Recently, I reviewed a new study on critical and sensitive periods in puppies (Morrow et al., 2015) HERE and came to the conclusion that is was an important addition and update to Scott and Fuller’s seminal work done in the 1960’s.
Following on from this, another really interesting study has been published using puppies going through the UK Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDFB) breeding programme (Vaterlaws-Whiteside and Hartmann, 2017). Their breeding system already has a standardised socialisation programme in place from birth to 6 weeks of age. In this new study, a more intense standardised 6-week programme was being tested out.
How the study was done
6 litters of puppies ranging in litter size from 3 to 9 pups were recruited. The puppies were either Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, or cross-breeds, all born in GDFB breeding facilities and destined for lives as assistance dogs. Each litter was divided into 2 groups, made as equal as possible in relation to gender. During the first 6 six weeks, one group went through the current socialisation programme (CSP), while the other group went through both the CSP and the new, enhanced socialisation programme (ESP). 19 puppies were in the second group and went through both the CSP and the ESP.
The ESP consisted of 5 dimensions –
- Tactile stimuli.
- Auditory stimuli.
- Visual stimuli.
- Interaction with people.
- Interaction with the environment.
The details of each dimension is shown in the figures below.
The ESP was undertaken between 12:00PM and 2:00PM each day. For weeks 1 and 2, it was carried out next to the whelping box. For weeks 3 to 6, it was carried out in a separate socialisation kennel. For weeks 1 and 2, the ESP took 5 minutes for each puppy, and 10 minutes per puppy for weeks 3 to 6. While the ESP groups were engaged in their ESP, the CSP puppies were engaged in low-level handling by someone else. Apart from this, all the puppies were treated in exactly the same way throughout the 6-week period, with the bitches staying with their litters throughout this time. The actual time spent around humans was about the same for both groups.
How the impact of the new ESP was measured
To measure any differences that the new, enhanced socialisation programme had on the puppies, 2 validated tools were used at different stages of the dogs development.
AT 6 WEEKS OLD. Puppy Profiling Assessment, PPA (Asher et al., 2013): The pups in both the CSP and the ESP were exposed to a series of 8 different stimuli that included both environmental and human elements. Their responses were measured on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 was least desirable and 7 the most desirable. The tester did NOT know which pups were in which group while assessing them.
AT 8 MONTHS OLD. Puppy Walking Questionnaire, PWQ (Harvey et al., 2016): Again, both the CSP and the ESP group dogs underwent another barrage of tests measuring 9 different traits (separation-related behaviours, distraction, excitability, general anxiety, trainability, animal chase, attachment, body sensitivity and energy levels). As before the tester did NOT know which dogs were in which group while assessing them.
What the researchers found
PPA test: The puppies in the ESP group scored much higher than those in the CSP group, showing more desirable responses to humans and more confidence when exposed to environmental stimuli.
PWQ test: The puppies in the ESP group scored much higher than those in the CSP group for separation-related behaviours, distraction, general anxiety, and body sensitivity.
Take home message for owners and breeders
The results of this study show that if all dog breeders just adopted a relatively simple, standardised socialisation plan during the first 6 weeks of their puppies lives, they could make a huge difference in the lifetime outcomes of these dogs.
The saddest thing here is that many of the lifelong behaviour problems that plague dogs and their hapless owners are entirely preventable.
A staggering 126,176 dogs are abandoned every year, that’s 345 dogs every day, the worst statistics in over a decade. These dreadful numbers can, in part, be accounted for by the number of puppies that are sold with little, or no preparation for life in the big bad world. Just read the statistics published by the PDSA in their annual Animal Wellbeing Report (PDSA, 2017).
They are truly shocking.
The researchers have a short video on YouTube called Play builds confident puppies.
© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2017
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- Puppy-fest collage. Copyright © 2017 – HUGE THANK YOU to Catherine Burniston, Claire Martin, Connie Versteeg, Elinore Vickery, Esther Platell Vd Kleijn, Jane Ardern, Jillandsteve Tubbs, Jo Crawford and Kerstin Hasper.
- Enhanced socialisation programme (ESP) adapted from Vaterlaws-Whiteside and Hartmann, 2017. Copyright © COAPE, 2017.
Asher, L., Blythe, S., Roberts, R., Toothill, L., Craigon, P.J., Evans, K.M., Green, M.J. and England, G.C., 2013. A standardized behavior test for potential guide dog puppies: Methods and association with subsequent success in guide dog training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8(6), pp.431-438.
Harvey, N.D., Craigon, P.J., Blythe, S.A., England, G.C. and Asher, L., 2016. Social rearing environment influences dog behavioral development. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 16, pp.13-21.
Morrow M, Ottobre J, Ottobre A, Neville P, St-Pierre N, Dreschel N, Pate JL. 2015. Breed-dependent differences in the onset of fear-related avoidance behavior in puppies. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 2015 10(4) 286–294.
PDSA, 2017. Animal Wellbeing Report (PAW). http://bit.ly/2kc0xCm. Accessed 12/11/2017.
Vaterlaws-Whiteside, H. and Hartmann, A., 2017. Improving puppy behavior using a new standardized socialization program. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.