How to Raise Resilient Puppies – Environmental Socialisation
In the previous chapter, we identified the sensitive period for a puppy to be six to nine weeks of age and that puppies should not be removed from their mothers and littermates before 12 to 14 weeks of age. From the third week on, as the puppies gain cognition of their environment through their senses – visual, auditory, olfaction and tactile – socialisation to the environment shall begin.
The environment consists of all things inanimate and animate, from the puppies’ perspective. With a significantly larger proportion of their frontal cortex dedicated to olfaction, the way puppies and their adult versions perceive the world is very different compared to primates, including humans. When humans take a walk at a neighbourhood park, we take in the sights, then sounds and lastly smells. We will see the blooming flowers before we smell them. Even if we could smell the flowers from afar, our cognitive bias is to search for the blossoms visually until we locate them. For puppies, instead of saying “Let’s go for a walk”, we should perhaps tell ourselves “Let’s go for a sniff”.
The second principle we stick to when we start socialising our puppies to the environment is the concept of control – we want the puppy to be in control of when, where and how they interact with the inanimate and animate things in their environment. We are not leading the puppy, coaxing it to go near a vending machine or garbage trolley found along our walking route. We let the puppy take the lead instead and we follow behind, always ready to prevent mishaps or to encourage the puppy to venture further. In this regard, the leash and collar are merely safety tools, very much like a seatbelt in an automobile. They are not your joystick to manoeuvre the puppy to where you want it to be. If the puppy takes a whiff of the vending machine and decides to move back, we make space by stepping back further to allow the puppy to withdraw. We will not move away nor make cooing noises to “comfort” the puppy. We hold our ground and keep a loose leash, give the puppy space to make its own decision to venture or withdraw.
The third principle we live by, is to determine the puppy’s reinforcers as soon as possible during socialisation sessions. We will always be ready with the puppy’s meal and some high value treats. These are usually the primary reinforcers that kick off the mesolimbic pathway in the puppies; we want them to associate typically “scary” things such as zooming bicycles or noisy construction vehicles with pleasurable situations. We will also be their surrogate mother by supplying the tactile stimuli to comfort the puppies after exposure to environmental stressors – to suppress the puppy’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis responsiveness and trigger the hormonal homeostasis seeded by their mother as early as the neo-natal period. That said, even before the puppies opened their eyes, we would have subjected the puppies to mild levels of stress. A common method involved removing the puppies and handling them gently, placing them half a body length away from the rest of the litter and let the puppy crawl back to the litter and its mother (transition period onwards). Another method involved switching the puppies’ suckling positions in relation to the mother’s nipples. The puppies will “struggle” among themselves and achieve an equilibrium eventually. The mother in all cases, will start grooming and licking the “stressed” puppy once re-connection has been made. A stress-free puppyhood will not necessarily produce stable and operant adult dogs. In our experience, teaching the puppies to accept and overcome stress to improve their own situations produces confident, stable and operant dogs in the future.
When we say environmental socialisation, it does not mean we pluck the puppies out from the litter, away from their mother, and expose them to the world immediately. There are many preparatory exercises we conduct in a sanitised environment which we call the Operant Chamber or Operant Field, to prepare the puppies. Snuffle mats are great for nosework in juvenile or adult dogs; they are excellent tools for puppies to “struggle” and find some food. We start this game when puppies are transiting to solid food, at 6 weeks of age and beyond. As the puppies gain expertise, we will increase difficulty level by placing the snuffle mat in a wooden tray. The tray will be replaced by a box eventually and puppies would have to climb and claw their way in to get the food.
Another game we play is “focus”. We teach the puppies to target to our face and palms. Before we play focus, neural signals that indicate the appearance of pleasurable situations would have been created. Some trainers prefer the tin clickers, some prefer verbal cues that are often monosyllabic. Through respondent learning, these unique auditory cues predict the onset of feeding and stimulate the release of dopamine, causing arousal and influences behaviour to seek out pleasurable activity (hunting to eat). Dopamine binds to dopaminergic receptors present in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex. Increased activity in the projections to the nucleus accumbens play a major role in reinforcement.
Once the puppy understood the unique auditory cues, we will let the puppy roam freely in a small room with a passive human seated in the middle, on the floor. The puppy will inevitably come over to investigate the passive human. The human will make the recognised auditory cue once the puppy makes eye contact with the human and provide a small portion of food as a form of reinforcement. The game is played during mealtime when we know the puppy is hungry and eager to eat. There can be variations to this game where the puppy makes muzzle contact with a closed fist or open palm instead of eye contact with the passive human. We prefer the eye contact version as it forms the foundation for a good loose leash walk later in basic obedience.
Another game we like is “chase”. The same set up in the operant chamber is required. A passive human shows the puppy a food kibble and fling it out to perhaps a metre distance. Let the puppy chase the rolling kibble. When the puppy caught the first one, make kissy noises to get the puppy back to the human, then fling a second kibble. Repeat this with some hand feeding interspersed between repetitions. The amount of food the puppy gets from the hand must be more than what it gets from each repetition of chasing. As the puppy improves, we usually combine “focus” and “chase” together in one session; add in the recall signal to replace kissy noises. We will also migrate the games to an outdoor field that has a segment fenced up to control the movement of the puppies. In the fenced area, we will throw in some wobble boards, small size yoga balls, an empty box, and some irregular shape Kong toys. Food is hidden in the majority of these items for the puppies to scavenge. Humans will also join in and some of them can be passively sitting around while the others play a more active role as the surrogate mother delivering tactile stimuli after every “struggle” to get food.
