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Enrichment and Socializing
Early Exposure for Puppies
What is Early Exposure?
Positive interactions with novel items and experiences:
• Similar to socialization practices that focus on interactions with living beings (Learn more: Puppy Socialization Handout), early exposure focuses on brief, positive interactions with a variety of objects and experiences (e.g. sounds, textures, smells, locations).
• Early exposure also includes introducing puppies to anything that may be encountered later in life (e.g. crate confinement, grooming, leash walking).
Science Says :
Emotionally arousing stimuli, both positive and negative, can accelerate the learning process (Scott & Fuller, 1965), so great care should be taken to ensure that the pup’s perception of the exposure is positive.
Why do Puppies Need Early Exposure?
Early exposure helps to normalize new items and experiences and to build confidence
• Fearfulness can diminish a dog’s quality of life and in severe cases lead to relinquishment or even euthanasia.
• Living with a fearful dog can be stressful for their human companions too and can result in physical injuries such as dog bites.
Science Says :
A higher level of early exposure during puppyhood correlates with the development of appropriate coping strategies (Pluijmakers et al., 2010) and lower levels of fearfulness (Menuge et al., 2021).
When should Early Exposure Occur?
Ideally during the “Sensitive Period” between 3-12 weeks of age:
• At this age, puppies increasingly approach new items and are sensitive to learning lifelong lessons.
• Positive exposures should continue to be provided beyond the sensitive period and throughout the dog’s later development and adulthood.
Note: Between approximately 8-10 weeks of age (timing can vary across breeds and individuals) puppies experience a fear period indicated by signs of discomfort or avoidance of novelty. During this time, careful management is critical because negative experiences can have lasting effects on fearful behavior in adulthood.
Should Early Exposure be Provided for all Puppies?
• Preventing fearfulness through early exposure protocols in the first months of life is faster, easier, and more effective than addressing fearfulness in adulthood.
• A puppy’s behavior is a snapshot in time. While assessment may not indicate exactly what adult behavior will look like, it can indicate if the behavior is outside of the normal range and requires targeted support. Even if an assessment indicates a low level of fearfulness,
this can change so it is important to provide support for puppies that seem confident.
• Puppy behavior can differ greatly from behavior in adulthood that is impacted by genetics and experiences. The impacts of early experiences may not surface until approximately 18 months of age.
Note: Every puppy must be set-up to be their most confident by providing a strong foundation of many carefully managed socialization and early exposure opportunities (Learn more: Quick Tips for Success: Puppy Socialization and Early Exposure).
• Puppies that will be rehomed after retirement from breeding must be prepared to be comfortable in both their kennel and a typical home environment in adulthood.
How to Provide Early Exposure for your Puppies
Breeders play a critical role in early exposure because puppies are in their care for the majority of the sensitive period. When implementing early exposure experiences, remember:
• Exposures must be short, gradual, positive, frequent, and varied. A novel experience presented with too much intensity (e.g. a pan dropping loudly next to a puppy) can lead to sensitization (e.g. stronger or more frequent reactions) and fearfulness.
• Always monitor the puppy’s body language to ensure comfort (Learn more: Body Language Handout).
• Pair palatable food with an interaction to increase the likelihood that the experience is positive for the puppy.
• The puppy must be able to withdraw from the interaction.
• Start inside the whelping area, and later move to additional locations.
Enhance the Whelping Area
Beginning at three weeks of age, puppies should be safely exposed to a variety of new items to build positive associations and increase their comfort with new experiences.
• Add safe items that are likely to be encountered in their new homes (e.g. carpet) as well as strange items (e.g. toys that make noise).
• Rotate the items regularly and provide temporary, brief exposures in addition to exposure to items that stay for a longer duration in the whelping area.
Beginning at five weeks of age, puppies benefit from safe experiences in outdoor and indoor environments away from the whelping area.
• Offer opportunities in as many different areas of the facility as possible!
• Consider including items in the playpens such as steps, grass, balance boards, bridges, ramps, crates, and larger toys.
Potentially stressful events (e.g. vaccinations, bathing, grooming, transportation) must be carefully managed, especially during the fear period.
• Feed throughout the entire event to prevent setbacks when a potentially scary or painful procedure is necessary. Smearing sticky, palatable food (e.g. canned dog food, spray cheese, braunschweiger) on the kennel or tub wall, exam table, or on a product for this purpose (e.g. Lickimat, Bath Buddy) is a handsfree option to meter out the food for longer interactions.
• Break potentially stressful experiences into parts to minimize stress (e.g. exposure to a hair dryer when turned off, the sound of the hair dryer or just blown air alone).
Science Says :
Puppies should be exposed to different locations in their early life (before 6-7 weeks) to avoid “localization” or “site attachment” to the kennel (Scott & Fuller, 1965).
Avoid Common Pitfalls
• More is not necessarily better. Experiences must be positive (not neutral or bad). Repeated positive experiences are beneficial. Increasing the frequency of exposure without ensuring that the puppy is comfortable can have negative impacts. The puppy’s brain is primed to rapidly learn both what is safe and what is unsafe.
• Go slow. Monitor the puppy’s behavior and body language for comfort. If the puppy is comfortable, slightly increase the duration or level of exposure. If the puppy is uncomfortable, go back to where they were comfortable. If the puppy’s comfort during early exposure is not improving or if fearful behaviors are increasing in intensity or frequency, stop and consult your veterinarian.
• Utilize several locations. Variety is needed for a puppy to generalize their learning. For example, if a puppy only experiences new objects in their whelping area they may learn that new sights and sounds are okay in that specific location and may still view anything new outside of that area as scary.
• Different breeds and individuals develop at slightly different rates. Behavioral indicators can be more accurate than chronological age in indicating where a puppy is developmentally. Watch the puppies both individually and as a litter.
• Work on one hard thing at a time. Exposing a puppy to several items or situations simultaneously where they do not feel safe and confident can be too much, too fast and have negative outcomes.
By Traci Shreyer, M.A., Taylor Rezvani, Ph.D., and Candace Croney, Ph.D. © 2022 Candace C. Croney, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
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