WE DISCUSS THE VARIOUS ASPECTS OF SOCIALISING AND DESENSITISING INVOLVED IN TRAINING YOUR DOG AND MAKING SURE THEY ARE EQUIPPED TO HANDLE THE WORLD, ESPECIALLY IF THEY ARE GOING TO DO ASSISTANCE DOG WORK
Socialisation: The learning process that a puppy must undergo in order to learn key life skills to ensure that it is happy and confident in its environment, and can communicate effectively within its social group. This involves having pleasant social interactions with adults, children, vets, adult dogs and other animals. [From The Kennel Club definition]
Remember that if you get a puppy at 8-10 weeks, it will likely not have had its full vaccinations, so should not be interacting with unfamiliar dogs or on the ground where they have been. Carry your dog at the vet, and when outdoors until they have been vaccinated.
Desensitisation: The process of exposing the animal to a stimulus, beginning at a very low intensity.
Desensitising your dog to loud noises is a good way to keep them calm in situations that may otherwise make them anxious. By gradually desensitising your dog to loud noises over a period of time, you can teach them to associate these sounds with something positive, instead of something to be scared of.
Before going into the actual stimuli that your dog will need to be socialised with and desensitised to, it is important to challenge a commonly held misconception. Many people seem to believe that socialisation involves your dog actively interacting and engaging with the stimuli (e.g. person). However, this is not the case – in fact, most of the time it’s quite the opposite. You are often best getting your dog to experience them at a distance (especially at first) and aiming for a neutral reaction. You don’t need to go round forcing your dog on other people, and especially not on other animals!
Your ideal position is for your dog to have a neutral reaction to other animals – acceptance and tolerance but not excessive energy or interest (and definitely avoiding fear, anxiety or aggression) and pretty much the same with humans in general. Obviously they will be more warm with familiar humans and ideally to ‘enjoy’ physical contact with them as much as possible, but you are still not looking for anything excessive. This can be challenging when you have a naturally very sociable breed or individual (hello Goldens!), however by teaching your dog that seeing another dog or human is not a big deal, you’re setting them up to succeed. They won’t be yo-yoing in excitement or over-stimulation, which can easily veer into anxiety or nervousness, every time they see someone or a dog.
- Different types of people
- Male/female – some dogs can be particularly afraid of men if not appropriately socialised with them
- Different ages and races (introduce adults before children and remember not to leave children unattended with a dog)
- Different clothing/appearance (including hats, hoods, sunglasses, beards etc. as well as tall people – some dogs are more bothered by this than others)
- People in uniforms (especially hi-vis – for some reason dogs often react poorly to this). If you are looking for your dog to be an assistance dog, you may want them to be familiar or at least not averse to emergency services and medical staff uniforms
- Different animals they will encounter
- Other dogs (remember that doesn’t mean they can go running up to every single dog – that is not socialisation, that is obnoxious)
- Other animals in the household (they don’t need to be best friends, don’t force it – you’re looking for tolerance and acceptance, they can just exist around each other)
- Animals they might see regularly e.g. horses or wild animals nearby if you live in the country – with this you are looking for a neutral interaction (indifference and/or mild interest – not fear, aggression or over-excitement)
- Different noises/everyday/household items/situations
- Doors shutting
- Doorbell (for your own sanity! reward quiet)
- Dogs barking (for your own sanity! reward quiet)
- Vacuum cleaner
- Noise of plates
- Being in a car (short journeys at first)
- Chairs moving nearby (this can spook some dogs)
- People walking nearby/standing nearby (this can spook or intimidate some dogs, and overexcite others)
- People running near them (many dogs have the drive to chase this, or they may get spooked by it)
- Going to the vet – we recommend interactions here with reception staff and the vet; but at first work on being near and/or in the building, having positive experiences without anything “bad” happening.
- It isn’t inevitable that your dog hates the vet – for example, Sparrow LOVES the vet, because she gets fuss there that she doesn’t anywhere else public – so you don’t have to settle for a nightmare every time they have to go there.
- If your dog later develops a fear of the vet, work back from square one (going there without an appointment, getting in the door etc. then being in the waiting room, with lots of treats). Veterinary surgeries are usually more than happy to accommodate this.
- Familiarity and confidence building on different surfaces
- Shiny/slippery surfaces – particularly moving on these
- Moving or unstable floors – including in a lift/elevator going up & down
- Wet floors
- Outdoors – grass, sand, concrete, gravel – including sitting
- Desensitisation to being handled – important for vet appointments and grooming – your dog needs to be as comfortable as possible with this, for their own benefit so start young and keep it positive
- Paws being touched and held
- Ears, muzzle and mouth being inspected
- Tail, rump being touched (often a sensitive point that can elicit negative reaction from dogs who haven’t been desensitised to this)
- General body being touched and examined
- Being brushed etc.
- Surprise/sudden things (prepare them for these for their own well-being, to reduce anxiety)
- Items being dropped at a distance, nearby and directly behind them
- Raised voices
- Slamming doors/sudden noises
- Fireworks outside while you’re inside
- Items being above them – without desensitisation to this, some dogs can be fearful when something is above them and be reluctant to go in or under anything
While it is advisable that you start socialising and desensitising your dog at a young age, don’t panic about trying to cram it all in – if that would mean rushing your dog around, that means your dog is likely going to be overwhelmed. Remember when they’re a puppy they are only just learning about the world and while you want their interactions to be positive, they don’t have to have every single interaction within their first week of being with you! In fact that is counterproductive. Their interactions with you and their home environment are equally valuable – as is sleep, play and eating! Remember the value of experiencing stimuli at a distance as well.
Desensitisation is often a life-long process as you encounter new stimuli. You might even take backwards steps where your dog suddenly gets afraid of things they were previously fine with. Sometimes you may need to end up doing desensitisation for a situation or stimulus that your dog lacked appropriate socialisation with when they were young. You may end up needing to do counter-conditioning, where you train them to have a different behavioural reaction to the one they currently have towards a stimulus. This is something often required in the case of reactivity. Additionally, the use of the engage-disengage game is beneficial for those with reactivity who are looking to desensitise their dogs to other animals etc. that are eliciting an undesirable reaction in their dog.
These things happen and are a part of dog training – try not to beat yourself up, just help your dog by working on them and accepting the little steps backward or needing to go back to basics for a while in order to get the best outcome for you both.