Exposing your puppy’s confidence

“Yeah, she’s a great dog! A little skittish though. And she doesn’t like men in blue hats. I think she may have been abused by one man, who always wore a blue hat.”

“Hmmm… That seems strange and unlikely. Who wears a blue hat always?”

“Well, crazy people who abuse dogs, I presume.”

“Look, yes, she seems a bit skittish around… well, hats. But maybe it’s not because she’s been abused by hat wearing weirdos. Maybe, just maybe, it is the complete opposite of that. That she has had no interaction whatsoever with men who wear hats? She might just not know what they are! How does she feel about umbrellas? What do you think she would say, if you could ask her what she thinks of umbrellas?”

“Oh, don’t even get me started on those flappy, round murder machines!”

‘The man in the blue hat’ is a phrase that’s often used – somewhat jokingly – in the dog training industry. It is very easy to latch onto specific traits that a dog appears to have been afflicted by in one way or another. But, if we put aside our blue guessing hat, and start to dig a bit deeper, we often find that these dogs are just as scared of stationary “now open” street signs, as they are of men and their various head wear choices.

And very often, this can be traced back to a lack of socialisation as a young puppy. Here I want to delve into what socialisation really is, and how I approach it.

REPHRASING ‘SOCIALISATION’

Very, very many people misunderstand the concept of socialisation. I personally think this has a lot to do with the word socialisation. To us humans, this sounds more like a trip to the pub for a friendly chat or having lunch with a colleague to vent your annoyance at the payroll department.

And while social interaction is an important part of a puppy’s socialisation program, it is merely a small fraction of what we need to successfully socialise our new furry family member.

Again, I think this common misunderstanding is heavily linked to the word socialisation. Which is why I consistently call it something else; exposure.

A good, simple overview of exposure training.

NEVER BEFORE SEEN

I have travelled a lot in my life. I have lived in many different countries and I have heard many different languages spoken. From extreme cold in Norway (-39º) to punishing heat in Las Vegas (+51º), from 120% humidity, to desert like air, my body has endured a wide range of temperatures and weather. I have walked barefoot on scorching pebbles and run shoeless through snow and ice. I have seen storms, hail, and lightning splitting trees. I have been in the presence of thousands of different animals and bugs. I have tasted more foods than I can recount, and I have drunk the strangest coloured liqueurs that Eastern Europe could offer. I have been on boats, planes, motorcycles, snowmobiles and jet skis.

I have been exposed to millions – probably even billions – of sensations, flavours, interactions and visual stimulus. And all these experiences have created neural pathways in my brain, which allow me to interpret and approach new sensations, flavours, interactions and visual stimulus that I have not seen before. They have taught me to be curious and not to be afraid of exploring and learning what other things the world has to offer.

That is what true socialisation is. To see, taste, smell, hear, feel and understand as many things as possible, and to create good or neutral associations with it, so that we don’t become fearful of the world that surrounds us.

Curious and content

CONTROLLING THE CRITICAL DEVELOPMENT

Roughly between the age of 6 – 16 weeks, puppies go through a phase, commonly referred to as the ‘critical development period’. While there is some to-and-fro on the exact age (some say it lasts longer), this is the time when I spend most of my time exposing puppies to everything I possibly can.

It is called the critical period, because during this period of time, puppies are particularly sensitive to outside stimuli. It is also widely accepted that the experiences the pup has during this time, stays with them for life. That’s right, for life. This is why it is so extremely important to get it right in these few weeks. Any strongly aversive event could set the dog up to be fearful of that particular stimuli, for life. And, of course, this is something we absolutely want to avoid.

Another thing that makes this period so important, is that it is a point in time where the puppies very quickly learn to generalise their experiences. This basically means that, if the pup has two, five, ten, twenty* good or neutral experiences with other dogs, they will generalise their learning, and assume that all dogs are good or neutral, and therefore, no threat to them. However, if the dog has several aversive experiences, it may generalise the other way, and the puppy now becomes scared of all dogs. Needless to say, the last one is absolutely not desirable, neither for dog nor owner.

*Note that you want your pup to have as many good experiences as possible! Don’t cap it at twenty, just because that’s where my example ended. Same goes for people. Aim for at least 100 good or neutral interactions and get as close as you can. Or even better, aim double that number!

