Habituation: 12 to 20 weeks
By Jan Gribble © 2003
As a puppy reaches 12 weeks of age, owners often notice that the puppy begins to exhibit fearful behavior in new environments and around strange people. This is actually adaptive behavior because as the puppy becomes more independent he starts to stray further away from the safety of his pack and/or family. A cautious approach to anything unusual will help keep the puppy safe. It is during the developmental period between 12 and 20 weeks (3-5 months) that a puppy becomes habituated to environments and situational experiences. Habituation is the process of accustoming the puppy to a given condition or experience by repetition. Part of the process of habituating a puppy involves setting up positive experiences so that the puppy learns that a particular environment or situation is not scary. Dogs do not generalize well and it is therefore necessary to habituate a puppy to many different environments and experiences prior to five months so that he learns how to cope in new situations. After about five months of age it is very difficult to habituate a dog with no prior experience to new environments.
It is not sufficient to simply take a puppy to a new location or introduce new people. If a puppy is continually put into situations where a fearful response is triggered, the puppy is only being given an opportunity to exhibit fearful behavior. It is necessary to teach the puppy appropriate behaviors in those situations. Teaching a puppy how to cope with new, and potentially scary, situations will increase the puppy’s self-confidence and enhance the puppy’s resilience to stress. Since every puppy has a different personality and temperament, the approach taken to habituate a puppy to new environments and situations will need to be tailored for each individual puppy. Regardless of temperament, coping skills need to first be taught and mastered in a familiar environment before expecting a puppy to be able to use these skills in a new and strange situation.
By the time a puppy is 12 weeks old the puppy and owner should have the foundations of a relationship based upon trust and respect. A good relationship is the cornerstone for socialization and habituation as the puppy needs to be able to follow his owner’s lead in how to deal with future situations. Relationships are also continually evolving so as a puppy goes through different developmental stages the owner needs to continue working on developing a strong relationship.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ when dealing with dogs. The personality and temperament of the individual puppy needs to be considered when determining the best approach to take in socializing and habituating that puppy. There are, however, some basics that every puppy should receive prior to 20 weeks. Every puppy should be taught to accept being handled and restrained by people. Grooming, including teeth and nails, should be part of a regular routine. While a puppy will not have the concentration and focus of an older dog, puppies still need to learn how to ‘learn’ and basic training should start early. Self-control has to be taught to young dogs just as it has to be taught to young children. Training can, and should, be fun and is part of developing a good relationship with a dog.
Since every breed has a tendency to exhibit some innate behaviors which were useful in the job for which the breed was developed, there will also be some breed specific traits which need to be recognized and handled early on. While different lines of English Shepherds have been developed to meet the particular needs of their environment and therefore the various lines of English Shepherds will demonstrate both physical and behavioral differences, most English Shepherds will possess some degree of the traits that make the breed an all-around farm dog. These traits include a tendency to take control of stock (which can include any moving object such as bikes, cars and even people), and a tendency to protect and guard. Innate behavioral traits such as a propensity to chase moving objects and aggressive tendencies towards people and other animals not part of the family structure can show up between 12 and 24 weeks of age or may not appear until the dog hits maturity. It is important that the owner understand the difference between assertive behavior and behavior which may appear the same but is the result of fear or a lack of confidence. Therefore, an English Shepherd needs particular concentration during socialization on how to behave around rapidly moving objects and appropriate behavior around strange people and animals. One also needs to ensure that the approach used in socializing the English Shepherd is appropriate for the motivation behind the dog’s behavior.