Stimulating a pup’s senses

2014-05-30 00:00

HAVING looked at correct litter departure age and socialisation, let’s touch on habituation or environmental enrichment.

Habituation can be described as exposure to various non-threatening environmental stimuli at a specific age, which produce normal behaviour as pups grow older. The degree of deprivation a pet suffers with respect to socialisation and enrichment, will be reflected proportionally by the extent of maladjustment. This means that a puppy with no experience of a specific stimulus at the completion of the sensitive period will always be reactive. Those with some, but not enough exposure, will be better adjusted, although not entirely sound, and a pup that has had adequate experience of relevant stimuli in the sensitive period will exhibit stable behaviour in adulthood.

The inability to cope with its environment is a result of stimulus deprivation from the third to 16th week of a puppy’s existence. Experiments were conducted at Utrecht University (Netherlands) where half of a litter of newborn puppies had no exposure to humans, while the other half were exposed to human scent for just 30 seconds. The litter was then kept in isolation from people for several weeks. When reintroduced to human company, it was discovered that puppies that were exposed to the researcher’s scent had a distinct preference for investigating people, as opposed to other environmental stimuli. Puppies that did not have the same early experience showed no preference. In terms of environmental stimuli, Daniel Freedman, John King and Orville Elliot (1961) identified the age of three weeks as the start of a puppy’s critical period. Micheal Fox determined this to be the time when a puppy’s mobility and hearing coincides with increased electrical activity in the brain.

Experiments were also designed to reveal a puppy’s sensitive period for habituation by housing them in conditions devoid of stimulation. They were placed in a test area with various articles for just half an hour at five, eight, 12 and 16 weeks. The five-week group puppies showed no hesitation when investigating the items and developed a preference for those that provided more complex stimuli. However, the eight-week-old group tended to withdraw from, rather than explore, and those that did not experience the test area until they were 12 or 16 weeks old frequently became catatonic with fear.

Fear responses may, however, also develop even if puppies don’t have a negative, or fear-evoking, experience associated with novel stimuli. The reason is that in their natural environment, wild canids, specifically the wolf, to which the domestic dog is related, must know beyond doubt how to react appropriately. Thus, anything unfamiliar is viewed as potentially hazardous. Wolf cubs only have a few weeks to develop positive associations with their own kind and immediate environment, after which they become increasingly cautious about the unknown. This prevents investigation of a snake, for example. Loud noise such as thunder would also fall under environmental and, because wolf cubs are born during storm season, the stimulus exposure is automatic. This is not the same with dogs, though, because of domestication processes over the centuries, resulting in puppies being born during any season. This is why so many pets are astraphobic (fearful of thunder).

The challenge for domestic dogs is that they need to become familiar with an enormous number of stimuli in a very short time. They have to live in and cope with environments of sights, sounds and smells far more complex than that of wild wolves.

In the next article, we will explore how the above impacts on us as pet owners.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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