MAKING THE WORLD NEUTRAL

As I’m sure you have noticed, I’ve said ‘good or neutral’ several times now, and I want to elaborate. As we are taking our dogs through experience after experience, their confidence will grow, and with our clear guidance, their curiosity will also begin to peek. They will begin to look around more, sniff more and listen more, in order to quench their newfound inner thirst for adventure. If done correctly, this will be fun and desirable for the dog, but we don’t want it to be… well, too fun.

“Why?” I can hear you thinking, “why not make it the most fun thing in the world, the world?”

Because I don’t want my puppy to prefer its surroundings over my company. If I make everything else too fun or too enjoyable, then the value of ‘me’ decreases in the dog’s eyes, and it now begins to look elsewhere for self-reinforcement. If this is how I approach the puppy’s socialisation, I am now actively building a dog that has no interest in me, the exact opposite of what I want proper socialisation to be!

I explain it like this to my clients: The purpose of socialisation, is to make the whole world around the dog neutral, while keeping me as a glowing lighthouse in the middle of it, where the dog can always find comfort, safety, guidance and entertainment.

I want a puppy that looks at another dog or person and thinks; “Oh look, another dog or person. I may get to meet them, I may not. Either way, yay! My owner is here with me!”

But, equally important, you do not want the dog to have any strong, aversive experiences at all, if possible. Getting bitten by another dog can be a singular event that is so negative, the puppy generalises that ‘all dogs are scary’. If you are not sure about the intentions of the 50kg off-lead white lightning storming towards you and your puppy, pick it up just to be safe! Better it misses one potentially very bad experience, as you can make up for this later.

And this is the point where we need to have a stern talk about dog parks…

DOG PARKS: A BREEDING GROUND FOR HYPERAROUSAL, FEAR AND REACTIVITY

How to properly prepare a puppy before going to the local dog park.

I hate to sound alarmist, but the fact of the matter is that a huge portion of reactivity and aggression cases we see, all start with the following sentence: “It all began after I took my puppy to the off-leash park to socialise it”.

Off-leash parks are kind of like moshpits at a metal concert: The crazies enjoy it, but most people would likely be injured and scared sh*tless by it.

While the big, out of control dogs are body slamming into each other, puppies can be seen cowering by the fence, begging to be let out. Or, if you have a very confident puppy, it may join in on the head banging extravaganza, only to be flipped and rolled, or pinned down by a hellhound that has lost its mind during the drum breakdown to Metallica’s ‘One’.

And as the cowering pup finds an opening in the sea of mayhem, it sprints over to its owner and hides between their legs, only to be told: “No puppy, go socialise with the other dogs” before being thrown back into the pit of darkness where teeth, muscle and frenzy rules. Now the puppy learns that it cannot look to you for guidance, and it cannot escape. And when the option of flight is removed, only fight remains. Say hello to your new, reactive dog.

Trust me when I say; do NOT take your dog into the off-leash dog park.

BUT! Do take it there on lead, and stay on the outside of the park, and play games and train obedience with it, while the growling nutbags are setting up their own ‘wall of death’ in the background. Now, that is proper exposure. Your pup is having fun with you, all the while hearing and seeing the action going on in the distance, so he can learn to ignore it. It may flinch once or twice, when a fight breaks out, but now you should be able to regain its focus and keep having fun!

VACCINATIONS AND THE ETERNAL BATTLE BETWEEN VETS AND TRAINERS

“But my vet said to not take the puppy out until it’s had its last vaccine.”

This is an incredibly difficult subject when talking about socialisation. And please understand that I am not a vet, and I cannot give veterinary advice. But most trainers and behaviourists will agree that, while there is an increase in contracting contagions when taking a puppy out earlier, you can almost guarantee behavioural problems down the line, if you don’t.

Puppies get their last C5 vaccine at 16 weeks old and veterinarians will tell you to not take your dog out at all, until it has received this vaccine. But that means the entire critical period is lost and most dog trainers know how incredibly important this part of the dog’s development is, so they will say to start taking the pup out as soon as it is in your care.

So, what then is the right answer? Unfortunately, the only answer is; whatever you are comfortable with.

