By Robert Alleyne Canine Behavioural Trainer, Member of the UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists, Board Member of the Kennel Club Accreditation Scheme for Instructors
Socialise, socialise, socialise! Every book, every DVD, every TV show emphasises the importance of socialisation. The problem is none of them seem to tell you exactly how this is to be achieved. As a result, many owners know that they should socialise their puppy, but have no idea how they’re supposed to do it. They are told about the importance of socialising their dog with other dogs, with people, with traffic, and with a whole host of other stimuli. But I believe that without the owner being taught how to do this correctly and efficiently, the dog is much more likely to develop training and behavioural problems. And ironically, these problems may be directly attributable to the class that they took the dog to, and to the trainer who with the best of intentions may have created exactly the problem for the dog and owner that they were trying to prevent.
Why is it that when there has never been more emphasis placed on the importance of socialisation that dogs are becoming increasingly aggressive, seemingly to almost everything? I believe the cause of this is down to several factors, and one of these is puppy parties/puppy socialisation classes. In many of the classes that I visit, instructors who are new to instructing are given the puppies to train since it is seen puppies are easier to teach than adult dogs, and this may be true in some ways. However, if you make a mistake with a puppy, there’s a much greater likelihood that you are setting that puppy and owner up for major problems later on.
Let me give you an example. I was asked to have a look at the puppy party run by a vet. The day I went was the last week of a five-week course. Several puppies within the group have stuck in my mind. There were two Staffordshire Bull Terrier puppies who were playing so aggressively with each other that had they been adult dogs, this would have been called a serious dogfight. They had to be repeatedly separated. The vet would then take the one that she’d removed and pin it on its back, until it ‘submitted’. This usually took several minutes. The second the puppy was then placed back on the floor, it shot through the other puppies like a missile and recommenced its attack on the other Bull Terrier puppy. This went on for the entire class, which ran for over an hour. For the entire class, all the puppies did was play while the vet talked to the owners.
Another puppy that comes to mind was a Miniature Schnauzer. She was 12 weeks old. She was clearly very frightened of the other puppies and spent the majority of the class hiding underneath the owner’s chair. If another puppy came within 10 feet of that chair she would fly out barking and growling. The vet commented on how well she had progressed, since five weeks ago she wouldn’t come out from under the chair! I was stunned that the vet actually saw this as progress and you can only imagine what this puppy will be like by the time she’s a year old.
There was also a Shar Pei puppy in the group. This poor dog had had his face pulled and bitten so many times by the other puppies that he actually needed medical attention by the end of the class. Every time he got bitten, I saw the owner wince, and was clearly desperate to pick him up and protect him, but she was constantly told by the vet that this was good socialisation and she should not interfere. What can we suppose the puppy was really learning and how surprised would we be if, by the time he is adult he is aggressive towards other dogs? But how many of the owners of these puppies will ever trace their adult dogs aggression back to the lessons learnt as a puppy in the puppy training class?
There is always a big emphasis placed in such classes on the importance of play. Most of this emphasis however, is placed on the puppies playing with other puppies. Since puppies don’t have a very strong code of appropriate play, it usually involves lots of play fighting. We call it play fighting because we recognise this behaviour for what it is – practising fighting. Why do we suppose that if we allow our puppy to practice lots and lots of this that we are somehow LESS likely to end up with an aggressive dog. Now this is not to say that all dogs that play fight will be aggressive, but many of the dogs that I see who are fear aggressive or fearful of other dogs, will have owners who will explain that the dog was attacked or bullied as a puppy, usually under the age of six-eight months by another much bigger or much more boisterous dog and it was at that point that the puppy became aware that it is vulnerable. Many of those owners will then describe how they noticed a change in their puppies play behaviour after this incident. They will comment on how the way that the puppy ‘played’ changed. He became much rougher and more physical in the games that he played with his ‘friends’. He played much more pinning and fighting games than he had done previously. He tended to run at his friends much more, rather than with them, often knocking them to the ground and then pinning them there. But most owners will simply assume that the dog is ‘socialising’ and so see this as a good thing. Sometimes because of the incident, the owner will try and find lots of dogs that the puppy can play with in an attempt to prevent the attack from affecting him long-term, but by doing so, in my opinion, they may actually be ensuring that the puppy learns how to be a much better fighter.
