In an animal’s life there are critical periods in which certain important events must happen or otherwise that learning opportunity is lost. The most important critical period is during the first few months after birth. It is important to understand more about this so-called socialization period in animals and especially in dogs because a lack of socialization can result in serious behaviour problems of our favorite pet.
Dog socialization: the socialization period is important for a puppy to learn recognize its own species, to communicate successfully with other dogs, as well as to learn to live among people and other animals. Although the animal learns especially how to interact with other individuals, it will also habituate to stimuli it often encounters.
Dog socialization period starts at around 3 weeks. At this age the senses will be developed to such an extend the puppy becomes capable of seeking social interaction with individuals other than its mother. However it is important for a puppy to remain with its mother and littermates for at least another 4 weeks so it can learn how to interact with other dogs. If a dog is removed from its mother before this time, it will not have the chance to learn the rules of social behaviour properly.
The socialization ends when the puppy is around 3 months old. At this time the puppy will start to become less and less bold for new stimuli. It is thought that is the result of the maturing of the nervous structures that are responsible for fear responding – the amygdala. If a puppy would have been fearful during this period it would not have been able to habituate to new stimuli.
If a dog lives in a poor environment during the first three months of its life – no contact with dogs, people, situations it may encounter more often later in its life – he will not have a chance to properly habituate to them, resulting in a fearful response to almost all stimuli during the rest of its life.
For most dogs it is especially important that the puppy learns to live among both humans and dogs. If the puppy has contact with other dogs but not with people, it may learn how to behave with other dogs but it will become fearful of people and fear may lead to aggression. It is therefore important that dogs are socialized to all kinds of dogs and people. If for example a dog isn’t socialized properly with young children there will be a higher chance it will be fearful and aggressive to them because of their unexpected explorative behaviour. If on the other hand a puppy has a lot of contact with people but not with other dogs, it will not properly have learned how to communicate with its own species and will therefore likely be fearful to other dogs and misinterpret their social signs.
Despite of our knowledge of dog socialization, behavioural problems of our four-legged friends are still a major issue with many dogs being euthanised and abandoned. It can even be considered a public health problem with almost 1 out of every 50 people in the US being bitten by a dog each year. To avoid these problems the simple answer is: good socialization. Dogs that are well socialized with both their own species as well as other animals, will not only be less likely to develop behavioural problems but enjoy a happier life.