The Experienced Dog
There has been copious amounts of advice, research and golden promises about socialising puppies. Some of it good, much of it thoughtless as are many of the recipes that want your dog to be like my dog.
Each puppy, relationship and future is individual and needs preparation for the life ahead. Covid principles of maintaining distance, no touching or hugging, no crowds can be a safe principle to follow with your puppy, or older dog.
Our aim is to provide experiences for them that are positive (and feel secure and comfortable) so that we can continue to expand their abilities to assess situations, remember environments and look forward to days out with us. They want to learn, a healthy pup will want to build a library of experience – visual, physical, and quite likely a specialist section on smells.
Until you have lived with a dog that is chronically fearful of leaving their home, or safe environment, I doubt you can appreciate the effect of a traumatic event in the early experiences of that puppy. Some dogs come with the genetic package that binds them to the home. They are not life’s adventurers and will not welcome socialisation of any form, not matter how skilfully your think you are applying DS & CC techniques to “make it pleasant”.
I expect you know people carrying similar genes. Home is good, home is safe, travelling is not an adventure. Uprooting people from all that is familiar can have long term effects on their personal sense of security.
New experiences are about:
Introducing new sights for their memory banks. Time to just watch and wonder. We can engineer this with a stationary car. It will insulate the dog from most sounds and scents. Gradually, when you see that the moving pictures are no longer of hyper-interest: with fast moving head turns, eyes flicking from one movement to another, and the pup can relax and watch, you can open a window and let them experience new scents and increasing sounds.
Their engineered experiences should primarily be of security and comfort.
This is Todd about 18 weeks old at the local supermarket car park on a Sunday afternoon – leisure shoppers!
Take particular note of his nose seeking information from what he is seeing. It is non-stop and working very hard. Ears are responding the sounds around (we have a fence boundary behind us). He is standing still, no desire to interact or explore further. This is where we shall stay: for comfort and security.
The next month he sought to explore, and had our first celebration: peeing away from home. Yay!!!
The end of the clip is his sight of new beasts….. ewes with lambs are to be approached with great caution.
2. Physical experiences
From exploration of environments: different temperatures, wind, nature, surfaces, objects, foods.
Developing proprioception through climbing, running, trotting, walking, carrying, chewing, pushing, touching, balancing.
Sleeping and finding security in new locations.
Being touched in many ways and places with hands and tools. Travelling in a vehicle.
Todd at 12 weeks old, just exploring and searching for food ……
To process all the new information that is inbound, filing the familiar, questioning the new, integrating with existing experience.
Remembering how it felt ….. nature has designed both us and dogs to seek more and better rewards and avoid dangers and threats. We want our journeys for experiences to be rewarding: through satisfying curiosity and gaining more learning. What does rabbit poo taste like …?
There is a limit to the amount of information that can be processed in one experience. When reaching the boundaries young puppies will collapse into sleep often regardless of comfort, older puppies become intolerant through processing-fatigue.
Look for the information
Puppies will frequently stop whilst they process. When they can process and comfortably maintain movement we can be sure that the processing is becoming easier. This is why it is essential to include trips back to familiar places more than new places. This gives us a chance to observe and analyse the evidence of their increasing skills. When we re-visit familiar we get a chance to use our new skills that are developing in a secure environment.
If we force a pup, or even coerce with food, to continue moving when their system is prompting them to be still, we can prevent the processing happening. This may be to your advantage and they will not be aware of the situation that would be of no benefit. On the other hand they may be overwhelmed by the environment, move poorly and have a negative association with that experience, which may include a mistrust of being lured.
Error is your guide
As a pup begins to negotiate novel situations there will be errors in their abilities to perceive changes in surfaces, height, and demands on their balance. This is one of the “never fails to amuse” on social media, where we see young animals slip, slide and crash. This is information that their carer, who should have been guarding against these experiences, was not paying attention or did not care.
Observe your youngster in movement. Look at the confidence, note the minor loss of balance, see them progress through more speed and agility. Observe the head carriage and weight balance. A low head carriage with the point of balance held back is a clear indication of uncertainty. Think walking on ice in socks ……
Wait until you see the actions are confident and error free before adding increased difficulty. Build flexibility (adapability) before speed. When young-brain travels too fast it will not have time to process the oncoming changes and then we see the crash and fall.
Build experience from negotiating the familiar on a ratio of 9:1 familiar to novel. Let them gain confidence in themselves and the environments. Never forget that you are part of this environment and experience.
“I know how this works”
“I have been here before and there were some cool new smells”
Build learners that are eager and enthusiastic, not entertainers for social approval.
Learning is life long
The opportunity to gain new experiences is as important for older dogs as much as youngsters. What happens when you bring that new toy home? Which one suddenly becomes the favourite?
A change in treats, and new game to play, a new bed to try out.
These are the elements that keep our dogs, throughout their lives, being active learners. Adding new information and experiences will keep them mentally healthy as much as it would for us. These “new days out” are also excellent for quiet evenings, even without hard physical activity they will sleep deeply.
But. The same overwhelming effect can happen, except the older dog will not just stop to process, but may actually bolt to a place of safety or have the confidence to ask the offending novelty to remove itself promptly.
What may be a new day out for you, may be a walking nightmare for your dog, particularly if they have little experience of new environments, people, technology, wildlife, and the rest.
We do not know when new situations may be forced upon us. Planning for this does not mean we should constantly worry about adding new experiences, but remembering that investing in a monthly visit to a new experience can be of future value.
Learning to adapt
This is the skill we are seeking to develop: adapting to new changes in their environment and adapting their skills to new demands. If you want to enjoy a sport then your dog will need to be very adaptable to many different and often challenging environments.
They may need to compete in sudden downpours. Retrieve items covered in mud. Take-off to jump on sand, carpet, dirt, long grass. Ambitions for Crufts will include peeing on concrete, indoors. Track across land that is tainted with deer scents. Run up hills to unknown sheep and waving people. Be surrounded by galleries of eager watchers. Followed by judges shushing along in plastic suits.
It is no wonder that many of the top dogs are most successful at 5, 6 and 7 years old. When they have extremely good understanding and high level skills in the activities, AND THE EXPERIENCE TO ADAPT THEM TO NEW SITUATIONS.
I have seen many youngsters achieve early success, only to plateau for several, lean years and not show the promise of their early days.
This ability to adapt is a skill in itself and needs attentive planning for your dog’s future, whether sports, working or pet dog.
He can work this out
This is such a valuable commodity. The dog that find himself the wrong side of a gate, or faced with a tricky ewe protecting her lamb, or a track that has jumped several feet sideways, a crowd of enthusiastic spectators flashing phones, a new hotel for the night, peeing at a railway station yard.
Knowing your dog has received sufficient preparation does not mean every eventuality, but a range of different conditions so that when the unexpected happens they will draw on their skills and solve the issue.
A experienced dog doing their job, relishing the challenges and coming home with the results is a joy that is worthy of any enthusiastic crowd ….. or to entertain the media.
These are the dogs and partnerships that inspire us to try.
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