It is of upmost importance when you take on a puppy to learn about the terms HABITUATION and SOCIALISATION – what it is, but also what it is not.
HABITUATION is the process whereby a puppy can become accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them. SOCIALISATION is the process whereby a dog learns how to recognise and interact with the species with which it cohabits (not just dogs – but cats, humans, horses etc also), as well as the experiences, situations and objects within their environment.
Importantly though, when it comes to puppies, it is as much our job to learn how to interact with the species before us, as it is theirs. It is our job to learn about their body language as well as their biological, emotional, social, training and cognitive needs.
Brushes, vets, hoovers, washing machines, hi-viz jackets, trollies, cars, dogs, cats, horses, vet examinations, bathing, nail clipping, people, kids, travel, buster collars, crates, fireworks, storms… the list goes on of things we need to gradually expose our puppies to in order to help them find these un-threatening for the rest of their lives.
However, there are some things that are naturally aversive to a dog and therefore naturally threatening; mostly things that will cause a dog pain or discomfort. The term “bomb-proof dog” is often thrown around as the goal of puppy life skills but is that putting far too much expectation on our animals?
Should we be allowing our children to pull on our puppies ears and tail in the hope they “get used to it”?
Should we be allowing our children to climb on the dog in the hope they “get used to it”?
Should we expect our dogs to learn to tolerate these naturally aversive things with the aim of minimising their likelihood of reacting to them in the future?
Habituation is about becoming accustomed to non-threatening stimuli. Habituation is not becoming accustomed to threatening stimuli. Anything that causes a dog pain, discomfort or significant stress is threatening and not something a dog should be expected to become habituated to. Furthermore, socialisation is about learning to interact with the species around them, but remember this is a two-way responsibility. Is it up to a dog to tolerate being handled roughly by a child? Or is it up to the adults to educate a child on how to engage with dogs safely and comfortably for both parties?
In the past it was just accepted that you don’t interfere with a dog when they’re eating – common sense. Now we seem fixed on the idea that we should be able to take a dogs bowl of food away and them not bat an eye lid.
By the same token, in the past it was just accepted that you don’t disrespect a dogs personal space by pulling on parts of their body because it can make them uncomfortable and cross – common sense. Now we expect our dogs to tolerate more and more and blame the dog when it goes wrong. One sore spot on the dog one day and that is a real possibility. One extra hard pull from a cross child and that is a real possibility.
Responsibility is not on the dog learning to feel OK about a child causing them pain. Because that might not be possible and is certainly not reliable. Responsibility is on us as owners educating our children how to be safe around dogs. That is possible -and far more reliable when it comes to safety. A child who is not given feedback on the dangers of rough handling a dog is at risk – not just from that dog in their household but any other dogs they come into contact with throughout their childhood.
I have a child-friendly document on this topic I am happy to share. Lets keep our children safe and our dogs happy.