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Why do so many dogs suffer from fear problems?
Are we socialising our puppies in the right way?
By: Jolanda Pluijmakers DIP CACB and David Appleby MSc

The good old 1960Â’s
Probably the most famous research on which the majority of our knowledge of the behavioural development of puppies so far is based was carried out in the 1960s by some researchers called Freedman, King and Elliot. They kept the puppies they were studying in isolation from people and environmental experiences until 16 weeks except for one week during which they received daily sessions of socialisation with humans and testing. The different groups of puppies received their socialisation sessions at different ages. They started to get results with puppies that were exposed to a passive person in a test area from the age of 3 weeks on. These puppies immediately confidently approached the researcher with a `Hi, I`m a puppy` attitude. Those introduced at five weeks were initially hesitant but within ten minutes became as confident as the puppies introduced at three weeks. Puppies introduced to the test area for the first time at 7 weeks took an average of 20 minutes to approach the person. Those introduced to it at 9 weeks took an average of 30 minutes and those that had no experience of people until 14 weeks were said to be and to have remained as wild as wild animals.

As a result of this and other experiments it was concluded that between 3 to 12 - 14 weeks of age puppies go through a stage of development that has greater effect upon their capacity to cope with new experiences than at any other time in their lives. This, of course, has important implications for the way we bring up puppies in the real world, which is more complex and challenging than the laboratory conditions described above.

So far so good? Or not?
So far so good but what if the interpretation of those early experiments was wrong? What if the increasing tendency to avoid new things after 5 weeks, such as the person in the test area, was the after effect of insufficient experience in an earlier period of development? This is the conclusion of some recent reviews of this and other research, which put a new perspective on how we should bring up puppies. The research was started with the aim to develop a method to decrease the development of inappropriate avoidance behaviour, fear and fear aggression in dogs. For everyone who is involved in dogs it is noticeable that many dogs in our modern society, show an inability to cope when faced with challenging and even apparently benign situations in their environment which might be due to inadequate socialisation. The welfare of these dogs is at risk. They appear to be unable to relax and enjoy life, they feel threatened by “normal” events and are more susceptible to stress and diseases. They are less likely to make rewarding pets and are at a higher risk of being abandoned, re-homed or euthanised than those that experience adequate socialisation during early development.

Shocking figures!
Looking at the annual reviews of cases of The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors in the UK illustrates further that the situation is worrying. Their figures show that fear is the basis of many behaviour problems. For example, fear aggression towards people and dogs were the most commonly referred behaviour problems of 2000. Twenty five per cent of the referred dogs exhibited fear aggression towards people. Between 1996 and 1999 this percentage varied between 20 to 28%. Fifteen percent of the referred dogs in 2000 exhibited fear aggression towards other dogs, which was between 7 and 14% between 1996 and 1999. In addition fears and phobias were observed in another 8% of the cases referred (including sound and visual fears and phobias). However, these figures are probably just the tip of the iceberg as not all dog owners seek help from a behaviour counsellor.

How to move on?
There are some key points that can`t be ignored; firstly the fact that in the latest research it is suggested that the socialisation period is much shorter than previously assumed and may end at 7-8 weeks with the most important period being the 3 to 5 week. The second point is that new insights in brain development have important implications for for example, the moment and manner in which we expose dogs to stimuli and the moment we choose to home them. However, it seems like this new knowledge is still overshadowed by the old work and is insufficiently integrated in the daily practice for the puppies to profit from it.

It has to be concluded that, everyone who is concerned about the welfare of dogs and wants to give them the best opportunity to develop into a happy dog, the time is ready for reflection and reconsideration of the daily practice. Plus, seeing the large amount of fear problems displayed by dogs, we will have to broaden our horizon. Knowing how to prevent the development of fear problems alone is not enough any more. As we are one of the first, if not the first persons a dog owner will ask advise from when confronted with a problem, to give an advise that works, a we will need a lot of knowledge about the treatment

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Niederlande

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