In my opinion, a good puppy training class or puppy party – if there is such a thing, places the greatest emphasis on the puppy interacting with the owner, rather than with anything else, because it is the owner who should be responsible for the puppy’s education. Much greater emphasis should be placed on the puppy interacting with the owner when there are other dogs around rather than interacting with the other dogs. The way I look at IT is this – if I meet someone on the street that I know, I’ll stop and say hello. I’ll ask them how they are, how are the family, and generally exchange pleasantries. This, I would consider to be social. What I wouldn’t do, is leap on top of them, wrestle them to the ground and shake them manically. If I had greeted them this way, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have considered us to be ‘socialising’. And I apply the same theory to my dogs. From the very first time I take them out. I encourage them to be social. This means that if they meet another dog they should do what I consider to be social, which is to have a sniff, check each other’s bums, check each other’s baby-making bits, and then say their goodbyes and come back to me to have some fun. I always want my puppies and dogs to consider me to be the most important fun, interesting thing in their lives. I NEVER encourage any of my dogs to play fight with any other dog. And I believe it is as a result of this that neither of my two dogs has ever had a fight. Since the majority of the dogs that the puppy will meet when out on a walk won’t be puppies, but adult dogs, and since the class at best only teaches puppies how to behave around other puppies, I see no benefit in running a class just for puppies. Instead, all classes should have dogs of different ages, breeds, sizes and sexes, since that is what they will meet when out everyday. And as for those puppy parties – who needs ‘em?
1. Fiona JointApr 15, 2012 - Reply
I attended your two seminars at the PDTI Conference yesterday, and I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed them, how thought provoking and interesting they were and how amusing. I have always been ambivalent about puppy classes and am even more so now, they can do so much damage and it’s the inexperienced dog handler and puppy that has the most to lose, what do you feel about going to ring raft classes instead? At least the owner gets to handle her own dog and the puppy used to being groomed and handled. A big ‘Thank-you’ for giving up so much of your time. I was the one asking about electronic collars and Fenton!
2. Emma HawkesJun 05, 2012 - Reply
Brilliant article. I attended a supposed puppy gundog class last Sunday, and am still traumatised by what I saw. An adult Staff had been invited along, his owners has contacted the trainer about aggression issues. All dogs were off the lead to start with. Once my 15 week old Weimaraner had been flattened by full sized dogs, she sensibly stayed by me. The Staff was kept on the lead while dogs played near him in close proximity. He was visibly stressed by this. The trainer was bragging that he could train any dog. At the end of training the trainer insisted that ALL dogs should be let off to play. The Staff owners said they weren’t happy, but the trainer insisted. I kept my pup on the lead as I wasn’t happy, thank God. The Staff attacked a GSP and pinned it to the floor. The noise was horrific, I have honestly never witnessed anything so sick. Then the GSP went quiet, Staff still attacking. Eventually the Staff was removed, it took several minutes and two men to do this. I really thought the GSP was dead, there were several people by now. I feel very sorry for both owners concerned, as this trainer’s ego has now probably caused this Staff to be destroyed due to his mishandling of the situation.
3. Andrew MillenSep 30, 2012 – Reply
Both my Patterdale Terrier (sadly passed away earlier this year aged 15) and my latest dog - a Jack Russell – have done all their socialisation and training out in the real word -learning how to interact with other dogs both on and off the lead with dogs that we meet regularly (and some on so) out on walks. I never had any major issues with Jake, and am bringing Annie up the same way. I use what I have always used Tips from trainers of all methods, and the biggest thing of all common sense. eg – big snarly GSD – Annie gets recalled and goes back on the lead , ask owner if dog is ok before letting Annie up to sniff etc. OH and I also believe that RECALL rather than sit is the FIRST thing to teach a pup. Do it from day one, do it every day and keep doing it.
4. RebeccaSep 30, 2012 - Reply
We took our dogs to good citizen classes, the trainers there are still convinced that all dogs will tolerate other dogs if you yanked on the choke chain and told them no enough. I felt quite sorry for the adult dogs brought to the beginner class that was full of puppies (being puppyish) who had issues as he was dragged around on a tight leash to show the “control” the trainer had over the dog. The trainer had quite a shock when he decided to “help” me with my dog who was pulling, he tried yanking him by the collar but being an 18 month old dog (just out of a kennel) it made no difference and the trainer was dragged round the hall. Apparently it was all my fault for bringing the dog so late to classes, although I had only recently got the dog and wanted to make sure he would not eat/aggress at any of the dogs before taking him to the class.
5. Pam ShawOct 02, 2012 - Reply
Dear Rob, I completely and utterly agree with you on this. Puppies need to be taught sociably acceptable behaviour in an environment in which it can learn without distractions. What better place than in the home first from the moment the pup comes into the home? I have a 15 month old Eurasier who has been taught boundaries in a kind and respectful way and she did not attend a puppy party or class and I have a very balanced happy dog who plays beautifully and respectfully with any dog that wants to play with her. She makes me very proud. Great article!