A critical stage in puppyhood

2011-10-27 00:00

TTHE biggest single reason for inappropriate dog behaviour can be attributed directly to a lack of social skills (intra or interspecies) and inadequate environmental coping abilities.

When adult dogs see, hear or smell other creatures such as strange dogs, puppies, cats or farm animals, appropriate behaviour would be a need to investigate or interact without any concern. Obviously the animal being focused on must also behave normally. If both parties have adequate social abilities then behaviour in an adult dog or puppy should not escalate to excessive aggression or fear.

When pets are excessively aggressive or fearful it can be traced back to a period from the third to 16th week which is referred to as the critical imprinting period (Cip). During this period the puppy builds up a database through the senses (sensory intelligence) of hearing, seeing, touching, tasting and especially smelling. If this critical information is withheld from a puppy it will be driven more by its instinctive intelligence resulting in wild behaviour and, sadly, many of these dysfunctional pets are euthanased or die unnaturally at a young age.

If a puppy is overwhelmed by a situation during the Cip a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be acquired and in certain circumstances an adequately socialised puppy or adult dog will be unable to cope.

A typical example is astraphobia which is a repetitive reaction to the threat of thunder. The results of this could be escaping off the property, damage incurred to a dwelling place or vehicle and even death. Dogs are injured or killed when escaping into traffic, forcing themselves through burglar proofing, gates and fences, etc, or going into a strange property where they are killed or injured by another dog and sometimes even shot.

Behaviours associated with astraphobia are mostly due to inadequate environmental enrichment during the critical imprinting period. Another way, however, in which this can occur is to learn the behaviour from each other.

A disturbing trend, which I find happening more frequently, is the number of owners who have attended some sort of course only to see behaviour deteriorating. Another concern is that courses are referred to as “socialising” even when the puppy is older than four months. As mentioned earlier, critical imprinting and environmental enrichment can only occur up to 16 weeks. After that older puppies and dogs need to be subjected to a desensitising approach, especially where any social deprivation or poor environmental enrichment is evident.

Factors governing this approach range from the dam’s state of mind during the gestation period, litter departure age, breed, temperament, environment and the owner’s behaviour.

Unfortunately, quite often, decisions regarding education are often made from an emotional point of view or people try to save money by taking short cuts. It never ceases to amaze me that, after paying thousands for a puppy, the owner is reluctant to spend a few hundred rands on a sound educational process.

When acquiring a new puppy or dog there are a few simple questions one can ask. For example:

• How can I ensure temperament compatibility? (This can only be answered by someone who understands the human and canine mind.)

• How can I prevent my puppy from becoming astraphobic or deal with this condition in an older dog?

• How can I determine whether the behaviour is physically or psychologically related?

Please contact me or your vet’s practice should you have any concerns.


• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist who can be contacted at 083 340 8060 or visit www.dogtorsteve.co.za

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