Who among us doesn’t have high hopes for the pups we bring into our lives? We research breeders and bloodlines, we feed our chosen pup a proper diet, and we spend years training it as our hopes and skills dictate. Most of us do all we can to maximize the potential of our puppies. But try as we might to bring out the best that genetics, diet and training can give us, it might come to nothing if a pup has been deprived of appropriate socialization.
“Socialization” is the correct term for the processes that occur within a finite period of time, during which a pup learns to be a dog as well as to form positive associations with humans. But this word is loosely bantered around the gun dog community and is often used interchangeably with “socializing.”
For practical purposes, some behaviorists break a puppy’s critical socialization period into two parts—primary and secondary—though they aren’t completely discrete stages. Primary socialization is that period early in a pup’s life when it learns to identify itself as a dog, when it learns what canine signals mean and how to appropriately interpret and react to them. Dogs deprived of adequate primary socialization interact poorly with other dogs, often send the wrong signals, and typically are ineffective breeders (if they breed at all), again because they don’t know the signals.
Contrary to most other animals, dogs have an inherent ability to form well-adjusted relationships with a species other than their own—humans. This is often termed secondary socialization and, similar to the primary version, has a brief window when it can occur. Once the socialization window closes at about 12-14 weeks of age, the opportunity is lost forever. This means a pup that has been isolated (for whatever reason) from its mother, littermates and other dogs, cut off from human contact, or otherwise deprived of primary and secondary socialization, typically cannot develop into a well-rounded hunting/companion dog.
Long-standing research has established four to six primary periods of a pup’s development. For purposes of an overview, I’ll consider four of them.
Four Developmental Stages
During the “prenatal” period, the embryo is impacted by the dam’s hormones and by factors such as disease, diet, parasites, drugs and the like. Pregnant females subjected to severe stress from various physical and physiological conditions can result in pups exhibiting behavior and emotional problems along with reduced learning ability.
The “neonatal” period runs from birth through about 2 weeks, and is a time when pups develop an imprint of their mother and begin to absorb limited information about their immediate world. Research indicates that puppies gently handled during this period are more stable, deal better with stress and learn faster than pups not handled.
Weeks 2-3 are called the “transition” period, during which pups gain better use of sight, hearing and mobility, and begin a more animated exploration of their environment. A critical element of this period is a pup’s lack of anxiety; strange objects and noises evoke limited responses—fear shows up in a few weeks. Most experts think pups should be handled regularly during this essentially fearless period to ensure that people remain a positive association to the pup as it enters the fear stage.
Although the first three stages are significant in the complete development of a pup, some researchers consider the “socialization” period to be the most critical. This stage begins at the end of the third week and extends to weeks 12-14. This is the time when pups truly learn to be dogs, when they develop and practice the skills and canine “language” they’ll need throughout their lives. During this period they also learn to associate appropriately with people. On the whole, scientists believe that a pup’s socialization as a dog comes first, from about 3-6 weeks, followed by involvement with humans from weeks 6-14, though most agree that there appears to be substantial overlap. Let me reemphasize an all-important point: During the socialization period, pups denied associations with other dogs will typically have poor canine interactions during their lives. Likewise with human contact; pups not exposed to people will almost certainly lack dog/human skills and be difficult to train as a cooperative working gun dog.
According to behaviorists, a major shift occurs during a pup’s sixth week when the fear response begins to develop. On average, high-anxiety responses to stimuli escalate during the seventh and eighth week, peak in the ninth, then level off in the tenth week. Contemporary thought is that anything that triggers fear at this point, particularly during weeks 7-9, might always elicit some level of anxiety and might be generalized to any new learning situation. For this reason, knowledgeable breeders and trainers use caution when introducing pups to new experiences—including correction—during this period.
The 49-Day Rule
During the early 1960s, a notion was introduced into hunting dog literature that advocated buyers taking pups from breeders at 7 weeks or “at the exact age of 49 days.” Since that time, the 49th-day recommendation has so permeated the gun dog scene that it has become a rule of thumb for many buyers. In all likelihood this idea was extrapolated from canine socialization research that suggested 6-8 weeks as a period of maximum socialization, thus the optimum time to remove a pup from its litter; the originator of the seventh-week/49th-day notion might have simply split the difference of 6 and 8 weeks. The problem here is that the socialization researchers studied a very specific group of dogs under particular conditions that do not represent the typical circumstances of a hunting dog pup.
These days quite a few canine authorities, including knowledgeable breeders, are flying in the face of long-standing tradition; they believe that the range of 6-8 weeks is not the optimum age for a pup raised in proper conditions to be removed from its mother and littermates. Assuming a stable kennel environment, in which pups have plenty of opportunities to interact with other dogs and associate regularly with people in a known setting, little will be gained by taking a pup at 6-8 weeks—some experts go further and say that’s simply too young—and there could be downsides. One of those downsides is the fear response that, as I mentioned, escalates intensively during the seventh week. Being pulled from a secure environment and abruptly thrust into a new situation where everything and everyone is strange and fearsome can be traumatic and influence the behavior of some pups.
Older is better, they say, because the fear response has leveled off, the socialization process is in its final stage and the pup is now at its most adaptable age. By 10 weeks, the thinking goes, a well-bred and cared-for pup will be prepared for life in a new home; it will have the social, physical and emotional/psychological basis for honing the skills necessary to maximize its life as a companion/gun dog.
In an ideal world, all breeders would be canine socialization experts, would expose each pup to exactly the right stimuli at precisely the right moments during the correct period, and would maintain pups in comfortable, secure circumstances until socialization was complete. Although some breeders strive to meet the ideal, this is not a perfect world. As buyers, all we can do is use the knowledge we have to find well-adjusted, confident pups, then follow up on what the breeder began.