How puppies learn correct social skills

2011-09-15 00:00

WHEN contacted about aggression concerns, one of the questions I always ask is “At how many weeks of age was your puppy taken from the litter”? This information is critical for me to determine the cause of the aggression since mind development is extremely powerful between three to 16 weeks of age. When interacting with each other during this period, puppies acquire and retain information through the sensory intelligence. Initially they are driven by their pre-programmed instinctive intelligence and the results of these investigatory behaviours make up the adaptive intelligence.

A good example is litter mates engaging with each other. When one puppy bites another, the recipient of the bite yelps and jerks, moving away from the source of discomfort. In that moment memories are retained for life being acquired through the senses of touch, hearing, sight or possibly even smell. Thus, based on memory retention, when a lower ranking pack member challenges for status it may be met with a stare, teeth bared, growling, snapping or even a sudden lunge. If there is no social deprivation the lower ranking puppy or dog will immediately break eye contact, drop its head, tail and also yelp. Bending its body in a bow shape, while retreating, is also an instinctively driven submissive posture.

When dogs have the correct social skills, the sight and sound of the lower ranking dog’s submissive behaviour will appease the higher ranking dog, meaning that injuries will not occur. Younger dogs may even growl and bear their teeth to an older dog, but ears drawn back and lowered tail indicate a willingness to submit. When this behaviour occurs there is nothing to be concerned about, but quite often pet owners become alarmed, believing the actions are a precursor to all out conflict. If these misapprehensions cause us to interfere with such natural processes it will quite often escalate to fighting and injuries or even possibly death.

It is critical for pet owners to understand the dog’s body language. Loud growling or sudden lunging by large breed dogs gets attention sooner than smaller breeds and resultantly people’s anxiety levels increase far more.

Sometimes, even with sufficient social skills, dogs may have a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of a previous serious fight or attack. Please understand that this stress is not through thinking, but from remembering. It is not necessarily location specific, but also circumstance specific. This may result in immediate antisocial behaviour whenever encountering a strange dog or a previous combatant. After involvement in, or witnessing a severe fight, mental trauma on the human side can cause heightened tension which, if sensed by a pet, may lead to aggressive behaviour.

Unfortunately, when prospective puppy owners see a cute bundle at three or four weeks old, emotions take over and common sense is overridden. To make matters worse, unscrupulous breeders exploit this and try to offload puppies as soon as possible to curb expenses. The new pet owner will end up with an adult dog having inadequate coping skills needed to deal with stressful situations. Responsible breeders will not allow pups to be removed from a litter prior to eight weeks of age.

So, in conclusion, it is imperative that humans do not interfere with natural processes. Dogs will resort to more instinctive survival behaviour when the adaptive intelligence is not allowed to develop to a comfortable level.

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


• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted on 083 340 8060 or visit

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