By: Lotte Griffiths 2005ã


The socialization period is a finite time in which the young puppy learns which species they belong to; learn species-specific social etiquette, which objects, foods or other animals are harmless (or dangerous), all in the relative safety of the immediate surroundings of their den. Most, if not all, mammals including humans, go through a socialisation period when they are young, although the length varies tremendously between species. The close of this ‘socialisation-window’ is timed to coincide with the time when dogs (in the wild) would begin to explore further away from the den and is therefore accompanied heightened neo-phobic(fear of the unknown) responses. This represents an adaptive change, because if puppies did not start to experience this lowered fear-threshold, it is unlikely they would live long enough to mate and perpetuate the species, which after all is the primary goal of any organism.

The dog’s socialization period starts when the puppy are at around 3 weeks of age closes at around 16-18 weeks, depending somewhat on the individual, it’s breed-type, etc. This is the time when the puppy is most capable of habituating to all the various stimuli it will encounter in later life. It is also the period when the puppy learns canine social etiquette and canine ‘language’ and which species forms part of the social circle. 
What we are attempting to achieve by habituating puppies to various stimuli is to enable to puppy to better cope with stressful situations and to minimise the puppy's amygdala mediated responses to novel or fear-inducing stimuli by fine-tuning its hormonal system. Simplified in the extreme, sensory stimulation (scent, sight, taste, touch, etc.) is fed from the sensory organs such as ears or eyes to the puppy's brain, which in turn signals the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone). ACTH is a hormone that is related to excitability and which prepares the dog to either flee or fight, as appropriate. The pituitary gland also signals the adrenal gland to produce corticosteroids, which moderates excitability. Ordinarily these two hormones balance one another and by routinely exposing puppies to appropriate sensory stimulation, we can fine-tune this feedback-system i such a way that we can elevate the threshold at which a dog would ordinarily become anxious (Bruce Fogle. The Dog’s Mind, p.48-49. Pelham Books. 1990).
This, to an extent, will generalise and enable the dog to cope better with new or unexpected experiences and develop a calmer 'seen-that-done-that-got-the-T shirt' type of response.
Puppies that have been poorly socialized or are deprived of appropriate environmental exposure will often develop lifelong social deficits and dysfunctional behaviours and will never reach their full potential. Even if the puppy is subsequently placed in an enriched environment, it will never be as socially skilled as the puppy who has undergone basic socialization and habituation during the socialization period; what is more, it will never reach its full potential. What is more, poorly socialized puppies often exhibit poor learning and problem solving abilities and are unable to cope with the many things life in life a busy domestic household throws at them. This can lead to fear-aggression (towards people or other dogs), separation problems as well as fear of numerous other things or situations such as thunder, fireworks, the vacuum-cleaner, dishwasher, car and many other things.

Although some degree of remedial habituation is certainly possible for older puppies and even for adult dogs and we may even succeed in improving their social skills to a large degree. At that stage, however, the dog or puppy’s basic social temperament has already been established and habituating an older puppy or adult dog to novel and possibly fear-inducing stimuli often takes much longer than would have been the case with a young puppy.

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