One of the key socialisation components we do with the puppies is the introduction to human touch. We do this in a deliberate manner, preparing the puppies for the most intrusive and obnoxious of our specie – the human toddler / child – the little creature who is small in stature but very unpredictable, loud and lacks logic. These three traits evoke fear in puppies quite effectively. Before introducing real toddlers or children to the chamber, adult trainers will mimic them and expose the puppies to the degraded versions of what the little ones are capable of. An adult can squat or kneel down and as the puppy approaches, sticks out his/her hand suddenly and stroke the puppy’s head and ears. Some food kibbles or treats are given to the puppy immediately after the stroking action. The active human will also make loud screeches and the puppies will get a rude surprise. A second human will play surrogate mother once again and deliver tactile stimuli to calm the puppy, then flick some food kibbles to start a short game of “chase”. The exercise repeats and the picture of an unpredictable, loud and irrational young human is introduced to the puppy frame by frame, jigsaw piece by jigsaw piece, before going outdoors to interact with role-players and then real passer-by in the neighbourhood.
When introducing puppies to other animals, we take special care to select good role models so that the correct behaviours will be imprinted. Typical puppy classes conducted in Singapore involved introducing puppies to puppies, standing around, having a chat about each other puppies and laughing at the puppies’ antics. This is what we call the blind leading the blind. First of all, the puppies would have an authoritative figure – their mother – in their lives if they were not removed from the litter prematurely. At around eight weeks of age onwards, we will introduce several stable and confident young adults – two or three at a time – to the puppies in deliberate socialisation sessions. The idea is to let the puppies learn how to interact with the other dogs by mimicking the behaviours of the stable and confident young adults who are known to be able to interact well with one another. For short spurts of time, the young adults may mingle with the puppies and these adults will teach the puppies important behaviours such as recognising an invitation to play, knowing when to back off (adult dog will usually growl and chase puppies away) and bite inhibition.
We do not believe in introducing cats or smaller house pets to the puppies because we will eventually need to harness the puppies’ prey drive for training. Some trainers such as Grisha Stewart proposed introducing the cat or other flight-prone house pets to the puppy in a way these animals would not run away. It was suggested to reinforce the puppy whenever it turned away from the cat or parrot. We prefer another method of “learned helplessness” when dealing with the issue of other house pets. This concept has gotten a bad reputation from the Positive Reinforcement purists’ propaganda machinery, but it is a grossly misunderstood concept; a degree of learned helplessness is good for the puppy. We will talk about Learned Helplessness in another chapter.
The other big component of the puppy’s environment is surfaces. It will surprise you that puppies born and bred in apartments in Singapore typically do not dare to step on turf when they get their first walk outdoors. We utilise artificial turf for approximation purposes and puppies start to have a variety of surfaces – turf, carpet, tiles, yoga mat etc – to walk on and roll over with indoors. We also incorporate noises into surfaces. In Singapore, we have drain covers that are metallic and grated. We start teaching the puppies to jump over grated drain covers as soon as they are up on all fours and prancing around. Metallic scrapping sounds are layered when they get confident to habituate the puppies to the auditory stimulus. Other surfaces to get accustomed to are sand and sponge mats (playgrounds). These are given to them outdoors and we find that a confident puppy inside will usually be more willing to take on challenges outside.
Sounds, scents and sights are significant variables in Singapore’s condensed environment. Our buildings are tall and closely located together; sound gets reflected and refracted in ways human ears cannot detect. Puppies and dogs as a specie can hear all these and the auditory stimuli can be very harassing. As early as the age of three weeks, we will start playing white noise at low volumes in the nest, interspersed with construction noise, traffic noise, popular and classical music. At about three weeks old, we will start putting blown up photos of metropolitan areas, bicycles, garbage bins etc around the nest as they can learn to recognise novel objects they have viewed previously and will subsequently exhibit less fear of the actual objects when tested at seven to eight weeks old. We will also ask for garments of the future puppy owners as well as trainers to throw it into a designated play pen for the puppies to be imprinted with the scents. As the puppies matures, we will start bringing them out to the quieter streets to be exposed to the buildings, scents along the pedestrian path (usually garbage) and infrequent vehicle, subway train or construction noises. They will be fed while being exposed to these stimuli, creating a pleasant association. As they grow older, play sessions will be conducted in suitable grass areas to cement the pleasant association. The level of stimuli will be increased gradually by careful selection of location and time of exposure.
As the reliability of their behaviours improves in the “focus” and “chase” games, we will start using these foundational behaviours to teach the puppies to focus on their handlers and return when called. Combined with tactile stimulus, these behaviours allow the puppies to switch off when potentially aversive situations arise. Going to a public dog run is a deliberate and cautious decision, bringing the most confident puppies in the litter. At the dog run, we observe the puppy’s interaction with other dogs keenly. If it shows any signs of apprehension, the recall is initiated followed by a few repetitions of the focus game. Locomotion may be incorporated in the focus game to get the puppy further away from the source of apprehension. When the puppy is visibly calmer, we let the puppy free roam again and explore its environment. If another dog is “ill-mannered” and unable to read the puppy’s cut-off signals, the human handler will distract the ill-mannered dog instead and leave the puppy with his/her teammate.
We only do public dog run sessions after our puppies have been taught properly by the stable young adults in our premises. In the same vein, the “focus” and “chase” behaviours are utilised on walks on public pathways and by around 12 to 14 weeks of age, our puppies are well-accustomed to the picture of an approaching human with hand sticking out to pat its head and rub its muzzle. We will still honour the puppy’s desire for space should it move backwards from an approaching human. An alternate route is taken, and the puppy is allowed to sniff and explore before “focus” is initiated for a short distance.
We have given a brief overview of what we do for puppy socialisation. If you have any queries, please feel free to email us at [email protected] or visit us at http://www.paw-ark.com and submit an enquiry using the Contact Us form.
 Stewart, Grisha, Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0, Dogwise Publishing, 2016, p187.