May 10, 2021
It is vitally important that owners of puppies learn to read their puppy’s emotional state. All people dealing with dogs, especially owners, vets and veterinary nurses, need to be able to gauge whether their pet or patient is relaxed, excited, playful, frustrated, anxious or fearful to ensure their puppy is being appropriately exposed to a variety of stimuli and situations.
Dogs communicate using a complex language of body signals that reflect what they are thinking and feeling. They use these signals consciously and unconsciously to communicate intent and ensure their personal safety by affecting behaviour in others. Any signal that is demonstrated by a particular part of the dog’s body must always be read in the context of whatever other body or vocal language the dog is communicating. Similar signals have different meanings in different situations, so the position of the body and other vocal signals will help you understand a dog’s intent and emotional state.
Owners should be encouraged to ensure their puppy is relaxed and enjoying the exposure to novel situations. If subtle signs, such as lip smacking, turning its head away, moving away are seen, the intensity of the interaction needs to be reduced as all of these signs mean that the puppy is worried. If the owner persists in that action causing the puppy anxiousness, then sensitisation to that stimulus can occur. Sensitisation has a negative impact as it results in a heightened reaction to a stimulus over time, which in turn leads to unwanted fear and or anxiety in potentially several situations. By allowing the puppy to move away to a safe distance from the anxiety-causing stimulus, habituation is encouraged. Habituation is the acceptance of a stimulus with a positive behavioural outcome.
What should you do if a puppy shows fear whilst it is being socialised/habituated?
- Do not try to pressure a puppy into approaching the item as you will highlight its fear by drawing its attention to it.
- Expose the puppy to the type of stimulus that worried it as often as possible, but initially from a distance (i.e. reduce the size of the stimulus) so that the puppy can become desensitised to it. As the puppy’s reaction improves you can gradually increase the amount of stimuli.
- Reward the puppy every time it does not react to the stimuli, or as soon as it recovers from its fright if it does react.
- Do not overreact. If you try to reassure a puppy it may reinforce the behaviours it uses as a means of coping when it is frightened.
The basic signs of anxiety in an ascending order include yawning, blinking, yawning, turning the head away progressing to turning the body away, sitting and pawing and if that stimulus continued, the puppy would walk away and then would start creeping with its ears back. Further signs include standing in a crouched position with its tail tucked in progressing to lying down with a leg up.
Research has revealed the fact that socialisation and habituation can wear off. Therefore, socialisation and habituation must be continually reinforced throughout the animal’s juvenile period. In the dog this is from twelve weeks to maturity. It is a good idea for breeders to ensure that prospective owners have enough time and dedication to continue the socialisation and habituation process properly, because if they don’t and the puppy subsequently develops a less than sound temperament, it is the breeding and not the rearing that is likely, but not justifiably, to get the blame.
Instead of socialisation and habituation being a haphazard affair with experiences occurring at random, as is so often the case, a puppy’s exposure to environmental stimuli should be as systematic as possible to ensure the best chance of it developing a sound temperament and capacity to cope in all circumstances.
Conclusive evidence shows that early intervention can be successful in preventing the development of behaviour problems.