The Sensitive Period for Socialisation
By Cecile Ashen-Young
The sensitive period for socialisation is a pivotal stage in a puppy’s behavioural development. The term is used to describe periods of heightened sensitivity to external influences, and it is during this stage that rapid learning occurs and referential structures are established. For companion dogs, the socialisation period is generally accepted to be between approximately three and fourteen weeks of age. However, these periods are flexible depending on the individual and are bracketed by gradual changes in sensitivity (Bolhuis & Giraldeau, 2005). The behaviour or preferences acquired during the sensitive period are modifiable to varying degrees during later developmental stages (Serpell, 1995): nonetheless, what happens to the puppy during these periods will set a general pattern of responses to the major influences the puppy encounters in later life (Landsberg, Hunthausen, & Ackerman, 1997).
During the sensitive period for socialisation, processes that are based on associative learning take place in which puppies are familiarised to both conspecifics and heterospecifics and to other environmental factors. Simply put, puppies learn about what they are exposed to. It follows that during this period, puppies should be exposed to the novelties of the human environment in which they will live, and should have opportunities to interact with conspecifics in order to learn about the social environment (Miklosi, 2007).
Puppies show their strongest social and site attachments between three and five weeks of age. Between five and seven weeks of age attraction responses begin to decline as fear responses begin to emerge, however a puppy’s motivation to make social contact can overcome the fear responses. It has been suggested that the upper limit of the socialisation period (about fourteen weeks) is marked by a growing tendency to react with wariness to novel persons, objects, or situations. Therefore, puppies that have not had good early exposure to new stimuli by this age may show strong fear responses that can become problematic later on. Furthermore, puppies that are well socialised by this time may regress and become fearful again if appropriate socialisation is not maintained and reinforced until at least eight months of age (Horwitz, 2007; Serpell, 1995).
The socialisation period for puppies is therefore recognised as an extremely important time for the emotional and social development of puppies. The goals of a well-developed socialisation program are to provide the puppy with opportunities to learn about the circumstances and conditions of the puppy’s likely adult environment, social exposure with conspecifics and heterospecifics, and exposure and habituation to new and novel stimuli. A well run puppy kindy program should be geared towards puppies up to four months of age, and should strive to educate caregivers about the importance of managing their puppy’s day-to-day environment in such a way that the puppy is relaxed, curious, and comfortable and stress levels are minimized. Poorly managed exposure to new stimuli can be detrimental to the puppy’s development, and therefore all new exposures should be managed gently and with care.
Bolhuis, J. J. & Giraldeau, L. &. (2005). The Behavior of Animals. Mechanisms, Function, and Evolution.Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Horwitz, D. M. (2007). Troubleshooting Puppy Behavior Issues.North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings 2007. New York: NAVC.
Landsberg, G. Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (1997). Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat.London: Elsevier Limited.
Miklosi, A. (2007). Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition.New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Serpell, J. (1995). The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour, and interactions with people .Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.