Dog guardians these days tend to be fairly aware of the crucial importance of socialization.
These include the interactions a young puppy will have with people in his/her immediate family, people outside the family, and people of all different ages and appearances, wearing all sorts of strange outfits, carrying various novel objects (such as umbrellas or suitcases) etc.
Guardians are often also aware of habituation. This means ensuring that the puppy begins to experience all sorts of adventures in her formative weeks and months that she will encounter in adult life.
These may include car journeys, visits to the vet or train stations, and encountering all sorts of different surfaces and objects, hearing various sounds, etc. There’s a massive list.
Appropriate Responses to Other Animals
What is often missed off the ‘tick list’ however, or at least not adequately addressed, is socialization with conspecifics or with other animals.
This includes helping the puppy or young dog develop appropriate responses to the animals they may already live with, such as cats, birds, or horses, or animals they may regularly encounter on walks, such as livestock.
In my opinion, if more time was spent on developing early, appropriate responses to other animals, then we could lessen the number of potential issues that can develop later in a dog’s life. So I’m going to focus on other animals here today.
I’ll start by saying that, at my home, we have always had hens, cats, horses, and sheep living alongside our dogs.
While at first our puppies have usually shown an active interest in the other animals, we have never had any lasting problems. All of our animals have to live together, because no one is up for rehoming. So they all have to get along somehow. They don’t have to be best buddies, but we always get to a state of tolerance and acceptance at the very least.
Early Socialization with Other Species
With the animals on your own property, which in my case includes free-range hens, sheep, and cats, I always start when the puppy is 8 weeks of age and always on a leash and harness.
Early socialization with these species must always be positive, as must be the process for all aspects of socialization. This is something, which is not always understood or achieved.
If a puppy is overly aroused, appears fearful, is desperate to escape, or appears ‘rigid’ when in the presence of the other animal, then the experience is not positive.
Socialization does not simply mean throw the puppy in at the deep end and hope for the best.
I will stress also here that we must not ignore the other animal’s welfare in the process. If the other animal shows any signs of over arousal or discomfort, remove the puppy.
This whole thing is a desensitization process, so, as long as the other animal is comfortable, step a small distance away and give your puppy space simply to watch the other animal. Make sure you have a good handle on the leash just in case.
At first, I would do no more than take out a favorite toy with me, such as a ball on a rope, something squeaky, or a flirt pole, and engage the puppy with this, interspersing a few looks at the ‘target animal.’
All the while keep an appropriate distance and keep the puppy calm. Over time, you can gradually increase the distance.
If at any stage my pup is lunging, barking, or raging to get at one of my hens or sheep, then I’ll know I’ve pushed the distance boundary too far, but this rarely happens if you progress only at your puppy’s comfort distance, and that of the other animal too.
Appropriate Response to Other Animals
After we’ve done this for a couple of weeks and seen good results, I’ll step things up a little and bring in a simple ‘sit’ to start teaching a more appropriate response. I find that puppies take to this very easily following the initial desensitization stage.
Again, start at distance and as soon as your pup spots the hen/sheep/whatever the animal is, cue a ‘sit.’ From here, I would cue some simple eye contact and build duration.
Our puppies learn quickly that engaging with me is far more rewarding that running to the hen.
At this stage I will start working with the pup on a long line, walking around the free-range birds, building in recall training plus eye contact, and pretty soon they’ve got a great response.
I’ll practice the same thing with my own sheep. When you come across sheep out in the fields or on footpaths, work on this always on a leash (never let your dog off lead in livestock fields) and try to practice before lambing time. When lambs are in the field, they are incredibly enticing to chase for some dogs.
Dogs and Cats
With cats, things can be a slightly different. When introducing a new puppy you must always allow the cat the opportunity to run away, jump up onto a high surface, or to hide if he wants to.
I would start by scent swapping, i.e. rubbing a blanket over both dog and cat and placing the opposite one in each other’s bed.
Introductions can take time and rather depends upon the age difference between dog and cat and different personalities. Some cats will just run every single time the dog comes into view.
I like to work on teaching the dog to engage with me and learn that disengaging with a distraction (starting with a low-level one working up a progressive scale to eventually the most exciting one ever, a cat!) is the most rewarding thing!
This has to be done slowly and can be tricky. I sometimes use a toy cat and then progress to using the actual cat behind a barrier, such as a glass door or a dog gate. It is crucial that the cat does not become stressed at any stage, so pay close attention and end the session if necessary.
I will also teach my dogs an absolutely fantastic ‘leave it.’ This is so they will leave anything and anyone, whether that be a blade of grass, a stick, the TV remote, a hen, another person, or, ultimately, a cat if one casually walks by if they fancy a quick chase.
In the end I would say that, yes, grab those socialization and habituation ‘tick lists.’ They are great to use as a guide, but don’t forget that in order to save you a whole load of trouble later on, you will also need to work on appropriate responses to other animals – both in your own family and further afield.