Important building blocks for a behaviourally-healthy cat or dog.
|Let shy puppies hide if they want to. Photo: Anna Hoychuk (Shutterstock)|
By Zazie Todd, PhDThe sensitive period for socialization is a very important time in the lives of kittens and puppies. This is when their brains are especially receptive to learning about the kind of social world they will live in as they get older.For both kittens and puppies, the sensitive period for socialization is a time when they need lots of positive experiences with all kinds of people and other animals. During this time they will also habituate to anything they might meet in later life (different sounds, surfaces, etc). If they are well socialized during the sensitive period, they are likely to develop into friendly, confident adult dogs and cats.This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you
Sometimes people want to wait until their puppy has had all its vaccinations before beginning socialization. This is understandable, but unfortunately it means they miss this important period. Because the leading cause of death of young dogs (under 3) is euthanasia due to behaviour problems, rather than infectious diseases, the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour recommends that puppies start puppy class at 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should have one set of vaccinations before the first class, and should also be dewormed.Choose your puppy class with care to make sure the dog trainer will use reward-based methods. Classes should include socialization opportunities with people and play with the other puppies, not just basic obedience (see: why do dogs play?). Puppy class usually lasts 6 weeks, and one study suggests that a one-off puppy party does not have as many benefits.Remember it’s your job to take care of your puppy and ensure those experiences are positive. If other people want to pet your puppy, be sure to give your puppy a choice.
The Sensitive Period for Socialization in Kittens
In kittens, the sensitive period for socialization is between 2 and 7 weeks. This is typically before a kitten comes to live in your home, showing how important it is to get kittens from someone who will have socialized them.We know this from a study by Eileen Karsh that handled kittens for four weeks from the ages of 3 weeks, 7 weeks, and 14 weeks. When tested at 14 weeks and at regular intervals up to 1 year of age, the kittens that had been handled from 3 weeks of age stayed for much longer when placed on a person’s lap and were faster to approach someone who was sitting at the other side of the room. There”s a lovely account of this research in Thomas McNamee”s book, The Inner Life of Cats
In contrast a sensitive period has a more gradual onset and offset, during which time the brain becomes more sensitive to the right kinds of experiences, and then towards the end of the period it becomes less sensitive. Exposure to stimuli during this time affects the developing brain and may also increase plasticity. Of course puppies and kittens don”t have identical experiences, and perhaps different kinds of exposures will affect the brain in different ways, but work towards the same goal. Plasticity of the brain means that it may be possible to still develop in some ways if these exposures happen later than they should have, even if the development will never be quite the same.It is difficult to define the beginning and end of these periods, although research on neurological development is providing a lot more information.Early brain development is so important because it provides the scaffolding for further development later in life – something that also applies to human babies.
Humans have sensitive periods too
Sometimes people are surprised by the idea of a sensitive or critical period. It’s useful to know that children also have sensitive periods for development, during which important brain development occurs in response to the child’s environment.As mentioned above, these early experiences provide the scaffolding for future development. In fact you will often hear people use the analogy of building a wall – if some of those early experiences are missing, it’s like some bricks are missing from the first layers of the wall.Children’s early life experiences are very important. Babies need to have lots of positive experiences with adults, very little stress and good nutrition to help build a strong brain architecture. If they do, then by the time they start school they are in a better position to learn than children who have not had those experiences. Although some stresses (small and brief) are part of normal, healthy development, we now know that chronic stress in early childhood can be very damaging. If you’d like to know more, there is an excellent series of videos from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. What do you think are the implications of these sensitive periods?
My book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy
, with a foreword by Dr. Marty Becker, is full of tips on how to raise your puppy and care for them right through to the senior years.The books Dog Sense
and Cat Sense
by John Bradshaw are a great read and include chapters on the science of puppy and kitten development. You can read more about the research on socialization periods here, as well as lots of other interesting facts that will help you understand your dog or cat better.In The Inner Life of Cats
, Thomas McNamee talks to Eileen Karsh about her research on kitten development, and weaves the tale of his own cat in with his account of feline science.Culture Clash
by Jean Donaldson is a great introduction to what you need to know to train your dog. The Trainable Cat
by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis explains how to teach your cat the skills they need to be happy in our world.You might also enjoy The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog
by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz, which looks at how psychiatrists and psychologists can use what we know about early human development to help children who’ve been through trauma.If you’re looking for something academic, these two books cover the early development of dogs and cats (and many other topics besides):The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People
, edited by James Serpell.The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat
by John Bradshaw, Rachel Casey and Sarah Brown.