most important thing was that he was becoming happier day by day. Now and then, a car would bomb past us on a walk and I’d think “I need to fix this!” and then I’d think – no, relax. Forget it. We pretty much avoided fast cars passing.
We went for walks together, we played together, we started to learn tricks as a team, we shared snuggles, he played with my other dogs, he cuddled up with them…
A good few months later, when everything was a bit more settled, we did a bit of sitting in a pub garden near a busy road. Clyde had a particularly yummy chew. I had a drink. We both relaxed. We didn’t gradually go closer to the road. We just chilled. And when we went for walks, I made sure to do the odd one with just him and my older dog, Hayly, who couldn’t give a toss about traffic. The response to fast cars was pretty much gone already. I wouldn't say we had fixed it; I'd say it had largely fixed itself.
People talk about “flooding”. They tend to mean that a mistake is being made in training by over-exposure to anxiety-producing stimuli. But the thing is that if you take an anxious dog any exposure can be too much. In my opinion the focus needs to be much more on the dog’s general wellbeing and self-esteem. Just like with children, I guess.
So do I believe in puppies being exposed to stuff? Yes – to the extent that they need stimulation and fun in their life. Do I think that young socialisation or the lack of it is the key factor in determining a dog’s future attitude to stimuli? No. I think that comes down mainly to how the dog feels in himself as a whole.
In other words, a confident, chilled dog with less exposure has a far better chance at coping with all that life throws their way than an unhappy, worried dog who has had lots of exposure.