Parvo virus is a devastating and horrendous disease, that any puppy can potentially contract if it is out and about. There is no getting around that and I this is the main reason vets will tell you to stay home. However, there are many precautions you can take in order to minimise the risk of your puppy contracting parvo:

  • Call all your local vets and ask if they have had any parvo cases in the last twelve months
  • Keep your puppy on the footpath and away from grass
  • Keep away from other dogs you do not know
  • Keep away from dog poo on the ground
  • Stay in open and sunny areas (parvo virus can live in the ground up to twelve months, but is deactivated when exposed to direct sunlight for 24 hours)


I religiously follow the above rules whenever I have a new puppy in my care, and I have never had a case of parvo in my house (from over 50 dogs and puppies that I have fostered).

Is it 100% fool-proof? Nope. Then again, you can never be 100% certain about this. There have been recorded cases where a puppy has contracted parvo in its owner’s backyard, because they dragged in infected soil under their shoes. So, there is no such thing as zero chance of it happening. All we can do is prepare and approach it with caution and a clear head.

A well exposed dog, chilling at the pub

OKAY, SO HOW EXACTLY DO WE DO THIS EXPOSURE THING?

Excellent question, I thought you’d never ask!

I roughly separate puppy exposure into three categories;
– People & animals (living beings)
– Environments
– Objects

Each of these categories has an endless array of subgroups. I will list quite a few here, but please understand, these lists are by no means complete! Get creative with it and show your puppy as many things as you possibly can.

Keep the puppy on lead and have food with you. Start from a little distance away, far enough for the dog not to be reacting to the stimulus (moving and noisy things, usually need a little more distance to start with). Slowly move towards the thing, encouraging with food along the way if necessary. Get close enough for the puppy to smell or check out the stimulus. Give a clear reward marker (yes!) then reward puppy heavily for its bravery. Rinse and repeat for the next several months!

People & animals

  • Babies and children of all ages
  • Adults, both men and women
  • Skinny and not so skinny people, tall and not so tall people
  • People of different ethnicities
  • People with hats, glasses, facial hair, smokers etc.
  • People with crutches, wheelchairs, limping, canes, prams etc.
  • People on motorbikes, bicycles, scooters, skateboards etc.
  • Dogs and other puppies
  • Other pets, including cats, chooks, guinea pigs and rabbits
  • Wild animals in your area, such as birds, possums, kangaroos


Environments

  • Different surfaces – grass, slippery floors, stairs, wobbly surfaces, mud, sand, carpet, plastic, cardboard, aluminium foil, wood, leather, paper, wood chips/tan bark, gravel and any other surface you can think of!
  • Get the puppy to go over, through, under, into and on top of anything that is new (but make sure it is safe, of course!)
  • Weather and temperatures – rain, thunder, hail, cold, hot, snow, sun, dry, wet
  • Sounds – doors slamming, cars going past, different types of music, computer games, washing machines, dropping cutlery, animal documentaries, fireworks, microwave, fire alarm, death metal and on and on and on
  • Youtube has a huge library of sounds that you can play for the puppy while it eats. Search for things like rain, thunderstorms, animals, dogs barking etc, etc,
  • Roads and intersections
  • Parks and beaches
  • The local pub
  • Veterinary clinics
  • Pet stores
  • Neighbours / Other people’s homes
  • Car parks
  • Lifts
  • Construction sites
  • Ponds and rivers
  • Train stations
  • Forests
  • Markets
  • Schools
  • Children’s playgrounds


Objects

  • Lawnmowers
  • Washing machines
  • Coffee machines
  • Grooming brushes
  • Leashes, collars and muzzles
  • Bottles and cans
  • Toys
  • Hair dryers
  • Vacuum cleaners
  • Umbrellas, flashlights, ceiling fans, bikes, skateboards – things that morph, move and change can be scary to pups at first or even trigger predatory drive
  • Toothbrushes
  • Doggie shoes
  • Chairs
  • Flowerpots
  • Recycling bins
  • Wheelbarrows
  • Whipper snippers
  • Park benches
  • Kites
  • Kid’s toys (ideally things that move and make sounds)


Sounds great! Can you show us some examples?

Why yes, yes I can!

DO IT ONCE, DO IT RIGHT

Now, all of this may sound daunting and exhausting. And it absolutely is!

But it is not as difficult or challenging as living with a fearful or reactive dog is. While there is no guarantee that this will create the perfect dog, (there is nothing we can do about genetics unfortunately) it certainly lays a rock-solid foundation for you and your puppy’s future success.


Stian Berg
Dog trainer & behaviourist