Whilst I was in Amsterdam recently I had an opportunity to visit one of the many parks in the middle of the city. Although Amsterdam itself is a really busy city with many cars, trams and particularly bicycles coming from all directions which made crossing the street fairly challenging, the park was an oasis of peace and quiet. The park covering a number of acres included some small lakes and waterways, but what was very striking was the number of dogs in the park. Some were on the lead enjoying a stroll in the sunshine with their owners but most of the dogs were off-leash and having a wonderful time playing chase with other dogs, fetching balls or frisbees for their owners and quite a few were swimming in the lakes and the Labradors and Retrievers were certainly enjoying the chance to fetch sticks from the water.
The experience was memorable because it reminded me that in Hong Kong there are so few opportunities for dogs to interact or to play or to practice their social and communication skills when meeting and greeting each other. Of course it isn’t just the opportunity to meet other dogs that makes a visit to the park so important but also the chance for dogs to become used to the many things in the environment that they will encounter and be expected to cope with in their day-to-day life such as children, prams, bicycles, unfamiliar people and strange noises.
Even though dogs and cats have been domesticated for thousands of years we must never forget that each new puppy and kitten comes into the world having to learn about us and the environment in which we live. Socialisation is the process during which puppies and kittens develop positive relationships with other living beings, including humans, their own and other species. The main aim is to better equip our companion animals to cope with life in the context of humans and to be able to fulfill the sometimes unrealistic expectations we impose on them.
The most sensitive period of behavioural development in terms of socialisation is from 4 to 14 weeks in the puppy (but particularly between 4 to 8 weeks) and from 2 to 7 weeks in the kitten. This means that receptivity to socialisation is at its maximum during these periods although of course the learning process continues throughout the animal’s life.
Socialisation should include introducing your puppy in particular to a wide variety of experiences, particularly to unfamiliar people. It is not enough to introduce the animal to people in general but to as complete a range as possible – tall men, short men, men with beards or glasses, teenagers wearing hoodies or baseball caps, people carrying bags or rucksacks, elderly people who walk differently and who may carry a stick, children, babies, people in uniforms such as the postman or wearing a motorcycle helmet, people riding on skateboards or bicycles, pushing a pram or out jogging. Your pet should also be introduced to other animals including other dogs and cats and if appropriate to small domestic animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs or caged birds. However when introducing another species especially if one is the predator and the other is potentially the prey, then great care must be taken to avoid causing stress and fear.
As well as socialisation we also talk about habituation which is the process whereby an animal becomes used to non-threatening things in its environment and learns to ignore them. This can include a number of novel sounds such as fireworks, thunder, the vacuum cleaner or hairdryer or the sound of children or babies crying for example. We also need to introduce a variety of environments such as a visit to the veterinary clinic, built-up areas which have a lot of activity and bustle but also quieter areas such as the country park or recreational playgrounds as well as visits to other people’s homes.
Novel objects can also be perceived of as threatening if not introduced early and in a non-threatening way. Common objects that may result in a fearful reaction are household appliances such as washing machines or tumble driers, traffic including bicycles and skateboards as well as children’s items such as prams or pushchairs, dolls and squeaky toys. You should also ensure that your pet becomes habituated to experiences such as being handled for grooming, examining paws and teeth, visiting the vet, going into lifts or travelling in a car or public transport.
Dogs are pack animals with a basic desire to please and their social structure enables them to integrate relatively easily into human society. However the cat has a very different social structure and although the cat is a social animal, in the wild its social behaviour is based on small groups of related animals that share the rearing of the young. In terms of its survival the cat is a solitary hunter and so generally has no real need to interact in a physical way with its owner. This is why it is so important to expose cats when they are young to social contact with people in order to prepare them for the owners expectations of close physical contact. During the socialisation period kittens should be lifted frequently and gently restrained and stroked over their body to prepare them for the cuddling that most owners want from their cats. However most owners do not realise that this is totally alien to the cat, which finds being restrained with all four feet off the ground very threatening as it prevents them from fleeing which is their primary form of defence.
he experiences an animal has during the socialisation period will have a major influence on its developing personality and how it gets on with people and other animals when it grows into adulthood and positive experiences during this time go a long way to preventing asocial behaviour, fear and biting. However these positive associations must continue throughout the animal’s life.
Unfortunately many animals a kept either at the breeders or in pet shops until well past the critical socialisation period and have little or limited stimulation. But even when this is not the case there is also a problem when animals are kept at the owner’s home until the vaccination programme has been completed which again is often after the socialisation period had passed. The potential for behaviour problems caused by inadequate socialisation can then be made worse when combined with the limited opportunities for continued socialisation in a place such as Hong Kong where there is a shortage of places like the park in Amsterdam for dogs to meet up. However there are things we can do to reduce the risks and next time I will be discussing the steps you can take to help ensure that your pet is happy and confident in a variety of situations. We would all prefer our pets to be outgoing rather than the shy retiring type!